Robert Rauschenberg, the irrepressibly prolific
American artist who time and again reshaped art in the 20th century,
died on Monday night at his home on Captiva Island, Fla. He was 82.
The cause was heart failure, said Arne Glimcher, chairman of
PaceWildenstein, the Manhattan gallery that represents Mr. Rauschenberg.
Mr. Rauschenberg's work gave new meaning to
sculpture. "Canyon," for instance, consisted of a stuffed bald eagle
attached to a canvas. "Monogram" was a stuffed goat girdled by a tire
atop a painted panel. "Bed" entailed a quilt, sheet and pillow,
slathered with paint, as if soaked in blood, framed on the wall. All
became icons of postwar modernism.
A painter, photographer, printmaker, choreographer, onstage performer,
set designer and, in later years, even a composer, Mr. Rauschenberg
defied the traditional idea that an artist stick to one medium or style.
He pushed, prodded and sometimes reconceived all the mediums in which
Building on the legacies of Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph
Cornell and others, he helped obscure the lines between painting and
sculpture, painting and photography, photography and printmaking,
sculpture and photography, sculpture and dance, sculpture and
technology, technology and performance art — not to mention between art
Mr. Rauschenberg was also instrumental in pushing American art onward
from Abstract Expressionism, the dominant movement when he emerged,
during the early 1950s. He became a transformative link between artists
like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and those who came next,
artists identified with Pop, Conceptualism, Happenings, Process Art and
other new kinds of art in which he played a signal role.
No American artist, Jasper Johns once said, invented more than Mr.
Rauschenberg. Mr. Johns, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Mr.
Rauschenberg, without sharing exactly the same point of view,
collectively defined this new era of experimentation in American
Apropos of Mr. Rauschenberg, Cage once said, "Beauty is now underfoot
wherever we take the trouble to look." Cage meant that people had come
to see, through Mr. Rauschenberg's efforts, not just that anything,
including junk on the street, could be the stuff of art (this wasn't
itself new), but that it could be the stuff of an art aspiring to be
beautiful — that there was a potential poetics even in consumer glut,
which Mr. Rauschenberg celebrated.
"I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or
mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly," he once said, "because they're
surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them
The remark reflected the optimism and generosity of spirit that Mr.
Rauschenberg became known for. His work was likened to a St. Bernard:
uninhibited and mostly good-natured. He could be the same way in person.
When he became rich, he gave millions of dollars to charities for
women, children, medical research, other artists and Democratic
A brash, garrulous, hard-drinking, open-faced Southerner, he had a charm
and peculiar Delphic felicity with language that masked a complex
personality and an equally multilayered emotional approach to art, which
evolved as his stature did. Having begun by making quirky, small-scale
assemblages out of junk he found on the street in downtown Manhattan, he
spent increasing time in his later years, after he had become
successful and famous, on vast international, ambassadorial-like
projects and collaborations.
Conceived in his immense studio on the island of Captiva, off southwest
Florida, these projects were of enormous size and ambition; for many
years he worked on one that grew literally to exceed the length of its
title, "The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece." They generally did not live up
to his earlier achievements. Even so, he maintained an equanimity
toward the results. Protean productivity went along with risk, he felt,
and risk sometimes meant failure.
The process — an improvisatory, counterintuitive way of doing things —
was always what mattered most to him. "Screwing things up is a virtue,"
he said when he was 74. "Being correct is never the point. I have an
almost fanatically correct assistant, and by the time she re-spells my
words and corrects my punctuation, I can't read what I wrote. Being
right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea."
This attitude also inclined him, as the painter Jack Tworkov once said,
"to see beyond what others have decided should be the limits of art."
He "keeps asking the question — and it's a terrific question
philosophically, whether or not the results are great art," Mr. Tworkov
said, "and his asking it has influenced a whole generation of artists."
A Wry, Respectful Departure
That generation was the one that broke from Pollock and company. Mr.
