L'enfant Terrible: Robert Rauschenberg

After World War II, the center of the Modern art world began to shift away from Paris and towards New York, due in large part to a small group of painters who were evolving beyond pre-war Surrealism toward a new way of painting—one that held the brush as an extension of the subconscious. American Modern art was changing; the social realism that came as a result of the Great Depression was being replaced by a new creative freedom, although it had to be abstracted to avoid the censorship of the still-lingering McCarthyism. Though not technically a school or movement, in 1946, Robert Coates, an art critic from The New Yorker, applied the term “Abstract Expressionists” to the group, which, at the time, included Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock. Although many agree that it was primarily these painters (as well as benefactors like Betty Parsons and Peggy Guggenheim) who laid the foundation for Modern art in postwar America, it was Robert Rauschenberg who would stretch the boundaries even further (often enraging critics and his contemporaries alike), while at the same time have a profound effect on Pop and Conceptual art that would last for decades and cement him as one the most inspiring and enduring Modern artists of all time.

Before he was Robert, he was Milton Ernest Rauschenberg, born in 1925 in the oil refining town of Port Arthur, Texas. His father, Ernest, had come to Texas just before the turn of the century, where he met and married Dora, Rauschenberg’s mother. Ernest worked as a lineman for Gulf States Utilities and was an avid outdoorsman, particularly hunting and fishing. Young Milton was good at neither and spent much of his time caring for animals and drawing. He also loved to dance, but the family’s fundamentalist Church of Christ forbade it. However, the Church was an enormous influence on Rauschenberg as a child. “…I was going to be a preacher until I was thirteen,” he says. “I was really serious about it. Finally, I decided I couldn’t spend the rest of my life thinking that everyone else was going to hell…”

After high school, Rauschenberg enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin. He had made a deal with his father to attend college for one year, after which he didn’t have to continue if he didn’t want to. However, an unfortunate event with a frog cut his tenure short. One of the assignments in his Anatomy class was to dissect a live frog. Rauschenberg had many frogs as pets growing up and the thought of cutting one up in the name of higher learning was something he simply could not abide. He refused and on the way to the dean’s office to discuss the matter, released the frog into some bushes. He was suspended from school and a month later was drafted.

While at bootcamp in Farragut, Idaho, Rauschenberg got hold of a set of oil paints and began a portrait of one of his fellow recruits. Working on the piece proved a bit of a challenge “…because the john was the only place with lights on after taps,” he says, “I sat in there to finish it. When I ran out of red, I pricked my finger and rubbed it into the skin tone.” After bootcamp, Rauschenberg was assigned to the hospital corps at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego. Before he reported for duty, he visited the Huntington Gardens, where three paintings changed his life: Pinkie by Thomas Lawrence, The Blue Boy by Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds’s Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse. Up until this point, Rauschenberg had never seen original oil paintings and had no idea there was such a thing as being an artist. What struck him, he told Time magazine’s Robert Hughes was “…behind each of them was a man whose profession it was to make them. That just never occurred to me before.” Little did Rauschenberg know at the time, but something was awakening in him that soon would change the course of his life forever.

After the war, Rauschenberg returned home to Port Arthur to find that his family had moved to Lafayette, Louisiana without telling him. He hitchhiked to Lafayette and, after a brief stay, returned to California where he got a job in the shipping department at Ballerina Bathing Suits. He made a friend there named Pat Pearman who, after seeing Rauschenberg’s drawings, encouraged him to pursue art more seriously. When Pearman’s mother fell ill, she had to quit and return home, but not before making Rauschenberg promise to enroll in the Kansas City Art Institute, providing the GI Bill would pay for it. It was in Kansas City, where Rauschenberg stopped living as Milton (a name he always detested) and began his life as Robert. He remained at the Art Institute for a year, taking all of the classes he could and working multiple jobs to save money for a trip to Paris, where he studied at the Académie Julian. It was also in Paris that he met Susan Weil, who would later become his wife.

While still at the Art Institute in Kansas City, Rauschenberg convinced himself that if he was to become an artist, he must study in Paris. However, after a short time, both he and Susan realized that this simply was not the case. When she returned to the United States in 1948 to study at Black Mountain College, Rauschenberg came with her. Black Mountain was a small college in North Carolina whose alumni included Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Paul Goodman and Josef Albers, who was leading the school in the Fall of 1948 when Rauschenberg arrived. Time had called Albers the greatest disciplinarian in America, and discipline is exactly what Rauschenberg felt he was lacking; unfortunately he and Albers were at odds from day one. “I represented everything he hated most,” he said. “I was Albers’ dunce, the outstanding example of what he was not talking about.” Despite never being able to please Albers, Rauschenberg thought of him as his most important teacher. “He was a beautiful teacher and an impossible person,” he said in an interview, nearly 20 years after Black Mountain. “I’m still learning what he taught me. What he taught had to do with the whole visual world, and it applies to whatever you’re doing, gardening or painting or whatever.”

