Robert Rauschenberg: Biography, Paintings & Works

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever wanted to forge your own creative path? In this lesson, learn about American artist Robert Rauschenberg, who did just that. He explored new ways and methods to make art, using everything from stuffed goats to NASA space imagery.

Early Years

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) was born in a small town in Texas. He first experienced art when he visited museums in California while serving as a naval medical technician during World War II. He was fascinated, and deciding it could be a career, attended the Kansas City Art Institute on the G.I. Bill to study painting. He later attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina (where he also worked for the town dump) and the Art Students League of New York City. Early in his career, the world around him was an influence, and he gathered used materials (from that job at the dump) and paid attention to pop culture and media events.

Rauschenberg began exhibiting in the early 1950s with a series called White Paintings and a later series called Black Paintings. But as his curiosity grew, he moved beyond standard art forms. During this time, he was linked with young artists such as Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns. He also befriended and collaborated with composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. These connections inspired Rauschenberg to expand his art without limits, and the creative atmosphere fueled experimentation with many materials, crossing the boundaries of fine arts and performance.

Combines

Between 1954 and 1964, Rauschenberg became known for startlingly original works he called Combines. He coined the term Combine, literally meaning a combination of three dimensional and two dimensional elements. He mixed painted and printed surfaces with found objects, or everyday items such as bottles, wire, bike parts, tires and even taxidermy animals. Remember that job at the dump? He'd used such cast-off materials to create a new type of art, blurring the lines between painting and sculpture.

One of his earliest Combines to gain notice was Bed, done in 1955. It includes a sagging pillow, sheets, and a quilt covered with layers of toothpaste, nail polish and spattered paint. It looks slept in. As the name suggests, it's a bed but hanging on the wall. Some critics called it violent, but Rauschenberg said it was one of the friendliest works he did.

Bed, 1955
Bed, 1955

Another combine, Monogram, on which Rauschenberg worked from 1955 to 1959, is one of his most famous works. Monogram includes a stuffed Angora goat Rauschenberg bought at a discount from a New York City antique store. He ringed it with a tire and stood it on top of a flat painted surface that also held parts of a street barricade and collage elements (sole of a shoe, tennis ball). The goat's face is brightly painted. This work might look impromptu and thrown together, but it involved many preliminary studies and photos. Rauschenberg went through several phases of the work before he was satisfied. He doesn't tell the viewer what it means. You have to make up your own mind.

Monogram, 1955 -1959, side view
Monogram, side view

Monogram, front view
Monogram, front view

Later Years

Rauschenberg eventually moved away from Combines, but he never stopped experimenting, and always added nontraditional materials into his work. In the 1960s, he began working with screen-printing and lithography, a method of printing that relies on the chemical repellence of oil and water. An image is drawn or applied with a greasy substance (such as oil based ink or crayon) to a flat surface. Water is then introduced, but pulls away from the greased surfaces. When paper is pressed on flat surface, only the greased areas print.

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