Rauschenberg maintained a deep but mischievous respect for Abstract
Expressionist heroes like de Kooning and Barnett Newman. Famously, he
once painstakingly erased a drawing by de Kooning, an act both of
destruction and devotion. Critics regarded the all-black paintings and
all-red paintings he made in the early 1950s as spoofs of de Kooning and
Pollock. The paintings had roiling, bubbled surfaces made from scraps
of newspapers embedded in paint.
But these were just as much homages as they were parodies. De Kooning,
himself a parodist, had incorporated bits of newspapers in pictures, and
Pollock stuck cigarette butts to canvases.
Mr. Rauschenberg's "Automobile Tire Print," from the early 1950s —
resulting from Cage's driving an inked tire of a Model A Ford over 20
sheets of white paper — poked fun at Newman's famous "zip" paintings.
At the same time, Mr. Rauschenberg was expanding on Newman's art. The
tire print transformed Newman's zip — an abstract line against a
monochrome backdrop with spiritual pretensions — into an artifact of
everyday culture, which for Mr. Rauschenberg had its own transcendent
Mr. Rauschenberg frequently alluded to cars and spaceships, even
incorporating real tires and bicycles into his art. This partly
reflected his own restless, peripatetic imagination. The idea of
movement was logically extended when he took up dance and performance.
There was, beneath this, a darkness to many of his works,
notwithstanding their irreverence. "Bed" (1955) was gothic. The
all-black paintings were solemn and shuttered. The red paintings looked
charred, with strips of fabric akin to bandages, from which paint
dripped like blood. "Interview" (1955), which resembled a cabinet or
closet with a door, enclosing photos of bullfighters, a pinup, a
Michelangelo nude, a fork and a softball, suggested some black-humored
encoded erotic message.
There were many other images of downtrodden and lonely people, rapt in
thought; pictures of ancient frescoes, out of focus as if half
remembered; photographs of forlorn, neglected sites; bits and pieces of
faraway places conveying a kind of nostalgia or remoteness. In bringing
these things together, the art implied consolation.
Mr. Rauschenberg, who knew that not everybody found it easy to grasp the
open-endedness of his work, once described to the writer Calvin Tomkins
an encounter with a woman who had reacted skeptically to "Monogram"
(1955-59) and "Bed" in his 1963 retrospective at the Jewish Museum, one
of the events that secured Mr. Rauschenberg's reputation: "To her, all
my decisions seemed absolutely arbitrary — as though I could just as
well have selected anything at all — and therefore there was no meaning,
and that made it ugly.
"So I told her that if I were to describe the way she was dressed, it
might sound very much like what she'd been saying. For instance, she had
feathers on her head. And she had this enamel brooch with a picture of
'The Blue Boy' on it pinned to her breast. And around her neck she had
on what she would call mink but what could also be described as the skin
of a dead animal. Well, at first she was a little offended by this, I
think, but then later she came back and said she was beginning to
Growing Up With Scraps
Milton Ernest Rauschenberg was born on Oct. 22, 1925, in Port Arthur,
Tex., a small refinery town where "it was very easy to grow up without
ever seeing a painting," he said. (In adulthood he renamed himself
Robert.) His grandfather, a doctor who emigrated from Germany, had
settled in Texas and married a Cherokee. His father, Ernest, worked for a
local utility company. The family lived so frugally that his mother,
Dora, made him shirts out of scraps of fabric. Once she made herself a
skirt out of the back of the suit that her younger brother was buried
in. She didn't want the material to go to waste.
For his high school graduation present, Mr. Rauschenberg wanted a
ready-made shirt, his first. All this shaped his art eventually. A
decade or so later he made history with his own assemblages of scraps
and ready-mades: sculptures and music boxes made of packing crates,
rocks and rope; and paintings like "Yoicks," sewn from fabric strips. He
loved making something out of nothing.
Mr. Rauschenberg studied pharmacology briefly at the University of Texas
at Austin before he was drafted during World War II. He saw his first
paintings at the Huntington Art Gallery in California while he was
stationed in San Diego as a medical technician in the Navy Hospital
Corps. It occurred to him that it was possible to become a painter.
