Robert Rauschenberg: A Belated Birthday Post

“Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. I try to act in that gap between the two. A pair of socks is no less suitable to make a painting with than wood, nails, turpentine, oil, and fabric.” — Robert Rauschenberg


Hello friends! I know, I know, I am slacking on the posting, but I have been busy with a local artist group, complex thing right here in my own community. I am amazed everyday by the collaborations going, so I get distracted, take on too much with this, that and the other, and I get too tired to type out anything. My apologies! So the place I am volunteering/working at is called Lowe Mill, and it is fantastic place of art and music, and even food, enrichment. There are hundreds of artists working out of what used to be a actual mill. And I have been asked to research and correct the history of the place and I could not be more thrilled by this opportunity.

Here’s the link to their website for those curious:

and here’s one to their FaceBook page:

Truly, what is happening here with these artist collaborations is amazing and exciting! I will probably start posting about what the artists and myself are up to every once and a while just for fun.

Ok so now, onto Robert Rauschenberg! My intention was to do a brief biography-summary-thing in honor of his birthday, which was last week on the 22nd, and I so missed it. Rauschenberg proved difficult to sum up— the man was prolific to say the least. So now this is a belated Birthday post.

I love Rauschenberg. He is one of those modern artists that gets me all excited and I get angry thinking about how his body of work is often pigeon-holed into one category, taken for granted, and constantly described in terms reductive of Marcel Duchamp. We could argue all day back and forth about whether Duchamp really had a great influence on Rauschenberg or not, but regardless Rauschenberg unquestionably took his art beyond Dada’s ideologies. (Plus “Rauschenberg” is so much more fun to say than “Duchamp”.) There is  quit a breadth of diversity to his work, and he influenced several art movements as well as initiating projects outside of art.  He was very versatile in his choices for both creation and expressing himself using oils, sculpting with “junk” and other debris he found inspiring, making prints for frescos and other artistic pursuits, dabbling in photography, and working in theater as a designer, choreographer, and performer. Rauschenberg even participated in scientific collaborations. And despite challenges and changes he faced throughout his life, Rauschenberg never stopped making art. Basically, Rauschenberg is the definition of a Renaissance man regarding the arts.

The artist was born as Milton Ernest Rauschenberg in Port Arthur, Texas. Rauschenberg studied at the Kansas City Art Institute and the Académie Julian in Paris, France, where he met the painter Susan Weil. In 1942 Rauschenberg put art making aside and served in the U.S. Navy Reserve until 1945. Later, this experience inspired his break through series the “Shelter Drawings”. Two years following his service, during 1947, he attended the Academie Julian in Paris. From there, during 1948 to 1950, he attended the Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There, he studied painting under Josef Albers, a founder of the Bauhaus. Albers’ preliminary courses relied on strict discipline that did not allow for any “uninfluenced experimentation”. Rauschenberg later decided he would do exactly the reverse of Albers’ instructions. Eventually, John Cage would have an abiding influence on Rauschenberg’s work, and Hazel Larsen Archer’ photographs would inspire Rauschenberg to emphasize personal vision over technique. Finally, in 1952 Rauschenberg studied with Vaclav Vytlacil and Morris Kantor at the Art Students League of New York, where he met fellow artists Knox Martin and Cy Twombly.

Art historians categorize Rauschenberg’s approach as “Neo Dadaist,” a label he shares with the painter Jasper Johns. His art is often compared to Duchamp’s earlier Dada works, like “the Fountain”. But I feel that the qualities cited as reminiscent to Duchamp’s are only coincidental. Rauschenberg always said that he wanted to work “in the gap between art and life” suggesting that from the beginning he questioned conventional distinctions between art objects and everyday objects. At the same time, Rauschenberg was moving beyond questioning what is art and who can make, and began to redefine the role of the observer in creating art’s meaning also.

In 1951 Rauschenberg created his monochromatic “White Paintings”. The purpose of this series was to reduce painting to its most essential nature allowing for the possibility of pure experience. The “White Paintings” were shown at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery in New York during October 1953. They appear at first to be essentially blank, white canvas. However, one commentator said that “…rather than thinking of them as destructive reductions, it might be more productive to see them, as John Cage did, as hypersensitive screens – what Cage suggestively described as ‘airports of the lights, shadows and particles.’ In front of them, the smallest adjustments in lighting and atmosphere might be registered on their surface. Rauschenberg himself said that they were affected by ambient conditions, “so you could almost tell how many people are in the room”. The “Black Paintings of 1951 like the “White Paintings” were executed on multiple panels and were single colour works. Here Rauschenberg incorporated pieces of newspaper into the painting working the paper into the paint so that sometimes newspaper could be seen and in other places could not.

From the fall of 1952 to the spring of 1953 Rauschenberg traveled through Europe and North Africa with Cy Twombly where, in Morocco, he created collages and boxes out of trash. He took them back to Italy and exhibited them at galleries in Rome and Florence. A lot of them sold; those that did not he threw into the river Arno. From his stay, 38 collages survived. By 1953-1954 Rauschenberg had completely abandoned his White Painting and Black Painting series, and established his Red Painting series. These paintings were created with diverse kinds of paint applications of red paint, and with the addition of materials such as wood, nails, newsprint and other materials to the canvas created complex painting surfaces, and were forerunners of Rauschenberg’s well-known Combine series.  For the Red Paintings, the artist used trash and objects interesting to him picked from the New York City streets. He claimed he:

“wanted something other than what I could make myself and I wanted to use the surprise and the collectiveness and the generosity of finding surprises. And if it wasn’t a surprise at first, by the time I got through with it, it was. So the object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing.” —Rauschenberg

Another example of Rauschenberg’s unique way of reestablishing worn definitions of art and its purpose is the Erased de Kooning Drawing famously cited from 1953. Rauschenberg obtained a drawing from de Kooning for the express purpose of erasing it as an artistic statement. The resulting work asks the viewer to reconsider the process of art, question attitudes regarding the permanency or “scared” qualities of art, and other conventions related to understanding of art tanned for granted at the time.


