I met Robert Rauschenberg once. He was giving a lecture at my school during my third year working towards a BFA. He was in a wheelchair, being pushed by his friend. He had his hand over hers on one of the push handles. A few of my friends and I decided to be so bold as to ask him if we could take a Polaroid snapshot of him with us. He smiled and said, “Of course.” Six years later, we are still fighting over that picture and have worked out a kind of shared custody for it.
During his lecture, someone asked him if he thought art school was pointless. Could we really learn anything worthwhile here, besides just “playing the game”? His eyes sparkled, he winked at his friend, and responded with an answer that was completely unhelpful and frustrating: “I don’t know.”
As graduation grew closer and most of us were deciding whether or not to wheedle our way into MFA programs, some of us realized there was no way in hell our parents were going to support us for another two years. The question of what to do now and how to do it was ever present in my mind. I sought to find similarities in the careers of my professors, other artists who had become moderately successful – piece together a workable role model. It didn’t happen. When asked, point blank, “How did you get where you are now?” the answer was always “I don’t know.”
I understand now, that when it comes to art and success, there is never any one way. This is clearly expressed in the life and process of Robert Rauschenberg. One minute he is Milton Ernst Rauschenberg from Port Arthur, Texas, raised in a fundamentalist Christian family; the next minute he is Robert Rauchenberg, student to Josef Albers in North Carolina at Black Mountain College, where he met composer John Cage.
“I think a painting is more like the real world if it’s made out of the real world.”
After studying at the Art Students Leauge of New York (with Knox Martin and Cy Twombly), Rauchenberg’s first one-man shows consisted of his “White Paintings” which had no imagery and were said to reflect the ambient conditions of the spaces shown. Afterwards, he began his series of “Black Paintings” and “Red Paintings,” a mixture of expressionist markings collaged with found objects. These he coined as “Combine Paintings,” breaking down traditional boundaries between painting and sculpture, reportedly prompting one Abstract Expressionist painter to remark, “If this is Modern Art, then I quit!”
Robert is said to have been a lover of Jasper Johns, both of them considered “Neo-Dadaists.” Rauchenberg is quoted as saying that he wanted to work “in the gap between art and life”–his work at the time suggests a questioning of the distinction between art objects and everyday objects, following Dadaist messages about the role of the observer in creating art’s meaning.
“It is impossible to have progress without conscience.”
In 1961, he took a step in the opposite direction, championing the role of creator in creating art’s meaning. Rauschenberg was invited to participate in an exhibition at the Galerie Iris Clert, where artists were to create and display a portrait of the owner, Iris Clert. Rauschenberg’s submission consisted of a telegram sent to the gallery declaring, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.” One of his most well known works is a drawing that DeKooning had given him, that he had erased.
By 1962, Rauschenberg’s work began to incorporate not only found objects, but found imagery as well. He started taking images from magazines or random photographers and silk screening them onto canvases. This technique was previously only used commercially, and allowed Rauschenberg the ability to address the reproducibility of images and the implication of a flattened experience. He is contemporaneous to Warhol in this respect, and is frequently cited as a grandfather of Pop Art
“The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history.”
Later, Rauschenberg would go on to launch E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) – a non profit organization established with the intent of promoting collaborations between artists and engineers. In the Eighties, he announced his Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange at the United Nations. This would culminate in a seven year, ten country tour to encourage “world peace and understanding,” throughout Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Beijing, Lhasa (Tibet), Japan, Cuba, Soviet Union, Berlin, and Malaysia in which he left a piece of art, and was influenced by the cultures he visited. Reflective paintings, drawings, photographs, assemblages and other multimedia work that had been inspired by these surroundings are considered some of his strongest work. This venture, which was supported by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, went on view in 1991.
In addition to painting and sculpture, Rauschenberg’s long career has also included significant contributions to printmaking and Performance Art. He also won a Grammy Award for his album design of Talking Heads’ album Speaking in Tongues. As of 2003 he worked from his home and studio in Captiva, Florida.
Rauschenberg died on May 12, 2008 of heart failure after his personal decision to go off life support, on Captiva Island in Florida. He left behind a legacy of work that spans generations of art movements, and was an American maverick, leading the way for other artists, not only in questioning construct and function, but also in defining the role and the responsibility of the artist, . His prolific career rivals that of Picasso.
I wonder, if I had been bold enough to ask the man in the wheelchair all those years ago – how did you do it? He most likely would have winked and answered, “I don’t know.”