Robert Rauschenberg: Coolest Man Alive

Art imitates life, or life imitates art.... either way, Robert Rauschenberg leaves his expressionist mark in the modern art world.

ART, 04/27/98: BIOGRAPHY Milton Rauschenberg was born in Port Arther, Texas, 1925. His family belonged to the fundamentalist sect of the Church Of Christ, and for the early part of his life he wanted to become a preacher. But the government got hold of him instead and he was drafted into the Navy, where he first began to paint portraits. It was while he was assigned to Cape Pendelton, near San Diego, that he saw three incredibly corny British paintings- "Blue Boy," "Pinkie" and "Sarah Siddons as The Tragic Muse" that showed him what exactly it was a painter did, and that maybe he ought to be a painter too.

When he was discharged in 1945 he returned to Port Arther, only to find that his parents had picked up and moved. So, with his trusty GI Bill in hand, he entered the Kansas City Art Institute. At this point he realized that Robert was a much better name far a painter than Milton, and promptly had it changed. Within a year he had saved up enough money for a trip to Paris to study Modem Art; unfortunately the only worthwhile thing to come out of the trip seemed to be fellow American artist Susan Weil, whom he married in 1950.

They returned to America after less than a year in France and enrolled at Black Mountain College, where he was taught by legendary Bauhaus artist Josef Albers. Rauschenberg had liberated himself from the shackles of the brush and was painting with his bare hands, a practice that infuriated the squeaky clean Albers. As well as learning theory and desperately needed discipline, he was taught to take objets trouves (junk) and incorporate it into his art.

In the summer of 1950 he and Weil moved to New York City, where he joined the Art Students League and was influenced by the loose technique of the Abstract Expressionists. With experiments ranging from exposing sensitive paper to light, leaving only a silhouette of a body, to driving a car with inked tires over paper to convey the passage of time, he was interested in capturing real life on canvas. Within a year he had his first show and had caught the attention of the Abstract Expressionists, who began showing his work with theirs.

At a time when it was common to use bright, primary colors, he painted canvases with flat, white wall paint- wanting to use shadows to show the life outside the format. In 1952 he did a series of all black paintings, built of layers of newspapers dipped in black paint and adhered to the canvas with glue, which led to his first masterpieces: red impasto collages where the medium became the subject. He did dirt paintings; when bird seed in them grew, he re-named them grass paintings.

When he began using photosensitive silk-screens to add photographic and magazine images, as well as sculptural and three dimensional elements, to his abstractions he became known as a pop artist. His silk screened paintings from the early 1960s strengthened this classification with their bright colors and intense use of crowded imagery; using a combination of solvent-transfer, lithography and silk-screening to create fine art using media subjects. He painted "Barge," a 32 foot silk-screen that was designed to be walked by, now considered one of his finest urban commentaries, for twelve hours a stretch on nothing but adrenaline and vodka. He impressed William de Kooning enough to be given a drawing to erase, which observers commented to be symbolic patricide.  

"I want my paintings to be reflections of life, and life canít be stopped," he said, inviting the viewer to become part of the experience of his paintings. "I enable the ordinary," placing new significance in ordinary objects by juxtaposing them with totally unrelated imagery and placing them in the context of art. His "Combine" series, in which he blurs the lines between painting and sculpture and life and art, is based on the idea that anything absurd is worth doing once. "Bed," oil and graphite on quilt and mattress, deals with the role of painting in an artist's life and the mess it makes of dreams, desire and love. "Canyon," with a bald eagle, tells the story of Zeus as he turns into a bird to kidnap the beautiful boy, Ganymede. "Monogram," was first just a stuffed, painted goat, but when he felt it didn't quite work as a sculpture, he added the tire.

As his lifestyle and sexual orientation changed, his marriage fell apart and he divorced. Feeling a need to leave his life behind, he traveled Italy with a camera. Returning to NYC in 1955, he met aspiring artist Jasper Johns and for six years they lived together in lofts one above the other, literally trading ideas. It was then that they delved heavily into dance and performance art, eliminating the performer/scenery division by adding human action to the background. As the two finally drifted apart, he bought his first piece of land on the island of Captiva, Florida, as a retreat from the excesses of the city.

Though he doesn't see words like "tortured" and "pain" in his art, he's always been an activist. He used the 1965 image "Inferno," commissioned by Life Magazine, to protest the Vietnam War, racial violence, political assassination and ecological destruction. He's always been interested in the artistic community and co-founded groups like Change Inc., a source of funding for injured and ill artists; as well as EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology), a group linking artists with technologists to create unique installations. Rauschenberg's collaboration with Bill Kluver of Bell Laboratories led to the experimental vat of industrial drilling mud that responded to auditory stimulation with bubbles and burps.

There was a continuing party through most of the 1960s at his "Kitchen," built in a former Catholic orphanage. Unlike Warhol's "Factory," it was a place artists went to actually talk about art, and, though there were very few drugs, there was a flowing supply of Jack Danielís and in 1968 Rauschenberg checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic before setting up permanent residence in Captiva.

In 1980 he formed ROCI (Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange) to "introduce the world to itself' by touring eleven countries and, with a team of assistants, worked with local artists, poets and any other people they could find to best capture the spirit of the country.

Now on his thirty-five acre retreat at Captiva, he uses his high-tech studios for painting, photography, computers, framing and storage, welding and a printmaking area the size of a theater to complete his current work, including a sculpture garden for Potsdamer Platz in Berlin.

Based on the transfer technique he developed for his "Dante's Inferno" series, in which he would moisten an image with lighter fluid before putting it face down on the drawing and rubbing with an empty ball point pen, he now scans his image into a computer where he does color correction and manipulation, out-putting them using an Iris printer with vegetable dyes for transfer to large-scale frescos. Still in progress, "The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece," has been his main work since the early 1980's and is his ultimate paint and sculpture series, now containing over 180 pieces and stretching over 790 feet.


email MARTY