Who is Robert Rauschenberg?

April 15, 2022

Robert Rauschenberg was a prominent 20th-century artist who bridged the gap between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. A lifelong experimentalist, Rauschenberg blended numerous mediums to produce his brand of mixed media collages.

Obtaining a Rauschenberg work is extremely rare due to his successful career in the 50s and 60s, most of his oeuvre is held within museum and private collections. This then results in scarcity of his art in the secondary market. Most recently, Buffalo II (1964) sold for $89 million at Christie’s, shattering Rauschenberg’s previous record of $18 million for Johanson’s Painting (1961). To date, 46 works by Rauschenberg have sold at auction, with six surpassing more than $10 million. Many of his smaller combined early transfer drawings sell for a few million dollars.

BornOctober 22, 1925,
DiedMay 12, 2008
MediumsMixed Media, Painting, Sculpture, Printmaking, Photography
MovementsPop artist

Robert Rauschenberg Biography

Robert Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas, the son of working-class fundamentalist Christian parents. While many of his contemporaries delved into art from a pre-adolescent age, Rauschenberg didn’t pursue the arts until his twenties. Initially, Rauschenberg attended the University of Austin, Texas to study pharmacology, but eventually dropped out due to his dyslexia. It was also reported that he did not want to dissect a frog in biology class.

In 1944, Rauschenberg was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served as a neuropsychiatric technician in a Navy hospital in San Diego for two years. It was during this time that Rauschenberg developed a curiosity for the arts when he saw oil paintings in person for the first time at the Huntington Art Gallery. Using the money from his G.I. Bill, Rauschenberg enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute, and later the Academie Julian in Paris. In 1948, he moved to North Carolina to study under Josef Albers at the Black Mountain College. Albers, a German artist and founder of Bauhaus, was one of the most influential visual arts teachers of the 20th century. It was during his time with Albers that Rauschenberg started to hone in on his personal style and experimentation with different techniques.

In 1949, Rauschenberg moved to New York City and became involved with the abstract expressionist movement, adopting the loose brushstrokes and free association technique. However, Rauschenberg never formally affiliated with the movement and preferred to depict real subjects, saying that “Painting relates to both art and life.” This was his way of rejecting the coded symbolism of abstract artwork, instead of focusing on the use of tangible physical objects with more direct meaning.

Robert Rauschenberg Artistic Style and Career

Rauschenberg was inspired by a myriad of influences and worked on a wide range of subjects, materials, and techniques. During his 60-year career, he produced paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photography and was most known for combining these mediums for an entirely new style of artwork. These collages, which Rauschenberg called “combines,” blurred the lines between conventional mediums and challenged the gestural, abstract paintings of popular artists at the time. Rauschenberg produced his series of combines for a decade (1954-1964), using everyday objects and materials such as fabric, wood, metal, and string, and combining them with oil paints, silkscreens, and photography transfers.

Rauschenberg began exhibiting his artwork in 1951 with his first major exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, where he displayed White, a controversial piece of artwork that featured three panels painted white. To some, the work was cheap as it appeared to be a blank canvas. However, White was far more conceptual in nature, and was a precursor to minimalism and conceptualism. Most of his early exhibitions primarily featured paintings and sculptures, such as Rauschenberg: Paintings and Sculpture; Cy Twombly: Paintings and Drawings, a show at the Stable Gallery in New York where he exhibited alongside his good friend and artistic influence Cy Twombly. It wasn’t until 1963 that Rauschenberg had his first solo show at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Rauschenberg’s style was initially jarring to modern art critics. Nobody had blended painting and sculpture-like Rauschenberg before, and his use of discarded objects like newspaper and clothing didn’t quite fit into the mold of high art. Nevertheless, his rejection of abstract techniques and constant exploration of a variety of mediums are what make his work so attractive and unique to collectors. In 1964, Rauschenberg was awarded the International Grand Prize in Painting at the Venice Biennale, one of the most coveted awards in modern art. In 1993, he was given the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the United States Government.

Rauschenberg Top Works

Rhyme (1956)

Mixed media

Considered one of Rauschenberg’s best combines, Rhyme blends paint, paper, pencil, and even a necktie into an abstract collage. Like much of Rauschenberg’s work, the objects create a 3D effect as they protrude from the canvas, which poses the question: are his combined examples of painting, or sculpture? The reality is that pieces like Rhyme are neither one nor the other–they are representative of Rauschenberg’s experimentation and fearlessness with new mediums.

Red series (1953-1954)

Mixed media

The Red paintings are Rauschenberg’s first collection of combines. Works such as Untitled (Red Painting) and Red Interior feature canvasses layered with newspaper, pattern fabrics, and blocks of red paint. The pieces appear heavy and laced with movement. Rauschenberg used all kinds of techniques, from large brushstrokes to drips, to streaks of paint squeezed directly from the tube.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953)

White canvas

One of Rauschenberg’s more controversial works, Erased de Kooning Drawing is quite literally what the title states. Rauschenberg reached out to abstract expressionist artist Willem de Kooning, asking if there was a drawing he could erase. Reluctantly, de Kooning agreed. The final piece was a simple canvas with a gilded frame, which psychologically challenged the viewer to consider what had been there before. Rauschenberg had a great deal of respect for de Kooning, and the final piece showed that even an erased drawing by an established artist could still command attention.

Rauschenberg Collections & Exhibits

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