The Life and Legacy of Robert Rauschenberg through His Iconic Works

Artsy Institutions
May 10, 2016 10:26PM

By incorporating a diversity of materials and techniques in his work, Robert Rauschenberg defined an oeuvre that embodied an innovative style. Throughout his long career, he worked with everything from dirt and sand, to fabric and paper. “I think painting is more like the real world if it’s made out of the real world,” he once said. Now, a partnership between the White House Historical Association, Artsy, and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation gives U.S. students the opportunity to respond to the iconic, influential, and multidisciplinary works found in the White House’s collection. As you work on your video reflection for the “This Art is Your Art” competition, take a look through this chronology of Rauschenberg's seminal life events to learn more about the singular artist:

1925–1945: Robert Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas as Milton Ernest Rauschenberg. At the age of 16, he began pharmaceutical studies at the University of Texas. In 1943, he was drafted into the United States Navy where he served as a technician in a mental hospital until 1945. 

1948: Attended the Académie Julian in Paris where he met fellow student Susan Weil, who he married in 1950. With Weil, later that year enrolled in Black Mountain College in North Carolina. While there, Rauschenberg studied under painter Josef Albers, a founder of the Bauhaus, and collaborated with composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. In these formative years, he began to develop many of the themes that would be present in his oeuvre, while also experimenting with a range of mediums including painting, photography, and sculpture. 

1949–1952: Rauschenberg studied at the Art Students League of New York where he also met Knox Martin and Cy Twombly. While in New York, he was introduced to the work of Abstract Expressionists and begins to adapt their loose brushstrokes in his paintings. During this time he developed several series that incorporate abstraction and unconventional materials. For example, in 1951, for his Night Blooming  (1951) paintings he pressed gravel or dirt in the pigment, and his White Paintings (1951)  reflect light and shadow. 

1952–1953: Rauschenberg traveled through Europe and North Africa with Twombly. During this time his work shifted to focus on collage and sculpture, often employing recurring motifs including transportation, the human form, lettering, and graphics.

1954–1969: In the summer of 1954, Rauschenberg began working on his Combines (1954-1964)—blurring the lines between painting and sculpture using two-dimensional collages and three-dimensional objects. Inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, he placed everyday objects into mixed media artworks. One of these pieces, “Minutiae” (1954) is used as the stage set for a Merce Cunningham dance of the same name. This collaboration lasted for decades. In 1960, the artist began working with Bell Laboratories research scientist Billy Klüver, creating technologically driven sound and light installations including Oracle (1962–65) and Soundings (1968). Six years later, Rauschenberg co-founded Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), an organization that looks to break down the boundaries between technology and art, fostering collaborations between people in both fields. In 1963, his reputation as an established artist is solidified after receiving a solo exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York and winning the International Grand Prize in Painting at the Venice 

1970–1975: At the middle of his career, Rauschenberg moves from New York to Captiva Island off the coast of Florida. He began using fabric and paper in his works developing Cardboards (1971-72) and Venetians (1972-73), revealing his interest in color, texture, and found materials.   

1980–1990: In the 1980s, Rauschenberg formulates two long-term projects: The 1/4 Mile (or 2 Furlong Piece) and Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI). The 1/4 Mile, which he began in 1981 and completed in 1998, consists of 190 components and spans nearly a quarter mile. He develops ROCI while travelling the world, experimenting with metal and screenprinting. The ROCI project strove to foster cross cultural understanding and positive social change through art, particularly in countries where experimental creative expression was stifled. He experimented with screenprinting on metal, which influenced several series that followed including Urban Bourbons (1988-96), Night Shades (1991), and Gluts (1986-89/1991-94), made from various metal objects and scrap metals.     

1992–2001: Rauschenberg’s work in his later years focused on his exploration of new material and technology. Starting in 1992, he used a color printer to make digital prints of his photographs, allowing for high-resolution, large-scale works on paper, as seen in his Waterworks (1992-95) and Anagrams (1995-97) series. Some of his later works are of an autobiographical nature, referring to aspects from past works, such as the X-Ray in Booster (1967), which appears in Mirthday Man (1997).

2002–2008: Rauschenberg suffered a stroke in 2002 that leaves his right hand partially paralyzed. He continues to create work with his left hand and collaborate with performers and printmakers. On May 12, 2008, he dies at the age of 82 in his studio.

2011: Rauschenberg's 1998 work Early Bloomer [Anagram (A Pun)] joins the White House collection. Two years later, the piece becomes one of the first contemporary works to be exhibited in one of the public rooms in the White House, in a ceremony hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama.

2011: Rauschenberg's 1998 work Early Bloomer [Anagram (A Pun)] joins the White House collection. Two years later, the piece becomes one of the first contemporary works to be exhibited in one of the public rooms in the White House, in a ceremony hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama.

—Newlin Tillotson

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