Born: Port Arthur, Texas
“You begin with the possibilities of the material.”
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Robert Rauschenberg was born Milton Ernest Rauschenberg in the small refinery town of Port Arthur, Texas. His father, Ernest, was a strict and serious man who worked for the Gulf State Utilities power company. His mother, Dora, was a devout Christian and a frugal woman. She made the family’s clothes from scraps, a practice that embarrassed her son, but possibly influenced his later work with assemblages and collage. Rauschenberg drew frequently and copied images from comics, but his talent as a draughtsman went largely unappreciated, except by his younger sister Janet. Until he was 13, he planned to become a minister – a career of high standing in his conservative community. However, Rauschenberg discovered that his church called dancing a sin, and, as a skilled dancer himself, was dissuaded from a career in the ministry. He asked for and received a store-bought shirt for his high school graduation present, the very first in his young life.
Following his parents’ wishes, Rauschenberg attended the University of Texas in Austin to study pharmacology, but was expelled in his freshman year after refusing to dissect a frog. The draft letter that arrived in 1943 saved him from breaking the news to his parents. Refusing to kill on the battlefield, he was assigned as a medical technician in the Navy Hospital Corps and stationed at a hospital caring for combat survivors in San Diego. While on leave, he saw oil paintings in person for the first time at the Huntington Art Gallery in California. After the war ended, Rauschenberg drifted, eventually using the G.I. Bill to pay for art classes at Kansas State University in 1947. On his arrival in Kansas City, he decided he would mark his new life with a new first name: Bob. The following year, the newly anointed Robert Rauschenberg traveled to Paris to study at the Academie Julian.
While in Paris, Rauschenberg met fellow American student Susan Weil, and the two became inseparable friends. He saved up enough money and followed her to Black Mountain College in North Carolina after reading about, and admiring, the discipline of its famed director, Josef Albers. Ironically, after Rauschenberg entered the college, Albers criticized his work frequently and harshly. Albers’ course on materials, in which students investigated the line, texture, and color of everyday materials profoundly influenced Rauschenberg’s later assemblages. Rauschenberg and Weil stayed at Black Mountain for the 1948 to 1949 school year and then moved to New York City, which Rauschenberg determined to be the center of the art world. They arrived as the Abstract Expressionist movement was just reaching maturity. In June 1950, Rauschenberg and Weil were married, and in August 1951 they had a son, Christopher.
In 1951 and 1952, Rauschenberg split his time between the The Art Students League in New York, where he studied with the instructors Morris Kantor and Vaclav Vytlacil during the academic year, and Black Mountain College, where he spent the summer. His ambition secured him a prestigious solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, exhibiting a series of White Paintings with scratched numbers and allegorical symbols (1953). Rauschenberg continued his paintings in white at Black Mountain College, where he rolled white house paint onto canvas with a roller. The flat white canvases were influenced by their surroundings, reflecting shadows of people and the time of day. He was also encouraged by the painter Jack Tworkov to explore black. His Black Paintings (1951), unlike the white series, were textured with thick paint and incorporated newspaper scraps. Also while at Black Mountain College, Rauschenberg met the minimalist composer John Cage and the choreographer Merce Cunningham, who both taught at the college and advocated the use of chance methods, found objects, and common, everyday experiences within high art. All of these ideas proved to be major influences on the young artist.
Rauschenberg’s work of the 1950s and 1960s influenced the young artists who developed later modern movements. Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein traced their inspiration for Pop art to Rauschenberg’s collages of appropriated media images, and his experiments in silkscreen printing. The foundation for Conceptual art in large measure lies in Rauschenberg’s Dada-based belief that the artist had the authority to determine the definition of art. The most fitting example is his 1961 portrait of Iris Clert, made for an exhibition at her gallery in Paris, which consisted of a telegram that stated: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so/ Robert Rauschenberg.” Additionally, happenings and later performances of the 1960s trace their lineage to Rauschenberg’s collaboration with John Cage at Black Mountain College in The Event (1952). The postmodern aesthetic of appropriation that influenced artists like Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine is also indebted to Rauschenberg’s penchant for borrowing imagery from popular media and fine art. His penchant for bricolage influenced the choice of many later artists, even land artists and feminist artists, to utilize non-traditional artistic mediums in their work.
While critics agree that Rauschenberg’s later works were not as influential as his earlier ones, his continued commercial success allowed him to support emerging artists. He co-founded Artists Rights Today to lobby for artists’ royalties on re-sales of their work, after he observed the gains made by early collectors with the boom in the art market. In 1970, he co-founded Change, Inc., which helped struggling artists pay their medical bills. He became more politically active as he grew older, testifying on behalf of artists for the National Endowment of the Arts in the 1990s. His undying energy was at the root of his success as an artist and as a spokesman for artists, and clearly drove the far-reaching influence of his work well beyond his lifetime.