He attended the Kansas City Art Institute on the G.I. Bill, traveled to
Paris and enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he met Susan Weil, a
young painter from New York who was to enter Black Mountain College in
North Carolina. Having read about and come to admire Josef Albers, then
the head of fine arts at Black Mountain, Mr. Rauschenberg saved enough
money to join her.
Mr. Albers was a disciplinarian and strict modernist who, shocked by his
student, later disavowed ever even knowing Mr. Rauschenberg. He was, on
the other hand, recalled by Mr. Rauschenberg as "a beautiful teacher
and an impossible person."
"He wasn't easy to talk to, and I found his criticism so excruciating
and so devastating that I never asked for it," Mr. Rauschenberg added.
"Years later, though, I'm still learning what he taught me."
Among other things, he learned to maintain an open mind toward materials
and new mediums, which Mr. Albers endorsed. Mr. Rauschenberg also
gained a respect for the grid as an essential compositional organizing
For a while, he moved between New York, where he studied at the Art
Students League with Vaclav Vytlacil and Morris Kantor, and Black
Mountain. During the spring of 1950 he and Ms. Weil married. The
marriage lasted two years, during which they had a son, Christopher, who
survives him, along with Mr. Rauschenberg's companion, Darryl Pottorf.
Being John Cage's Guest
Mr. Rauschenberg experimented at the time with blueprint paper to
produce silhouette negatives. The pictures were published in Life
magazine in 1951; after that Mr. Rauschenberg was given his first solo
show, at the influential Betty Parsons Gallery.
"Everyone was trying to give up European aesthetics," he recalled,
meaning Picasso, the Surrealists and Matisse. "That was the struggle,
and it was reflected in the fear of collectors and critics. John Cage
said that fear in life is the fear of change. If I may add to that:
nothing can avoid changing. It's the only thing you can count on.
Because life doesn't have any other possibility, everyone can be
measured by his adaptability to change."
Cage acquired a painting from the Betty Parsons show. Aside from that,
Mr. Rauschenberg sold absolutely nothing. Grateful, he agreed to host
Cage at his loft. As Mr. Rauschenberg liked to tell the story, the only
place to sit was on a mattress. Cage started to itch. He called Mr.
Rauschenberg afterward to tell him that his mattress must have bedbugs
and that, since Cage was going away for a while, Mr. Rauschenberg could
stay at his place. Mr. Rauschenberg accepted the offer. In return, he
decided he would touch up the painting Cage had acquired, as a kind of
thank you, painting it all black, being in the midst of his new,
all-black period. When Cage returned, he was not amused.
"We both thought, 'Here was somebody crazier than I am,' " Mr.
Rauschenberg recalled. In 1952 Mr. Rauschenberg switched to all-white
paintings which were, in retrospect, spiritually akin to Cage's famous
silent piece of music, during which a pianist sits for 4 minutes and 33
seconds at the keyboard without making a sound. Mr. Rauschenberg's
paintings, like the music, in a sense became both Rorschachs and
backdrops for ambient, random events, like passing shadows.
"I always thought of the white paintings as being not passive but very —
well — hypersensitive," he told an interviewer in 1963. "So that people
could look at them and almost see how many people were in the room by
the shadows cast, or what time of day it was."
Kicking around Europe and North Africa with the artist Cy Twombly for a
few months after that, Mr. Rauschenberg began to collect and assemble
objects — bits of rope, stones, sticks, bones — which he showed to a
dealer in Rome who exhibited them under the title "scatole
contemplative," or thought boxes. They were shown in Florence, where an
outraged critic suggested that Mr. Rauschenberg toss them in the river.
He thought that sounded like a good idea. So, saving a few scatole for
himself and friends, he found a secluded spot on the Arno. "'I took your
advice," he wrote to the critic.
Yet the scatole were crucial to his development, setting the stage for
bigger, more elaborate assemblages, like '"Monogram." Back in New York,
Mr. Rauschenberg showed his all-black and all-white paintings, then his
erased de Kooning, which de Kooning had given to him to erase, a gesture
that Mr. Rauschenberg found astonishingly generous, all of which
enhanced his reputation as the new enfant terrible of the art world.
