Robert Milton Ernest Rauschenberg († May 12, 2008 on Captiva Island, Florida) was a U.S. painter, graphic artist, photographer, and object artist and a pioneer of 20th-century Pop Art, although his multilayered work cannot be appropriated for this style.
Rauschenberg believed that the reunification of artistic pictorial reality with the reality of life, which he sought, could best be achieved by bringing parts of the real world into art unchanged.
In his works, for example, he combined tennis balls, car tires, bicycles, and stuffed goats in an insidious way. Unlike other material artists, however, he did not alter these material remnants of the “real world,” but left them as they were.
For Rauschenberg, artistic role models and kindred spirits were above all German artists such as the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, the painter and art theorist Josef Albers, but also the Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys. However, Willem de Kooning also represented a point of reference in Rauschenberg”s artistic development that should not be underestimated. As the main representative of abstract expressionism, the leading non-objective conception of painting in post-war America, he and Albers became the impetus for Rauschenberg”s personal rebellion.
After studying at the Kansas City Art Institute and the Académie Julian in Paris, the color field painting of his teacher Josef Albers at Black Mountain College North Carolina, which he had attended since 1948, and the abstract works of de Kooning – to put it simply – were too little a part of the real and malleable world of life for his understanding, which he increasingly sought to integrate into his art-life equation. The discipline and methodological-theoretical approach to creating art demanded by Albers tempted Rauschenberg – as he himself said – to always do “exactly the opposite” of what Albers taught. Instead of implementing Albers” color theory on canvas, the young Rauschenberg cut black squares out of wood and painted monochrome black and white paintings in protest. His breakthrough came 15 years later at the Venice Biennale, where he received the International Prize for Painting in 1964.
The graphic drawing erased by Rauschenberg with de Kooning”s consent, is the icon of this paradigm shift in 1950s art toward Pop Art.
Rauschenberg took the step into artistic independence in 1951 with the white pictures, the seven monochrome white panels of his White Painting, which he exhibited in his first solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, and which had the purpose of “erasing painting”. Here, the theme of “stillness” was addressed, as was the active inclusion of daytime lighting conditions or the shadow forms of the viewer in the painting. With the White Paintings, made from conventional wall paint, Rauschenberg addressed the claim, universal to his entire oeuvre, to combine art and life. In 1951 he erased a drawing by his New York colleague Willem de Kooning, a no less radical gesture to settle accounts with the supremacy of American Abstract Expressionism.
The black paintings were also created around 1951. Here Rauschenberg proceeded as follows: he painted the canvases with glossy black paint and then painted over them with matte black paint.Robert Rauschenberg used the color black to make the traces of tradition and his own conditioning disappear underneath and to reinvent their basic vocabulary on top of it. For Rauschenberg, black stood for self-limitation to the quasi-nothing that served as a starting point in his search for himself. For Rauschenberg, black also meant not knowing how things would continue for him artistically.The color black seems connected to a process of transformation. It can be interpreted as a means of crossing borders – crossing borders from the visible to the invisible, from the material to the spiritual, from the conscious to the unconscious. The fact that black images, of all things, are an expression of transformation could be explained by their nocturnal properties. Night stands for change in mysticism, mythology, art and literature. Seeing in the darkness changes perception. The longer one stays in the darkness, the more one engages with it, the more clearly the environment contours itself.The process of seeing comes into focus – a more conscious, perhaps more precise seeing. One may even leave behind the desire to recognize the environment. For then the night makes possible the special quality of not(s)-seeing, which is the equivalent of not-knowing. This not-knowing as a form of purification is in turn a prerequisite for change.
In the light of the history of the development of Abstract Expressionism, the impression arises that the American artists, especially in the years between 1950 and 1965, were also carried by the idea of breaking away from the formative influence of the European tradition and establishing a new center of the avant-garde in New York – along with Paris. Against this background, the Black Paintings seem, as it were, like the expression of a collective striving for artistic self-assertion.Looking with open eyes at a black painting is comparable to seeing at night. The artist who chooses black demands of the eye a way of seeing that is accustomed to darkness: the gaze encounters black; the supposed inability to see causes an ability to see differently, a more differentiated seeing: for example, the recognition of nuances in structure and color. The impeded vision increases the concentration on the visible and invisible, perhaps even on the essence of things and one”s own self. This applies first to the viewer of the painting, but on an existential level it can also apply to the artist. (cf. Black Paintings)
The red paintings came out of Rauschenberg”s reaction to the lack of understanding of the previous white and black paintings. His teacher Albers had taught him humility towards color and so he tried to dare the color that in his eyes was the most difficult: red.
To this day, this series of paintings of Whites, Blacks, and Reds is considered Rauschenberg”s most radical.
