Robert Rauschenberg is known as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century and a forerunner of every significant artistic movement since Abstract Expressionism. By working in a wide range of subjects, styles, and materials, his oeuvre explores the relationships between painting and sculpture, the artist’s hand and the mechanically reproduced image, and the handmade and the readymade. His work explores themes including collaboration, technology, activism, and asks viewers to expand their beliefs about what a work of art can be.
Rauschenberg was born on October 22, 1925, in Port Arthur, Texas, an oil refinery town near the Louisiana border. Between 1944 and 1946, Rauschenberg served in the U.S. Navy, primarily as a neuropsychiatric technician in San Diego treating traumatized soldiers. During this time, he visited the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, and upon viewing works such as Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy (1770), Rauschenberg realized for the first time that he too could become an artist.
After being honorably discharged from the Navy, Rauschenberg studied at the Kansas City Art Institute and the Académie Julian in Paris on the G.I. Bill. It was not until he arrived at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina in 1948, however, that he began to mature as an artist. While studying under Bauhaus painter Josef Albers, Rauschenberg met fellow creatives such as choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage, who would become essential friends and collaborators, with Rauschenberg frequently contributing set and costume designs for Cunningham’s performances over the years. Rauschenberg’s monochrome White Paintings (1951), likewise, were cited by Cage as influencing his famed 4'33"(1952). He would continue working with other choreographers such as Trisha Brown on costume and set design throughout his career.
In 1953, Rauschenberg began his series of Red Paintings (1953–54), which were executed with red paint on top of a ground of newspaper and patterned fabrics attached to the canvas. These paintings evolved into what are perhaps his best-known works: the Combines (1954–64). The Combines directly challenged the seemingly established line between painting and sculpture by incorporating found objects such as street signs, a quilt, and a stuffed goat onto the canvas. Rauschenberg further blurred the boundaries between mediums in 1962, when he started to silkscreen mostly found images along with a few of his own photographs onto the canvas. Although critics were initially skeptical of these advances, Rauschenberg quickly solidified his position in art history with his first retrospective exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1963 and through receipt of the International Grand Prize in Painting at the Venice Biennale in 1964.
By the end of the decade, Rauschenberg was ready for a change, and in 1970 he established a permanent residence and studio in Captiva, Florida—an island in the Gulf of Mexico. The difference of scenery made an indelible impression on his work as he moved away from urban imagery towards an exploration of materials, including the discarded cardboard boxes used for the Cardboard (1971–72) series and the natural fabric used as supports in the Hoarfrost (1974–76) and Jammer (1975–76) series. These works likewise illustrate Rauschenberg’s longstanding interest in printmaking, and he continued to experiment with its processes and materials throughout his career in series such as the Urban Bourbons (1988–96) and Borealis (1988–92). This interest further manifested in longstanding relationships with Universal Limited Art Editions in West Islip, New York and Gemini G.E.L in Los Angeles, which inspired his own print studio, Untitled Press, Inc., in Captiva.
Travel and activism were two additional points of importance for Rauschenberg and often intersected. Rauschenberg was committed to expanding artists’ rights, including petitioning for an artist resale right across the country and lobbying for additional funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, among other causes. Likewise, a trip to India in 1975 inspired the fabrics used in the Jammer series and a trip to China in 1982 raised Rauschenberg’s awareness of the need to make art accessible to people around the world. This led to his ambitious project, the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) (1984–91), which aimed to expand communication and understanding among diverse cultures through art. Eleven countries, including the United States, were chosen to participate in the project, in which Rauschenberg would spend weeks traveling through each destination before making a body of work based on his experiences that would then be exhibited in that location.
Rauschenberg has been the subject of numerous significant solo exhibitions, including surveys at the Jewish Museum, New York (1963); Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (1964); National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington D.C. (1976); Staatliche Kunsthalle, Berlin (1980); Fundación Juan March, Madrid (1985); Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (1995); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1997); Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara (2004); and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2005–06). The latest retrospective traveled to Tate Modern, London; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2016–18). His work can be found in the permanent collections of nearly every major museum, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Kunsthaus, Zürich; and Tate Modern, London, among many others.
Robert Rauschenberg passed away in 2008 at the age of eighty-two in his studio in Captiva.