Around that time he also met Mr. Johns, then unknown, who had a studio
in the same building on Pearl Street where Mr. Rauschenberg had a loft.
The intimacy of their relationship over the next years, a consuming
subject for later biographers and historians, coincided with the
production by the two of them of some of the most groundbreaking works
of postwar art.
In Mr. Rauschenberg's famous words, they gave each other "permission to
do what we wanted." Living together in a series of lofts in Lower
Manhattan until the 1960s, they exchanged ideas and supported themselves
designing window displays for Tiffany & Company and Bonwit Teller
under the collaborative pseudonym Matson Jones.
Along with the combines like "Monogram" and "Canyon" (1959), Mr.
Rauschenberg in that period developed a transfer drawing technique,
dissolving printed images from newspapers and magazines with a solvent
and then rubbing them onto paper with a pencil. The process, used for
works like "34 Drawings for Dante's Inferno," created the impression of
something fugitive, exquisite and secret. Perhaps there was an
autobiographical and sensual aspect to this. It let him blend images on a
surface to a kind of surreal effect, which became the basis for works
he made throughout his later career, when he adapted the transfer method
Instrumental in this technical evolution back then was Tatyana Grossman,
who encouraged and guided him as he made prints at her workshop,
Universal Limited Art Editions, on Long Island; he also began a long
relationship with the Gemini G.E.L. workshop in Los Angeles, producing
lithographs like the 1970 "Stoned Moon" series, with its references to
the moon landing.
His association with theater and dance had already begun by the 1950s,
when he began designing sets and costumes for Mr. Cunningham, Paul
Taylor and Trisha Brown and for his own productions. In 1963 he
choreographed "Pelican," in which he performed on roller skates while
wearing a parachute and helmet of his design to the accompaniment of a
taped collage of sound. This fascination with collaboration and with
mixing art and technologies dovetailed with yet another endeavor. With
Billy Klüver, an engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, and others, he
started Experiments in Art and Technology, a nonprofit foundation to
foster joint projects by artists and scientists.
A World of Praise
In 1964 he toured Europe and Asia with the Merce Cunningham Dance
Company, the same year he exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in London
and the Venice Biennale as the United States representative. That
sealed his international renown. The Sunday Telegraph in London hailed
him as "the most important American artist since Jackson Pollock." He
walked off with the international grand prize in Venice, the first
modern American to win it. Mr. Rauschenberg had, almost despite himself,
become an institution.
Major exhibitions followed every decade after that, including one at the
Pompidou Center in Paris in 1981, another at the Guggenheim in 1997 and
yet another at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art that landed
at the Metropolitan Museum in 2005.
When he wasn't traveling in later years, he was on Captiva, living at
first in a modest beach house and working out of a small studio. In time
he became that Gulf Coast island's biggest residential landowner while
also maintaining a town house in Greenwich Village in New York. He
acquired the land in Captiva by buying adjacent properties from elderly
neighbors whom he let live rent-free in their houses, which he
maintained for them. He accumulated 35 acres, 1,000 feet of beach front
and nine houses and studios, including a 17,000-square-foot two-story
studio overlooking a swimming pool. He owned almost all that remained of
tropical jungle on the island.
After a stroke in 2002 that left his right side paralyzed, Mr.
Rauschenberg learned to work more with his left hand and, with a troupe
of assistants, remained prolific for several years in his giant studio.
"I usually work in a direction until I know how to do it, then I stop,"
he said in an interview there. "At the time that I am bored or
understand — I use those words interchangeably — another appetite has
formed. A lot of people try to think up ideas. I'm not one. I'd rather
accept the irresistible possibilities of what I can't ignore."
He added: "Anything you do will be an abuse of somebody else's
aesthetics. I think you're born an artist or not. I couldn't have
learned it. And I hope I never do because knowing more only encourages
By Michael Kimmelman
For The New York Times