By emphasizing the tense relationship between artwork and the living world, Rauschenberg tied in directly with the work of his friend John Cage, who, in order to open up new areas of sound, included everyday noises in his compositions. With Cage and the dancer Merce Cunningham, Rauschenberg was repeatedly the initiator of happenings and theater performances. He was usually responsible for stage design, costumes, and props, but also for developing the choreography and appeared himself as a member of the performing ensemble. Between 1964 and 1968 he had staged 11 choreographies.
His works representing this style were mostly created in the period from 1953 to the early 1960s. They are neo-Dadaist collages, consisting of a combination of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, expressed through paintings in connection with objects of everyday life attached to them (for example, light bulbs, kitchen utensils, postcards, comics, print sheets, wallpaper remnants, stuffed animals, radios, etc.), some of which were painted over. Painting is “combined” with objects, thus expanding towards three-dimensional space. Therefore, the traditional boundary between painting and sculpture is removed.
The preoccupation with found objects, material of the everyday, had influenced him in a work phase in which he had set up his studio in the middle of New York. He created the so-called “Elemental Sculptures,” experimental works made of cobblestones and other found materials that he found in the immediate vicinity of his studio. The sculptures stand between “ready mades” and Dadaist assemblages, whereby Rauschenberg emphasized the peculiarity of these found objects and did not want to reevaluate them in a contextual shift.On the one hand, the development of Pop Art is decisively founded in these works, on the other hand, the starting point for Rauschenberg”s further work development is laid here, insofar as image and sculpture are pursued further as independent areas. In the “Combines,” Rauschenberg distinguished between the “Combine Paintings” and the free-standing “Combines,” such as “Odalisque” from 195558 or one of his most famous entitled “Monogram” (1959). The Combines often reveal a satirical intention and are ironic paraphrases of dreams of consumer society and of typical figures of our time.
One of the most impressive “Combine Paintings” is “First Time Painting” (1961), originally called “Happening Theatre of the American Embassy”. It was created at a happening organized by Darthea Speyer in June 1961 in the theater hall of the American Embassy in Paris. David Tudor played the composition Variations II by the American composer John Cage on the piano to accompany the action. In addition to Rauschenberg, Niki de Saint-Phalle, Jean Tinguely and Jasper Johns also participated. The documentary photo sequence of the painting”s creation shows Rauschenberg”s painterly development from Abstract Expressionism to the successive adoption of Pop Art elements of everyday reality in an expressive synthesis.
In 1962, Rauschenberg discovered the silkscreen process for himself at the same time as Andy Warhol”s first photomechanically reproduced silkscreens. But unlike Warhol, he avoided the stereotypical repetition and isolation of the motif in favor of a complex content statement that directly addresses the political-social consciousness of the viewer: “I want to wake people up,” says Rauschenberg, “I want people to look at the material and react to it. I want to make them aware of their individual responsibility, both to themselves and to the rest of humanity. How easy it is to be complacent to the world. The fact that you spend a few pennies on a newspaper almost soothes your conscience. By reading it, you think you”ve already done your part. And you wrap your conscience in the newspaper, just as you wrap your garbage in it.”
In the fall he began to apply the silkscreen technique to his canvases. He developed a transfer process of printed materials (images and texts) using solvents. Rauschenberg achieved the transfer of three-dimensional objects, textiles and of fabrics to the surface by lithography stones made light-sensitive. This allowed him to combine freely executed parts with light images and objects, and thus from all available originals. Further advantages of the photomechanical offset process lay in their enlargement as well as in the color intensity.
Also in 1962, Rauschenberg began his first lithographs. From his collaboration with various prints, he also transferred much knowledge back to the medium of drawing.
Using combined techniques of silkscreen and lithography, he produced grandiose works with the frequent theme of the interaction of man and technology, such as Booster (1967). They are among the largest prints Rauschenberg produced.
At the end of the 1960s to the beginning of the 1970s, Rauschenberg began to experiment with electronics and founded the project “Experiments in Art and Technology” (E.A.T.) together with Billy Klüver. They created pictorial objects and sculptures that integrated sounds and music or reacted to noises. The goal was to establish a non-commercial society that would encourage collaboration between artists and engineers and hope for a happy future for the world society.This resulted in four intricate multimedia works designed for interaction, such as Oracle (1965), Soundings (1968), Solstice (1968), and Mud-Muse (1971).
In the 1970s, Rauschenberg dabbled in different materials such as cardboard (Cardboars and Cardbirs) and transparent fabrics (Hoarfrosts), and he strove to increase the effect by symmetrically arranging structurally very similar elements (Bifocals).His works possess lightness, they are placed in space, and occasionally the floor and ceiling are linked together and covered with semi-transparent fabric. In 197374, for example, he created Sant”Agnese, Untitled (Venetian).
There was a hesitant opening to color. Here one recognizes the influence of Josef Albers – Rauschenberg”s teacher at Black Mountain College. He imposed on him a thoughtful approach to color.