“White Paintings series”

Rauschenberg’s commitment to explore the gap between art and life is also evident in his “Combines,” which bridged the gap between Pop art and Abstract Expressionism. He created these pieces from 1954 to 1962. “Combines” are pieces of sculpture created from pieces of “junk” and, later, silk over lays. He preferred this type of artwork to drawing, which he had pretty much rejected by this point. The “combining” method of art form is Rauschenberg’s own invention and soon became what he is most known for as an artist. “Combines” differ from earlier collage-like pieces for including clothing, urban debris, and taxidermic animals. These works served to completely delineate and breakdown the boundaries between art and sculpture so that both are present in a single work of art. Rauschenberg made his first Combine in 1953, where a camera bellows and its mount protrude from the canvas. Another early “Combine” titled  Bed (1955) was created by dripping red paint across a quilt. The quilt was later stretched and displayed as a work of art. Some critics from The Daily Telegraph considered the work to be a symbol for violence and rape. Rauschenberg submitted the collaborative combine, Short Circuit (1955), for an annual exhibition at Stable Gallery in 1955. He invited friends to produce small pieces that could be smuggled into the exhibition in his cabinet-shaped construction. A painting by his former wife, artist Susan Weil, appears behind the right door, and a flag composition by Jasper Johns once sat behind the left door. (It went missing in 1965 and was replaced at Rauschenberg’s invitation with a facsimile by the artist Sturtevant.) The work also includes a Judy Garland autograph, an image of Abraham Lincoln, and a postcard of grazing cows, among other items. This piece really pushes the role of the artist in making art by being so dependent on a community of contributors.


Critics originally viewed the “Combines” for their formal aspects of art, shape, color, texture, composition and arrangement of these. The traditional method for critiquing art is limited and served only to impede the larger aspirations of Rauschenberg’s work. His art challenged and transcended conventions, and so cannot be fairly judged by them. Thankfully the 1960’s view has changed over time so that more recently critics and art historians see the “Combines” as carrying coded messages difficult to decipher because there is no apparent order to the presentation of the objects. His cross-medium creations explored the blurry boundaries between art and the everyday world, challenging modernist art critic Clement Greenberg‘s  doctrine on medium specificity. Rauschenberg’s impetus to combine both painting materials and everyday objects continued throughout his artistic life.

Rauschenberg is also a notable forerunner of American Pop Art. In 1962, Rauschenberg evolved the concept of combining from found objects to found images and began to  transfer popular imagery onto his canvas using the silkscreen process. Previously used only in commercial applications, Rauschenberg revolutionized silkscreen printing and was able to address issues relating to commodity, multiple reproducibility of images, and the consequent flattening that the experience implies. His work had a tremendous influence on Andy Warhol. In 1963, Warhol made Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a homage to Rauschenberg in which Warhol used silk screening to transfer multiple images of a photographic self-portrait by Rauschenberg and pictures Rauschenberg had taken of his family onto a canvas.



Rauschenberg also had a few projects outside of the art sphere.  In 1966, Billy Klüver and Rauschenberg officially launched Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) a non-profit organization that promotes collaborations between artists and engineers. In 1969, NASA invited Rauschenberg to witness the launch of Apollo 11 and the artist created his Stoned Moon Series of lithographs in response to this landmark event. The lithographs involved combining diagrams and other images from NASA’s archives with photographs from various media outlets, as well as with his own work.

Rauschenberg eventually began to work out of his his home and studio in Captiva, Florida, around 1970. His first project on Captiva Island was a 16.5-meter-long silkscreen print called Currents (1970), made with newspapers from the first two months of the year, followed by Cardboards (1970–71) and Early Egyptians (1973–74), the latter of which is a series of wall reliefs and sculptures constructed from used boxes. He also printed on textiles using his solvent-transfer technique to make the Hoarfrosts (1974–76) and Spreads (1975–82), and in the Jammers (1975–76), created a series of colorful silk wall and floor works. For the most part, the Jammers comprise stitched fabrics in pure, solid colors, affixed to rattan poles or hung directly and loosely on the wall; whereas in works such as Sprout (1975) and Caliper(1976), the unadorned poles are the principal formal element, propped against the wall. Urban Bourbons (1988–95) focused on different methods of transferring images onto a variety of reflective metals, such as steel and aluminum. Additionally, throughout the 1990’s, Rauschenberg continued to utilize new materials while still working with rudimentary techniques, such as wet fresco, as in the Arcadian Retreat (1996) series, and the transfer of images by hand, as in the Anagrams (1995–2000). As part of his engagement with the latest technological innovations, he began making digital Iris prints and using biodegradable vegetable dyes in his transfer processes, underscoring his commitment to caring for the environment. In 2003 he began to work exclusively out of his home studio. He worked until his dying day, on May 12, 2008.

So hopefully we can now all understand the wonder that is Rauschenberg and appreciate the singularity of his contribution to the art world. Happy Birthday (belated as it is) Rauschenberg! You are missed!

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