The American painter and printmaker Robert Rauschenberg (born 1925) experimented freely with avant-garde concepts and techniques. His wild inventiveness and frank eclecticism were tempered by his almost unerring sense of color and design.
Robert Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas, of German and Cherokee lineage. He attended the local public schools before becoming a naval corpsman. He began his formal art education at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1946. The following year he went to Paris to study at the Académie Julian.
In 1948 Rauschenberg returned to America to study with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Albers stressed design as a discipline, and Rauschenberg felt he needed such training. He later admitted that Albers was the teacher most important to his development. About 1950 Rauschenberg began to paint his all-white, then all-black, paintings. From these ascetic exercises in total minimalism he turned to making giant, richly textured and colored collage-assemblages, which he called "combines."
In 1952 Rauschenberg traveled in Italy and North Africa. The following year he was living in New York City and developing his concept of the combine. His best-known and most audacious combines are the Bed (1955), an upright bed, complete with a patchwork quilt and pillow, that has been spattered with paint; and the amazing Monogram (1959), a collagelike painting-platform resting flat on the floor, in the center of which stands a stuffed, horned ram with a rubber tire around its middle. About his art Rauschenberg explained: "Painting relates to both art and life. I try to act in the gap between the two." In the 1950s he participated in "happenings," an improvisational type of theater.
In 1958 Rauschenberg had an exhibition in New York City that catapulted him to prominence, and his paintings soon entered the collections of every large museum in America and abroad. Not satisfied with cultivating his career as a painter, in 1963 he toured with the Merce Cunningham Dance Theater as an active participant. In 1964 Rauschenberg received first prize at the Venice Biennale. In the late 1960s he concentrated on developing series of silk-screen prints and lithographs. Current (1970), a set of giant silk-screen prints, was politically inspired.
Rauschenberg remains active in the art world. Started in the late 1980s, he created the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Exchange. The exchange was created to broaden cultural ties. In each county he visited, he would create art and leave one piece behind. The others were added to the ever growing collection.
Rauschenberg remained active with his art throughout the 1990s as well. In 1994, the World Federation of United Nations Associations selected his painting to appear on a stamp. He continues to create unique pieces of art.
The most extensive monograph on Rauschenberg is Andrew Forge, Rauschenberg (1969), which offers a comprehensive collection of illustrations, 47 of them in color, biographical material, and a brief autobiography. An essay on Rauschenberg and background material are in Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: The Heretical Courtship in Modern Art (1965).