Published January 13, 2015
Artist Robert Rauschenberg, whose use of odd and everyday articles earned him regard as a pioneer in pop art but whose talents spanned the worlds of painting, sculpture and dance, has died, a his gallery representative said Tuesday. He was 82.
Rauschenberg died Monday, said Jennifer Joy, his representative at Pace Wildenstein.
Rauschenberg, who first gained fame in the 1950s, didn't mine popular culture wholesale as Andy Warhol (Campbell's Soup cans) and Roy Lichtenstein (comic books) did. But his "combines," incongruous combinations of three-dimensional objects and paint, shared pop's blurring of art and objects from modern life.
He also responded to his pop colleagues and began incorporating up-to-the-minute photographed images in his works in the 1960s, including, memorably, pictures of John F. Kennedy.
Among his most famous combines was "Bed," created when he woke up in the mood to paint but had no money for a canvas. His solution was to take the quilt off his bed and use paint, toothpaste and fingernail polish for his creation.
But not to be limited by paint, Rauschenberg was a sculptor and choreographer and even won a 1984 Grammy Award for best album package for the Talking Heads album Speaking in Tongues.
"I'm curious," he said in 1997 in one of the few interviews he granted in later years. "It's very rewarding. I'm still discovering things every day."
Rauschenberg's more than 50 years in art produced such a varied and prolific collection that it consumed both uptown and downtown locations during a 1998 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes, in his book "American Visions," called Rauschenberg "a protean genius who showed America that all of life could be open to art. ...Rauschenberg didn't give a fig for consistency, or curating his reputation; his taste was always facile, omnivorous, and hit-or-miss, yet he had a bigness of soul and a richness of temperament that recalled Walt Whitman."
Rauschenberg split his time between New York and Captiva Island in Florida, where he kept a house stoked with his own art and those of his friends.
"I like things that are almost souvenirs of a creation, as opposed to being an artwork," he said in a 1997 Harper's Bazaar interview, "because the process is more interesting than completing the stuff."
He studied painting at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1947. He later took his studies to Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he studied under master Josef Albers, and alongside contemporary artists such as choreographer Merce Cunningham and musician John Cage. He also studied at the Art Students League in New York City.
Rauschenberg first paintings in the early 1950s comprised a series of all-white and all-black surfaces under laid with wrinkled newspaper. In later works he began making art from what others would consider junk — old soda bottles, traffic barricades, and stuffed birds and calling them "combine" paintings.
One of Rauschenberg's first and most famous combines was entitled "Monogram," a 1959 work consisting of a stuffed angora goat, a tire, a police barrier, the heel of a shoe, a tennis ball, and paint.
By the mid-1950s, he was also designing sets and costumes for dance companies and window displays for Tiffany and Bonwit Teller.
He met Jasper Johns in 1954. He and the younger artist, both destined to become world famous, became lovers and influenced each other's work. According to the book "Lives of the Great 20th Century Artists," Rauschenberg told biographer Calvin Tomkins that "Jasper and I literally traded ideas. He would say, `I've got a terrific idea for you,' and then I'd have to find one for him."
Born Milton Rauschenberg in 1925 in Port Arthur, Texas, and raised a Christian fundamentalist, Rauschenberg wanted to be a minister but gave it up because his church banned dancing.
"I was considered slow," he once said "While my classmates were reading their textbooks, I drew in the margins."
He was drafted into the U.S. Navy during World War II and knew little about art until a chance visit to an art museum where he saw his first painting at age 18. He drew portraits of his fellow sailors for them to send home.
When his time in the service was up, Rauschenberg used the GI. Bill to pay his tuition at art school. He changed his name to Robert because it sounded more artistic.
In recent years he founded the organization Change Inc., which helps struggling artists pay medical bills.
"I don't ever want to go," he told Harper's Bazaar in 1997 when asked of his own death. "I don't have a sense of great reality about the next world; my feet are too ugly to wear those golden slippers. But I'm working on my fear of it. And my fear is that something interesting will happen, and I'll miss it."