In the late 1970s, Rauschenberg began The ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece: the work was intended as a response to the confusions of the time, such as despair over Cambodia or Vietnam. The work is over 400 meters long and consists of collages, paintings and objects. It is a direct reflection of the artist on his time – a chronicle of his imaginations, experiences, fears and obsessions.
In 1983, Rauschenberg returned to techniques he had used 20 years earlier. Here he was concerned with holding on to, salvaging, and preserving images that were originally intended in a different context. Rauschenberg took up the silkscreen technique again on a broader scale for large-format canvases. Now he no longer took his motifs from the mass media, but based them on his own photographs.
The 1970s and 1980s were generally a time of major projects, travel, and collaborations for Rauschenberg. In 1971, he moved his residence from New York to Captiva Island, Florida, and founded his own publishing house and studio, as well as Change Inc, a non-profit organization that provides funds for artists in need.
In 1984, the global project Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) began, a traveling exhibition with a changing collection of around 200 works of art created in collaboration with artists and craftsmen in the respective countries. From 1984 to 1991, the artist traveled to ten countries in order to visually process what was specific to each culture – in collaboration with the local artists. The stations were Cuba and Chile, Venezuela, Tibet and Russia, Venezuela, Mexico, Malaysia, Japan and Berlin – in 1990 still as the capital of the GDR. “ROCI started with my decision to do something about the world crisis,” he said. “Instead of midlife crisis, I just went on a world tour.”
New York”s Guggenheim Museum opened Rauschenberg”s world tour in 1998 with 400 works, including newer ones. The second stop was Houston in the building of the Museum of Fine Arts. There was talk of a Rauschenberg renaissance. The 72-year-old artist was present with his 94-year-old mother, dancing to the washboard sounds of a Tejano band after the opening at the Bayou Club. It was a reminder of the musical streak of the all-around talent and Grammy Award winner, who was part of Merce Cunningham”s Dance Company from 1951 to 1965, creating stage decorations, choreographing and composing. The Werkshow, in any case, then went to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne with 300 works. With 80 Rauschenberg works, it is the most important and largest collection in Europe. Thanks to the collector Peter Ludwig, Rauschenberg”s discoverer and patron, his career can still be traced here to its beginnings.
Founded in 1990, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to scientific research projects and political-social educational work.
In addition to these activities, the artist Rauschenberg has always remained present – the paintings and sculptures of the 1990s show him as an inventive continuator of the concept of “Combines” developed in the 1950s, i.e. his claim of a conversion of reality into art without loss as far as possible.
Rauschenberg”s first major recognition was the gold medal at the 1964 Venice Biennale, and he won a Grammy Award for his cover of the Talking Heads album Speaking in Tongues. In 1998 he was awarded the Praemium Imperiale, a kind of “Nobel Prize for Art” from the Imperial House of Japan.Robert Rauschenberg was a participant in documenta II (1959), documenta III (1964), the 4th documenta (1968) and also documenta 6 in 1977 in Kassel. In 1978 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In art historical terms, Rauschenberg is considered a forerunner of American Pop Art, although his multi-layered work can be assigned to more than one style. “C(k)ay other artist of the 20th century has crossed so many genre and style boundaries as Robert Rauschenberg.”
His use of everyday objects in the Combine paintings was an important example of the method of assemblage, objet trouvé, and Arte Povera. Rauschenberg is an artist of postmodernism. Rauschenberg constantly asked the questions in his works:How is something perceived by whom? What is memory and what is time, what is an image and what is an object? How do production and reception relate? Rauschenberg”s main theme was communication and perception. He was also interested in the epistemological problem – the question of how continuity and change relate to each other.
Rauschenberg”s pictorial approach was based on two fundamental principles of modernism: collage and the readymade, and he was first and foremost a graphic artist and painter. He thought in terms of surfaces and understood space as a space of movement – this is confirmed by his involvement in dance. He was interested in matter, shape, function and motor activity; representational more than spatial and sign more than plastic volume.
For Rauschenberg everything could be art – there is an equality among things. Everything can serve art, everything has its beauty and justification. This was formally evident in his works: in his complex works one hardly encounters a highlighted center. He rejected hierarchical structures, preferring a democratic distribution of motifs – an equal coexistence of motifs.
His art seeks direct contact with the viewer. He did not rule out any formal solutions from the outset and defied cultural, geographical and financial boundaries.
Among visual artists, Rauschenberg was the most important and active protagonist of a synthesis of art and technology, and his representations are to a great extent an expression of the cultural and socio-political realities of the period in which they were conceived and created.
The painter, who described himself tongue-in-cheek as a “street urchin mixture,” had German and Native American roots: his grandfather, who came from Berlin, had married a Cherokee. Rauschenberg lived and worked on Captiva Island. Since 1998 he had a hip condition; since 2002 he had been in a wheelchair after a stroke that left him paralyzed. The works he conceived were realized with the help of assistants. Robert Rauschenberg was dyslexic.
In 2008, he passed away at the age of 82 on Captiva Island, Florida.