Born 1925, Port Arthur, Texas
Died 2008, Captiva, Florida
Born 1925, Port Arthur, Texas
Died 2008, Captiva, Florida
With his highly innovative, experimental approach to artmaking, Robert Rauschenberg was a hugely influential figure in the shift away from Abstract Expressionism, with his early works of the 1950s and 1960s laying the foundations for Pop art and Conceptual art. From his early conceptual works, which questioned the role and gesture of the artist and the definition of art itself, to his radical Combines, which transcended the line between painting and sculpture, high art and everyday found objects and detritus, Rauschenberg continued to expand the boundaries and definitions of art.
Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1925. He studied pharmacology before being drafted by the U.S. Navy during World War II, where he served as a neuropsychiatric technician. After leaving the Navy, Rauschenberg studied art at the Kansas City Art Institute and in Paris at the Académie Julian on the G.I. Bill. While at the Académie, he met Susan Weil, who would later become his wife. A few months later, they moved to North Carolina and enrolled at Black Mountain College from 1948-52, where many of the country’s visionary artists such as Josef Albers were teaching. During Rauschenberg's intermittent study at Black Mountain College, he was mentored by Cy Twombly and formed friendships with the dancer Merce Cunningham and the musician John Cage, with whom he would later collaborate. Sharing Cunningham’s enthusiasm for theater and dance, Rauschenberg would contribute costume and stage design to many of his later productions, for which Cage would compose the music.
Two years later, in 1954, Rauschenberg began to create the assemblages for which he is best known, called Combines, by including trash and found objects into his works, such as tires, street signs, and stuffed birds or goats. Rauschenberg’s Combines radically pushed the boundaries of art, blurring the division between painting and sculpture, and abstraction and figuration. Striving to reinvent the idea that a work is only allowed one specific meaning, Rauschenberg created works that are both visually and intellectually interesting without specific meaning. This change in his approach followed a change in Rauschenberg’s personal life as his marriage came to an end. He pioneered this revolutionary approach with Jasper Johns, with whom he had both an artistic and romantic relationship in the mid-1950s. Together they rejected the lofty emotions and abstract ideals of the New York School in favor of subjects and materials drawn from everyday life, thereby paving the way for the Pop artist in the early 1960s and successive generations of contemporary artists into the present day.
Cartoon comes from the later years of Rauschenberg's Combine series. The Combines of this period are more painterly with larger fields of bright color. He also began experimenting with new materials such as hardware, electrical devices, and mechanical objects. The large gestural swaths of vivid colors are juxtaposed with the found objects that directly relate to Rauschenberg's life at the time. More architectural than his previous Combines, Cartoon possesses elements that allude to living in Lower Manhattan at the time of urban redevelopment in the early 1960s. Using found slabs of wood and an old jar of enamel paint, Rauschenberg creates a doorway complete with a door handle. Using objects as he sees them, anything could become materials for his art, which allowed him limitless opportunity. All of this was to avoid the souvenir quality of his earlier works, which often incorporated personal items and photographs. As he famously said, “Nostalgia tends to eliminate some of the directness. Immediacy is the only thing you can trust.”
“Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)”
– Robert Rauschenberg
Speaking on his Combine series, Rauschenberg stated, “An artist manufactures his material out of his own existence - his own ignorance, familiarity or confidence. I come to terms with my materials. They know and I know that we’re going to try to do something. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but I would substitute anything for preconceptions or deliberateness. If that moment can’t be as fresh, strange and unpredictable as what’s going on around you, then it’s false. The nature of some of my materials gave me an additional problem because I had to figure out how they could be physically supported on a wall when they obviously had no business being anywhere near a wall. That was the beginning of the Combines.”
In 1970, Rauschenberg moved from New York to Captiva Island, Florida, where he established his permanent residence. He continued to experiment with silkscreen and other printing techniques, but, after a 1980 copyright lawsuit over an advertisement Rauschenberg had earlier appropriated, he only transferred images of his own photographs. His continued collaborations with other artists and workshops led to the establishment of the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange in 1984, an evolving, eight-year exhibition that traveled through eleven countries – even including American Cold War rivals such as China, the USSR, and East Germany. Committed to human rights and world peace, Rauschenberg strove to incite social change with this global project.
Living in Captiva in the 1980s and 1990s, Rauschenberg continued to experiment with various techniques and artistic materials, including painting and screen-printing on copper and other reflective metals, working in wet fresco, transferring images by hand, and making digital prints. Alongside these works he also designed costumes and sets for major dance and theater productions. Despite suffering a stroke in 2002 that paralyzed the right side of his body, Rauschenberg continued to work until his death on May 12, 2008.
Art © 2023 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York.