Robert Rauschenberg was an American artist best known for his bold and inventive contributions to the Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art movements. Born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1925, Rauschenberg first recognized the capacity of his artistic talents while serving the U.S. Military in 1947.
Following his time in the service, he pursued art studies at the Kansas City Art Institute prior to attending moving to Paris to attend the Academie Julian. After less than one year in Paris, Rauschenberg found himself dissatisfied with the European Abstract Expressionist art scene and returned to the United States, opting to continue his studies at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, learning from Bauhaus founder Joseph Albers. At that time, the school had become a hotbed of avante garde collaboration and featured a number of talented artists who began drawing national attention, including dancer Merce Cunningham and musician John Cage.
In time, Robert Rauschenberg sought new inspiration and headed to New York City, studying at the Art Students League of New York between 1949 and 1952. It was here that he met fellow artists Cy Twombly and Knox Martin. In the burgeoning New York Abstract Expressionist movement, Robert Rauschenberg would push the limits of form and expression, influencing an upcoming generation of Pop Artists in the process, including Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol
In the early 1950s, Rauschenberg’s Abstract Expressionist works included series of monochromatic paintings, singular color works, considered alternatively confounding and inspiring. Within the 1951 White Paintings series, the artist proposed that his seemingly static white paintings were actually dynamically altered by ambient components − shadows, natural and artificial lighting, dust particles and angles of view – in fact changing the work itself. Robert Rauschenberg’s black paintings were similar in terms of ambient sensitivities, but these works also included a new dimension of texture provided by embedded pieces of newspaper that were added to canvases. The newspaper would sometimes be completely covered in paint, barely distinguishable, and other times left partially revealed, print and all.
Following the Black Paintings, Robert Rauschenberg’s Red Paintings stepped the artist into a new realm of works called “Combines,” a style of works for which Rauschenberg would become most famous. Rauschenberg’s Red Paintings (1953-1954) introduced assorted cuts of wood, nails and other materials to the monochrome layers of red paint. Additionally, Red Paintings included enhanced textures created by paint application processes – such as drips, spatters, washes and bold horizontal strokes.
As the name indicates, “combines” is the term applied to the works of Robert Rauschenberg that put together a combination of objects, causing the viewer to ponder the meaning of the often surprising juxtapositions. Rauschenberg would actively collect rubbish found on the streets of Manhattan, to include these items within such works. The unpredictability of what could be found energized the artist’s philosophies of art as an unpredictable exploration.
Monogram (1959) is arguably the creation for which Robert Rauschenberg is most famous. The work, considered a “combine,” juxtaposes seemingly unrelated objects – including a painted taxidermy goat, a car tire and a tennis ball. Rauschenberg’s statement could be inferred loud and clear, “these objects are related because I’ve made it so.”
Robert Rauschenberg noticed that even in juxtaposing seemingly meaningless elements, he could nonetheless tell a story and elicit emotions, even common emotions, based upon the collective meaning or significance that particular objects represent in popular culture. This philosophical approach played an important role in laying the foundation of the Pop Art movement. For Pop Artists such Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, it was merely a short jump from the inclusion of popular objects in the works of Rauschenberg to placing sole focus on Pop icons and manipulating or morphing identifying characteristics.
Among Robert Rauschenberg’s significant “combination” contributions includes collaborations forged between visual art, performance art and even engineering. Throughout his career, Rauschenberg designed sets and costumes for dance, most regularly for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. In 1977, Rauschenberg collaborated with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, both of whom he befriended as a student at Black Mountain College.
Working with engineer Billy Kluver, Rauschenberg founded a non-profit organization called E.A.T., standing for Experiments in Arts and Technology. In gratitude, NASA invited Rauschenberg to witness to the launch of the Apollo 11 rocket and provided the artist with access to archival documents and images. Rauschenberg created his “Stoned Moon Series” of lithographs as his response to this historic event and unique opportunity. These lithographs would become shining examples of powerful Pop Art printmaking.
Among the many notable commissions for which Robert Rauschenberg won acclaim is a Grammy Award for his design of the Talking Heads album, “Speaking in Tongues.”
In 2008, Robert Rauschenberg died on Captiva Island, FL, where the artist worked exclusively in his later years. The artist’s works continue to be highly sought, many hanging in galleries and exhibits throughout the world.
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