Innovative Mind Found Art in the Unwanted

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg, whose feverish inventiveness made him one of the most widely influential artists of the past half-century and whose work erased the borders separating painting, sculpture and printmaking, died Monday at his home in Captiva, Fla. He was 82 and had been in failing health since a heart attack March 26.

Driven by poverty in the 1950s to use castoff objects of everyday life, including soda bottles, newspapers, furniture and stuffed animals, Rauschenberg created outrageously original works called "combines" that expanded the very definitions of art. His work exerted a strong influence on at least two generations of artists, including the Pop Art of Andy Warhol, who considered him a visionary.

Rauschenberg also had a formative hand in creating such later styles as minimalism and conceptualism, and in reviving figurative painting. His imagination went across the visual spectrum, from painting and printmaking to photography, sculpture and graphic arts. He also designed costumes, lighting and sets for theater and dance, in which he occasionally performed. Painter Jasper Johns said Rauschenberg "invented more than any artist since Picasso."

"There has never been anything in American art," art critic Robert Hughes has written, "to match the effusive, unconstrained energy of Rauschenberg's generous imagination."

After growing up in a Christian fundamentalist household in Texas, Rauschenberg visited an art museum for the first time when he was 19. Even though he had little training for it beyond sketching portraits for Navy buddies, he was determined to be an artist.

His fitful schooling took him from Kansas City, Mo., to Paris and to Black Mountain College in North Carolina before he settled in New York in 1949. Surviving on peanut butter, day-old bread and milk, Rauschenberg lived in an apartment without running water and sometimes had no money for canvases.

In 1953, he made his first "combines," in which he mixed painting and items collected from New York streets, such as tires, radios, cardboard boxes and discarded library books. He made one of his best-known works, called "Bed," in 1955 by slathering paint, toothpaste and fingernail polish over his bedspread, sheets and pillow. "I had just literally run out of things to paint on," he later explained.

In 1959, Rauschenberg bought a stuffed angora goat at a taxidermy shop, encircled its midsection with a tire and stood it on a horizontal canvas littered with a collage of urban detritus, including a police barricade, a tennis ball and the rubber heel of a shoe. The resulting "combine," which he called "Monogram," became one of Rauschenberg's signature works, symbolic of a new freedom in which almost any everyday item could be turned to the service of art.

"He can work with anything -- blue light bulbs, scraps of cloth, shaving mirrors, sheets of shiny copper," Washington Post critic Paul Richard wrote in 1986. "Everything he makes, even when he merely snaps a photograph, comes out looking like a Rauschenberg."

A decade before the 1960s arrival of the minimalist movement, Rauschenberg was making paintings of solid black, red or white, enlivened by the texture of crumpled newspapers and other found objects. By the late 1950s, he was inserting Coca-Cola bottles into his canvases, inspiring Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and other Pop artists.

Never content to linger long in one artistic style, Rauschenberg soon discovered a method of soaking pages from magazines and newspapers with a solvent, causing the words and pictures to be transferred to a canvas. He then sketched and painted over the images, creating a ghostly effect that made the works appear to occupy a fleeting space between the sleek present and the dusty past.

When Rauschenberg won first prize at the Venice Biennale in 1964, his fame spread through the art world and never waned. He had expanded on the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock and other artists of the 1940s and '50s to make a new kind of art that deliberately did not take itself seriously. By picking up trash in the streets and attaching it to his canvases, Rauschenberg was giving an ironic, self-knowing wink, as if to say art could be anything at all but was not necessarily serious.

"The strongest thing about my work, if I may say this," he later said, "is the fact that I chose to ennoble the ordinary."

Milton Ernest Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Tex., on Oct. 22, 1925. He grew up in a strict religious household and for a time contemplated becoming a minister in the Church of Christ.

Rauschenberg's youthful dyslexia was so severe that he "excelled in poor grades," but he managed to enroll at the University of Texas to study pharmacology. He later said he was expelled when he refused to dissect a frog.

In the Navy during World War II, he served in a psychiatric hospital in California and made his first visit to an art museum. He used his GI Bill benefits to study at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he changed his name from Milton to Robert, because he thought it made him sound more like an artist.

During a brief sojourn in Paris, he met artist Susan Weil. They were married after returning to the United States, and she was the mother of his only child, Christopher. (They were divorced in 1952.)

In 1948, Rauschenberg went to the avant-garde Black Mountain College, where he studied with artist Josef Albers, and met composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, with whom he had a long association.

Rauschenberg soon moved to New York, determined to find his artistic niche. He was so poor that he went to parties and used the bathroom to take a quick shower. For several years, he lived with artist Johns, and each influenced the other's work. Together they earned money designing window displays for Tiffany and Bonwit Teller.

By the late 1960s, as Rauschenberg's combines, collages and photographic assemblages found favor with the public, he expanded his vision to artistic forms that he discovered in his worldwide travels. In the early 1980s, he set up workshops in China and Japan and came back with 500 new collages and a multi-frame photograph 100 feet long.

Major exhibitions were held at the old National Collection of Fine Arts (1977), the Pompidou Center in Paris (1981), the National Gallery of Art (1991 and 2007) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2005).

"I had a hard time for most of my early life -- people thought I was out to shock or, before that, that I was just a joke," he said in 1997. "But finally I hung around long enough that they said, 'Maybe there IS something to it -- he's still here.' "

Despite a lifelong drinking problem -- he consumed more than a bottle of whiskey a day for many years -- Rauschenberg made more than 6,000 works of art in his lifetime. Always restless, he never sought to create a perfect masterpiece, only to find new ideas that struck his fancy.

In recent years, Rauschenberg suffered a broken hip and a stroke that paralyzed his right hand, but he kept working at his Florida compound until shortly before his death.

"I do what I do because . . . painting is the best way I've found to get along with myself," he said in a 2005 New Yorker profile. "And it's always the moment of doing it that counts. When a painting is finished it's already something I've done, no longer something I'm doing."

In addition to his son, survivors include his companion, artist Darryl Pottorf; and a sister.

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