Robert Rauschenberg was born in 1925, in Port Arthur, Texas. Rauschenberg started studying pharmacology at the University of Texas, Austin, and shortly worked on the neuropsychiatric ward of the naval hospital in San Diego. In 1947, he enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute and, a year later, went to Paris to study art at the Académie Jullian. Yet in the fall of 1948, Rauschenberg returned to the U.S. and, with short intermissions, studied with Joseph Albers at Black Mountain College, North Carolina. In 1949, he moved to New York and entered a second phase of his art education. He enrolled at the Art Students League where he studied from 1949 to 1951. Among the artists he met were Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline. During his time in New York, Rauschenberg was already able to show his works at the Betty Parsons Gallery, first as part of a group, later in a solo exhibition. The exhibitions presented those works that constituted the beginning of his artistic career: His »White Paintings« are an attempt at a radical renewal of painting. With their monochrome reduction to the color white and their color fields that tend to be serially arranged (White Painting (Seven Panel), 1951), they create a color space that evokes »silence« and »emptiness.« Composer John Cage, a fried of Rauschenberg’s, alluded to Zen-Buddhism when he called this space an »airport for light, shadows, and particles« (qtd. in Alloway, in: Ausst.-Kat. Rauschenberg, Berlin 1980). Rauschenberg continued the sequence with the »Black Paintings« and the »Red Paintings« (1953/54), where paint already interacts with material collages of fabric remnants and newspapers. His early work also includes the »Blueprints,« life-size experiments with photosensitive paper that probe the possibilities of photography without camera, drawing on the technique of Man Ray’s rayographies (Untitled (Sue), 1950).
After 1952, Rauschenberg increasingly worked with various collage techniques that continued Surrealist experiments, for example, those of Max Ernst. On the occasion of an extended travel to Europe and North Africa that Rauschenberg embarked on together with Cy Twombly, he created collages, assemblages installed on walls, and small boxes (Scatole) with an arrangement of found objects of various materials. Rauschenberg exhibited these boxes in Rome and Florence. After his return to the U.S., he increasingly focused on sculptural work and included wood, stone and other materials into his artistic inquiries: »Each material has its own history built into it. There is no such thing as a ›better‹ material. It is just as unnatural for somebody to paint with oil or with anything else. An artist brings forth his material out of his own existence« (Rauschenberg, qtd. in Gespräch mit B. Rose (1986), in: Rauschenberg Köln 1989). Moreover, Rauschenberg understood his works as independent stagings. His Red Paintings are therefore »played« on stage as part of Merce Cunningham’s dance theater, for example, in the production »Minutiae« from 1954.
Yet in the years to follow, Rauschenberg explored the boundaries of the modern, autonomous picture in much more drastic ways. He countered the actionist pathos of Jackson Pollock’s All-Over that was still limited to the canvas, with the banality of an ironicized notion of the picture. The »Combine-Paintings« provided radically hybrid genres: Through gestural applications of color traces, everyday objects such as bedspreads experience a transformation into a »picture« or an assemblage (Bed, 1955). Through umbrellas, photo collages, and writing utensils, pictures are turned into imaginary stages (Allegory, 1959/60; Black Market, 1961). In contrast, the freestanding sculptural »Combines« work with the magical, ritualistic qualities of things in a much more intense way. They draw on the corporeal connotations of things, an approach that also integrates the bodies of animals (Odalisque, 1955/58; Monogram, 1955/59). Eventually, Rauschenberg expanded his notion of the work of art through an interactive approach that integrated viewers into playful situations (Black Market, 1961).
After moving to Captiva Island, Florida, in 1970, Rauschenberg increasingly turned to techniques of photography again, for example, to the frottage. He now worked with silkscreens and materials such as cardboard, and various kinds of paper (Radiant White, 1971). Like Andy Warhol, he had already been interested for quite a while in the mass media whose pictorial and written language he took up in monumental formats. Traces of use and technically sophisticated forms of staging served to boldly present the powerful public effects of the images he drew on. Media events and the potential of technology proved just as fascinating to him as their critical reflection (Retroactive II, 1964; Revolvers II, 1967). This also demonstrated an interest Rauschenberg had already declared as a founding member of the group E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) in 1966. In his installations, Rauschenberg pursued these questions with varying, new approaches until the 1980s and 1990s (Rocket/ Roci USA, 1990; In Trance (Urban Bourbon), 1993).
Between 1959 to 1977, Rauschenberg’s works were shown at the Documenta 2 — 4, and 6. A first comprehensive retrospective was organized by the Jewish Museum New York in 1963. In the following year, Rauschenberg participated in the Venice Biennale were he received an award. In 1976 — 78, a comprehensive traveling exhibition toured the U.S., starting at the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C. In 1997 — 98, his works traveled from the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, New York, to Houston, Texas, and to Europe. From 1985 to 1991, Rauschenberg pursued the idea of artistic collaboration with humanitarian goals with the project ROCI (Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange). Rauschenberg suffered a stroke in 2002 and has since been forced to have an assistant carry out his works.
Robert Rauschenberg lives and works in Captiva Island, Florida.
Rauschenberg, Express: Ausst.-Kat. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, hg. v. B. Rose u.a., Madrid 2006
Robert Rauschenberg, Combines: Ausst.-Kat. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Essays by Thomas Crow. Göttingen 2005
Branden, W. Joseph: Random order. Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Avant-garde, Cambridge/ Mass. u.a. 2003
Craft, C.: Robert Rauschenberg, New York 1997
Robert Rauschenberg, A Retrospective: Ausst.-Kat. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum New York u.a., hg. v. W. Hopps, New York 1997
Robert Rauschenberg: Ausst.-Kat. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen Düsseldorf, hg. v. A. Zweite, Köln 1994
ROCI – Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange: Ausst.-Kat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, hg. v. J. Cowart u.a., München 1991