During the four years from 1947 to 1950, there was a new renaissance of Modern art in America, and it all started with Jackson Pollock. “Jackson broke the ice,” de Kooning said, and in the process, helped to open the floodgates for painters like Franz Kline, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko. Though there were friendly and not so friendly rivalries, it was also a very collaborative time, as seen by the formation of The Club, which included weekly gatherings of panel discussions and lectures. Rauschenberg arrived in New York in the fall of 1949, where both he and Susan enrolled at the Art Students League. They were married the following June and, after spending the summer with Susan’s parents, moved into a small apartment. Both Rauschenberg and Susan were incredibly prolific at the time, producing multiple paintings per day (they scraped the paint off and started over to save money). During the winter of 1950, Rauschenberg took several of his paintings to the gallery of Betty Parsons, who told him, “I can only look at paintings on Tuesday,” to which Rauschenberg replied, “couldn’t you pretend this is Tuesday?” His first show opened the following May.

In the fall of 1952, Rauschenberg and Susan divorced. Though they had a child together, Rauschenberg left New York and went to Europe with Cy Twombly, who was on a grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. While there, he chose not to paint, but rather to only take photographs. Rauschenberg had been interested in photography for years and, in fact, had to decide between pursuing photography or painting at Black Mountain (Edward Steichen brought a show of Rauschenberg’s photographs to the Museum of Modern Art in 1951). When he returned to New York, Eleanor Ward opened a Rauschenberg-Twombly show at her Stable Gallery. The show was a disaster; mostly due to Rauschenberg’s work; all-black and all-white canvases, as well as  a number of “box sculptures”, which outraged visitors to the point that Mrs. Ward removed the gallery guest book due to “so many awful things being written in it.” The overwhelmingly negative reception depressed Rauschenberg, yet as he had done many times before, he used it as an opportunity to explore a different creative direction. He abandoned the black and white paintings and shifted to a color palette of red. He also began to experiment with collage (something he learned from his mother, who worked cutting out dress patterns), affixing various media to the canvas, including fabrics, bits of mirror, wood, even light bulbs.

“I don’t want a painting to be just an expression of my personality. I feel it ought to be much better than that.”

In collage, Rauschenberg had found possibly the purest form of collaboration with his materials. Much of the objects and findings that made their way into his work, he found on the streets near his Fulton Street apartment. Not having much money, he used anything and everything he could find, creating pieces that were, at least in part, a documentation on the changing life around him. For Bed, one of his first Combines, Rauschenberg used his own pillow, sheet and quilt and scribbled on them with pencil and poured and dripped paint over them in a sort of half-commentary on the Abstract Expressionists, particularly Jackson Pollock. When he created his landmark Combine, Rebus, in 1955, which was painted on eight inexpensive drop cloths, he purchased paint on sale at his local hardware store. Also, the paint he was using at the time had no labels, so Rauschenberg had no idea what colors he was buying until he got them home and opened them. In addition to paint, Rebus also features bits of posters, photographs, comics and fabric. Rebus marked a shift in Rauschenberg’s work and led to an incredible collection of 60 Combines, created between 1955 and 1959, including Canyon, which features a stuffed eagle breaking free of the canvas, and Monogram, a horizontal Combine with a taxidermy goat as the centerpiece.

In the 1960s, with Rauschenberg’s reputation and influence growing, he began to move away from the combines he had focused on for the previous decade and into printmaking. Though he had utilized image transfer methods in previous pieces, he started experimenting with screen printing and, in 1962, produced a number of large-scale silk screen paintings, using a combination of his own photographs and photographs he found in magazines. Just as when he first began his combines, this new process resulted in an explosion of new work. In 1963, Rauschenberg opened a show at the Jewish Museum, to incredible acclaim. One of the leading American collectors, Victor Ganz, purchased the first of his many Rauschenberg pieces. Acclaimed architect Philip Johnson bought First Landing Jump, which he subsequently donated to MoMA. Collectors were not alone in this newfound appreciation for Rauschenberg; The New York Times called him “one of the most fascinating artists around,” and an article appeared in The Nation that called Rauschenberg’s work “the most significant art now being produced in the United States by anyone of the younger generation.” Rauschenberg had broken through, just like Pollock in 1947, and in 1964 won the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale, signaling the arrival of Pop Art in America, where he would continue to be at the forefront, pushing boundaries and exploring new processes, until his death in 2008.

I’ve tried very hard not to go on and on, avoiding what we affectionately refer to as “art school pretense” when talking about Rauschenberg. Also, there is much of his life that I haven’t covered here, including the costume and set design work he did throughout his career with people like Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor or the important outreach work done through his foundation. Instead I’ve tried to share certain milestones in his life and show how the various people and places helped shape not only Rauschenberg himself, but also his work and what makes it so special. The truth is, I can’t really say why his work resonates with me so much. I’ve read books about him, about his contributions and his significance to Modern art but, honestly, very little of that means anything to me and, if I’m being completely honest there’s much of it that I don’t even understand. But then there’s the work itself; and that’s what I connect with. It’s about color and shape and texture and the emotions that surface and I have to wrestle with when I look at it. And, in the end, isn’t that what makes art wonderful?

View work by Robert Rauschenberg on Pinterest


Much of the information for this Spotlight came from two wonderful books about Rauschenberg’s life and work. The first is called Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, by Calvin Tomkins and the other is called Rauschenberg: Art and Life by Mary Lynn Kotz.

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