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Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Robert Rauschenberg, American Artist

October 22, 2009
by Jennifer Ferris
Robert Rauschenberg, the artist who wanted to work in the “gap between art and life,” influenced the art world not only through his own work but via his relationships with some of the century’s most noted artists.

Robert Rauschenberg's Early Days

Milton Ernst Rauschenberg was born October 22, 1925, in the Gulfport town of Port Arthur, Texas. The town was built around an oil refinery and his father was a lineman for the local factory. Rauschenberg suffered from neglect as a child; his father preferred hunting and guns to spending time with his son, and his mother’s sole focus was her husband.

His parents were both active in the fundamentalist Church of Christ and at one time, Rauschenberg considered the clergy as a career path. However, the church forbade dancing and Rauschenberg’s love for the so-called vice ultimately steered him away from the church.

After foundering in college—he was expelled for refusing to dissect a frog— Rauschenberg was drafted into the Navy. While serving as a nurse, he began to paint portraits of his fellow sailors, and even used his own blood to add red to his compositions when he ran out of paint. 

Funded by the G.I. Bill, Rauschenberg began attending the Kansas City Art Institute in 1946, and changed his name to the more artistic-sounding Bob. Rauschenberg learned a variety of industrial arts. He painted sets and designed window models, but yearned for exposure to more modern art; after a year, he moved to Paris to study at the Académie Julian.

Rauschenberg's Notable Accomplishments

The Parisian college didn’t suit him, but Rauschenberg found a wife in France and the two returned to the States to study at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he apprenticed under famous Bauhaus artist Josef Albers. In opposition to Albers’s refined geometric style, Rauschenberg developed a messy, visceral method of combining found objects, garbage  and handfuls of paint.

The Betty Parsons Gallery in New York hosted Rauschenberg’s first solo exhibition in 1951. Not a single piece sold, but the show brought his art to the attention of the city’s art elite. He divorced his wife and traveled for a year through Europe and Africa with famous graffiti-style artist Cy Twombly. While traveling, he began experimenting with collage. Rauschenberg then returned to New York and began the “Red Paintings,” which used scraps of fabric and newspaper.

From collage he moved to his most famous works, the “Combines,” which blurred the line between sculpture and painting, defying categorization by incorporating found objects—such as a stuffed goat—and canvases covered with house paint. His “Combine” period was also marked by a relationship with artist Jasper Johns, whom he discovered working in a bookstore. He and Johns lived in the same building and literally exchanged ideas, with much of their work mirroring the other’s for a time.

In 1964, Rauschenberg became the first American to win the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale, one of dozens of honors he earned in his lifetime.

Concurrent with Andy Warhol’s work, Rauschenberg began to work in silkscreen and other media during the pop art revolution of the 1960s, and created many of that genre’s defining works. Over the next few decades, he continued to be a pioneer in cutting-edge processes for creating art. He worked in mixed media, printing photographs on a number of unusual surfaces.

The Rest of the Story

An early love of dance translated into a lifetime of interest in performance for Rauschenberg. While at Black Mountain College, he was a part of the first “Happening” with dancer Merce Cunningham and musician John Cage. In the late 1960s, he founded E.A.T.: Experiments in Art and Technology with partner Billy Klüver. They explored the intersection of technology with art and hosted evenings of performance art which featured engineers from IBM collaborating with artists and performers.

Rauschenberg died May 12, 2008, from heart failure, at his home on Captiva Island, Florida.

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