Port Arthur, Texas
An innovative American artist whose creations greatly influenced the course of art in the 20th century, Robert Rauschenberg was a painter, printmaker, photographer, sculptor, performance artist and theatrical designer. Over his six-decade career he created more than six thousand works of art. Milton Ernest Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1925. An indifferent student, after a brief time at the University of Texas he was drafted into the Navy in 1944, where he served as a medical technician in San Diego. He drew in his spare time. After his discharge in 1945, he worked for a few years in Los Angeles and then followed a woman friend to Kansas City in 1947 where he studied at the Kansas City Art Institute. As part of this fresh start in life he took a new name, “Bob,” which later became “Robert.” The following year he moved to Paris to study at the Académie Julian, where he met and fell in love with another student, Susan Weil (b. 1930). That fall they both entered Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where they studied under Joseph Albers (1888-1976), who introduced Rauschenberg to the concept of incorporating a variety of materials into his art. Rauschenberg and Weil moved to New York City in 1949, where they both studied at the Art Students’ League and were married in 1950. Betty Parsons (1900-1982) mounted Rauschenberg’s first solo exhibition in 1951. That year he met the composer John Cage (1912-1992) and the artist Cy Twombly (1928-2011), both of whom became good friends. While at Black Mountain during the summer of 1951 Rauschenberg created his “White Paintings,” white house paint applied to canvas with a paint roller, containing no images. Weil and Rauschenberg separated later that year and were divorced the next year. The New York Museum of Modern Art acquired two of his photographs in 1952, his first works in a museum collection. He returned to Black Mountain that summer, where he began creating his “Black Paintings,” in which the surface of the canvas was covered with torn newspaper and painted black. Twombly and Rauschenberg traveled to Italy that fall, staying until the following spring with trips to Morocco and Spain. While in Italy Rauschenberg began collecting found objects and incorporating them into assemblages, which were shown in galleries in Rome and Florence. Back in New York, the “White Paintings” and “Black Paintings” were shown in a exhibition at the Stable Gallery in 1953, provoking much controversy. Rauschenberg also created his famous “Erased de Kooning Drawing” (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) that year. At Rauschenberg’s request, his friend Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) selected a drawing in a combination of media, which Rauschenberg laboriously erased and then framed. He also created “Automobile Tire Print” (SF MoMA), for which Cage drove his car over a 22-foot long strip of paper as Rauschenberg painted a tire with black ink. Rauschenberg designed his first costumes for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1953, and would create sets and costumes for other choreographers as well. He began creating his “Combines” in 1954, assemblages using a variety of found materials, including stuffed animals. In 1955 Rauschenberg moved into the Manhattan building where Jasper Johns (b. 1930) had his studio. The two developed a close emotional and artistic relationship, supporting themselves for a time by making window displays for Tiffany’s and Bonwit Teller. Leo Castelli (1907-1999) gave Rauschenberg a solo show in 1958, the beginning of a long relationship. His printmaking career began in 1962 when Tatyana Grosman (1904-1982) convinced him to make prints at Universal Limited Art Editions on Long Island. He would go on to make many prints, including the color lithograph he contributed to Walasse Ting’s (1929-2010) 1964 book of poetry and prints, 1¢ Life. Rauschenberg’s international reputation was firmly established by the retrospective exhibition of his work at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1963 and the award of the International Grand Prize in Painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale; he was the first modern American artist to win the prize. In 1970 Rauschenberg moved to Captiva Island, Florida, on the Gulf Coast near Ft. Myers, while maintaining a house in Manhattan. He traveled widely while continuing to create a prodigious number of works. Major exhibitions of his works included shows at the Pompidou Center, Paris, in 1981, the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 1997 and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 2005. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978, he was awarded its Gold Medal for Painting in 1999. President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of the Arts in 1993. Rauschenberg continued to work after suffering a stroke in 2002, and died of heart failure in his Captiva home in 2008. (TNB 4/2014) Selected bibliography: Kotz, Mary Lynn. Rauschenberg: Art and Life. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1990; revised edition, 2004. Wingate, Ealan and Emily Florido, ed. Robert Rauschenberg. Exhibition catalog. New York: Gagosian Gallery and Prestel Publishing, 2010.