Artist Profile: Robert Rauschenberg
Nancy Doyle
   Fine Art
Robert Rauschenberg was an American artist, born in Texas in 1925. He studied art at Kansas City Art Institute, and informally in Paris after World War II. In the late 1940's he attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Black Mountain was a progressive school for the arts, which had a number of influential teachers and visiting artists, including Josef Albers and John Cage, the avant garde musician. A freer spirit, he related more to the latter, than to the former (Albers), whose methodical color studies were perhaps too disciplined for Rauschenberg. He came to New York in the early 1950's, attending the Art Students League, and associated somewhat with the Abstract Expressionist artists then prevailing, as well as other younger artists such as Jasper Johns. He and Johns are perhaps artists who formed a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Pop art, with which they are both also associated.
He was also friend and artistic cohort with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, avant garde dancer/choreographer and musician/composer, respectively, and with these artists and others, participated in new art forms of the 1950's and 60's, such as the happenings and early performance art pieces. But he was primarily a visual artist, who created two-dimensional images at first, and then went on to create what he called 'combines,' or assemblages. These were two-dimensional pieces which also contained three-dimensional and collage elements, sort-of two-and-a-half dimensional, comprised of  'found' and painted objects. The term 'found' was first used in the early 20th century, when Marcel Duchamp and others first introduced the notion that art (particularly sculpture) could also include 'readymade' objects, like the urinal Duchamp exhibited in the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York. Like other Dada artists, Duchamp questioned the definition of art itself with such new ideas. Rauschenberg, as a young artist in New York, also used found objects because of economic reasons; in one work called Bed, a quilt was partially painted and a pillow was placed at the top; the piece hangs on a wall. One of his most famous assemblages, Monogram, consists of a stuffed goat with an automobile tire around its middle, on a wide, flat pedestal which is a painted surface. He also created two-dimensional images with such unexplored materials as flattened cardboard boxes - perhaps another material chosen for its inexpensiveness.
One of the reasons I feel that Rauschenberg was a great artist is what he could do with such limited means. His sense of design/composition was so strong that the placement of these simple geometric forms becomes actually monumental - an ironic juxtaposition with cardboard boxes. In an interview with Barbara Rose in her book, Rauschenberg,  he said that his work attempts to ennoble the ordinary. Rauschenberg was an incredibly prolific artist - like an art machine, he continued to produce his distinctive images since the early 1950's. They are mainly two-dimensional works, however he continued to mount the often large images on various types of materials, such as metallic supports. In fact, some of his images are actually placed onto reflective materials, such as metals (aluminum, etc.), so that the reflection of the viewer and the environment become part of the image. His experimentation and exploration of techniques and materials was staggering, and included use of various technologies. Most of his images were not directly painted onto the surface, but transferred with various methods, including transferring photographic images to photosensitized canvas or other support. Like da Vinci, he was also interested in engineering and technological possibilities in art. To say that he was an inventive artist is such an understatement. His methods, materials, techniques and iconography were an endless evolving array, and at the age of 76 he was still growing and changing and producing. I've always respected and admired his work, and there is something about his spirit that is also engaging. I've seen still photos and film footage of him working, and there was an expression of pure joy on his face, like a child discovering, sometimes through play and free association and invention.
One of his most reproduced images is an example of his signature style. What he did was combine images from popular and contemporary culture in interesting and unexpected ways, and in unusual media. This well-known image was created circa 1963, and contains an image of President John F. Kennedy, with his finger pointing in his characteristic way. He also used other evocative fragments and images, most recognizable, some abstracted shapes or forms as well. This type of image is reflective of Pop art; but there are also painted elements, often sweeping and gestural, in the manner of the Abstract Expressionists who came before Pop. His work often combined geometric structures and "painterly" photographic images in a masterful fashion, many of which were his own photographs.
Rauschenberg's heritage was part Native American, and sometimes I've wondered if this played a part in his choice of images, his iconography, or the poetic and transcendent quality of his work. But his work was definitely American - as opposed to the European tradition, which at the time tended to be more refined, elegant, or cerebral. We Americans had tended toward ruggedness and independence of spirit, in our history and in our art. We liked things big - bold - free - impulsive (of course there are exceptions to this). Like Jackson Pollock, who also seemed very American, we liked to form our own opinions, explore our own territory, not that of the Old World, though of course we were still influenced by it, and for a long time tried to "measure up" to it. Perhaps like the Great American Novel, artists searched for an "American" artistic identity, and finally found it after World War II (with some help from emigre European artists, some fleeing from Hitler).
In Rauschenberg's case, the use of President Kennedy's image was reflective of the idealism of that time, the optimism, etc. And when Kennedy was assassinated, his image also became emblematic of our loss, our resultant pessimism. But regardless of how the image can be interpreted, it stands as a potent symbol to us, even today. Not a schoolbook kind of symbolism - but rather an emotional symbol of ourselves. His many other images also contain less recognizable references, such as might appear in a contemporary poem together - poetic juxtapositions of famous and anonymous, grand and humble, images - like the astronauts walking on the moon, or a stop sign. Like a great poem, they elude easy interpretation; allow space for wordless states of being or feeling or thinking. He used images (called 'appropriating' in contemporary art) from popular sources, such as magazines, newspapers, etc., and he also took his own photographs, which he used in the images as well. Some of these works are very large, mounted on large free-standing forms, taking up vast museum spaces. Here are some links to his many types of images:
Rauschenberg, who died in 2008, was one of the most well-known artists in the world, and was very successful. He left New York in the late 1960's, moving to a small island off the coast of Florida. He contributed to a number of society's causes, with money and with actions, one of which is a fund for artists in the midst of crisis, such as health or finances. Another is an organization he founded, called ROCI (Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange), named after his pet turtle (Rocky), which mounts art exhibitions of his and others' work around the world in the name of global peace and harmony. ROCI goes to any nation, regardless of politics, to display the often collaborative work there, as an effort toward peace and understanding of all people. For all the reasons listed here, Rauschenberg has always been such an inspiration to me artistically. His productivity, his inventiveness, his chance-taking and experimentation, his generosity of spirit, and for the quality of his art - created for over four decades. If art is about freedom, and I think it is, then Rauschenberg was the quintessential artist. His collage approach to visual art is, I think, very appropriate for our turn of the century. It reflects the way "reality" often is for us - with speed, multi-tasking, information-explosion, simultaneous events and imagery, sensory overload, and the combination of the ephemeral and the monumental that comes at us in the same hectic fashion.
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