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Robert Rauschenberg and the subversive language of junk

The Guardian:
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A detail from Rauschenberg’s Signs (1970). Photograph: © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

With their lightbulbs, chairs and signs from the street, Rauschenberg’s sculptures reshaped art in the 20th century

Towards the end of his relentlessly inventive life, Robert Rauschenberg confided an anxiety. He was worried that his mission to introduce the world to itself by way of the spectacular mirror of his art could fail, not because he lacked energy or talent, but because he might “run out of world”.

No one had bolder ambitions than Rauschenberg, and no one did more to breach the walls between art and life, hauling the grubby, gleaming world into the hallowed chamber of the gallery and dragging art out to the furthest corners of the planet. A lanky Texan with a penchant for Jack Daniel’s, he was still finding ways to innovate in his ninth decade, despite being semi-paralysed by a stroke.

If his work can be summed up in a single word, it is combination: a prodigal wedding of disparate and unlikely objects and techniques. Best known for making the hybrid painting-sculptures he called “combines” out of litter gleaned from New York’s streets – lightbulbs, chairs, tires, umbrellas, street signs and cardboard boxes were recurring motifs – Rauschenberg was a technical pioneer in multiple disciplines, moving restlessly on as soon as he mastered a new form.

“The artist of American democracy,” Robert Hughes called him, “yearningly faithful to its clamour, its contradictions, its hope and its enormous demotic freedom.” Over the decades, he expanded the limits of painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography and dance. As a dizzying retrospective at Tate Modern makes clear, this self-described “loosest, weirdest artist” was a prolific visionary, whose gorgeous, sprawling work has lost not a single watt of its greedy incandescence.

Milton Ernest Rauschenberg (Robert was a name he cooked up after musing all night in a coffee shop) was born on 22 October 1925 in Port Arthur, a run-down oil refinery town on the Texas coast. His parents were fundamentalist Christians, and as a boy, Rauschenberg fantasised about becoming a preacher, an ambition he dismissed once he realised it would prevent him from dancing, an ecstatic lifeline for a tongue-tied, dyslexic kid.

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Detail from Rauschenberg’s Mirthday Man (1997). Photograph: Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and Faurschou Foundation

His sensitive disposition brought him into repeated conflict with authority, starting with his father, a keen duck hunter disgusted by a son who refused to handle a gun (years later, on his deathbed, Rauschenberg senior confided balefully: “I never liked you, you son of a bitch”). After dropping out of pharmacy school for declining to dissect a frog, Rauschenberg was drafted into the navy in 1944, where he was made a neuropsychiatric technician in the Hospital Corps after once again asserting his refusal to kill.

Throughout those years he drew perpetually, covering his bedroom furniture in scarlet fleurs-de-lis and colouring portraits of fellow cadets with his own blood for lack of paint. But the notion that this might exceed a hobby didn’t strike him until he was on furlough in California. He wandered into the Huntington Library and came upon two paintings he recognised from the backs of playing cards: Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Thomas Lawrence’s Pinkie. Confronted by the swoony, enduring originals, he realised for the first time that artists existed, and that furthermore he could become one.

After the war ended he went to art school on the GI Bill, sampling the Académie Julian in Paris, where he met his future wife Susan Weil. In 1949 they settled together at Black Mountain, the experimental, anti-hierarchical arts college in North Carolina. The head of painting was Josef Albers, a refugee from the Nazi closure of the Bauhaus. His rigorous approach to colour and composition made him the most significant teacher in Rauschenberg’s life, though their native styles were anything but complementary. “Albers’s rule is to make order,” Rauschenberg observed. “As for me, I consider myself successful when I do something that resembles the lack of order I sense.”

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Untitled by Robert Rauschenberg. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist/Tate

Together with Weil, Rauschenberg began experimenting with photograms, where objects are placed directly on photosensitive blueprint paper, initiating a habit of collaborating with lovers that would persist to the end of his life. The couple married in 1950 and separated a year later, shortly after the birth of their son, Christopher. Back at Black Mountain he began a passionate affair with a fellow student, Cy Twombly, as well as developing a productive, sustaining friendship with another queer couple: the avant garde composer John Cage and the dancer Merce Cunningham.

Rauschenberg described the encrusted Black Paintings and flat, shining White Paintings that arose from this tumultuous period to the gallerist Betty Parson as “almost an emergency”. It was hardly an overstatement. With the five panels of the White Paintings, he opened the door to minimalism, breaking away from the ruling cult of abstract expressionism and its macho insistence on emotional authenticity.

By applying white house paint with a roller, Rauschenberg deliberately avoided incident or gesture. The works were pure surface: the first and most extreme manifestation of Rauschenberg’s conception of art as a mirror for capturing the outside world. Look long enough, and you’d start to see shadows and reflections; an absence-that-wasn’t that inspired Cage to make 4’33’’, his famous composition that deploys silence to expose a symphony of random ambient sounds.

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Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed (1955). Photograph: Courtesy of the artist/Tate

Of all the groundbreaking years in Rauschenberg’s life, 1953 was a doozy. That spring he settled in New York after returning from a European tour with Twombly. In his cold-water loft on Fulton Street he set about a series of paintings made of exalted and impoverished materials: dirt, grass seed that sprouted and died, mould, clay, lead and gold. He spent a painstaking month unmaking his notorious Erased de Kooning Drawing, a work of conceptual art before conceptual art had been conceived. He also began his voluptuously messy Red Paintings, chaotic collages assailed with a glorious repertoire of drips, splashes and smears. And on a street corner that autumn he met a young southern painter called Jasper Johns.

Nicknamed “the Southern Renaissance” by Cage, Johns and Rauschenberg were lovers, collaborators and co-conspirators, a factory of two, egging each other on to ever more daring exploits. Dirt poor, they worked as window dressers, veiling this shamefully commercial activity with the pseudonym Matson Jones Custom Display. Speaking to Rauschenberg’s biographer Calvin Tomkins decades later, Johns said: “We were very close and considerate of one another, and for a number of years we were each other’s main audience. I was allowed to question what he did, and he could question what I did.”

Neither had yet achieved much purchase on the outside world. Reviews and sales for the exhibition of Red Paintings in 1954 were as dismal as they’d been for Rauschenberg’s previous shows. The only rave came from the poet and curator Frank O’Hara, who wrote presciently in Art News: “He provides a means by which you, as well as he, can get ‘in’ the painting … For all the baroque exuberance of the show, quieter pieces evince a serious lyrical talent.”

What does it mean to get in a painting, and what might you do once you get there? Would it be domestic or dangerous, erotic or dreamy? All these possibilities smear and slide in 1955’s sublime Bed, the best known of Rauschenberg’s combines. In lieu of canvas, he requisitioned his own bedclothes, assaulting pillows, sheet and quilt with gory, libidinal gouts of paint and stripy toothpaste. A crime scene, one critic sneered, though the ecstatic nocturnal residue is also wickedly subversive: a closeted gay man airing filthy laundry in public pre-Stonewall.

Making the combines, Rauschenberg felt he was cracking “the secret language of junk”. They could be composed of anything: a goat corseted by a tire; a stuffed bald eagle. One of the very first, Untitled (Man with White Shoes), contained – deep breath – fabric, newspaper, a photograph of Jasper Johns, a handwritten letter from Rauschenberg’s son, a drawing by Twombly, glass, mirror, tin, cork, a pair of the artist’s socks and painted leather shoes, dried grass and a taxidermied Plymouth Rock hen.

All the same, there’s a limit to how much world you can cram into a sculpture, and as Rauschenberg’s success grew he became increasingly fascinated by replication. Back in 1952, he’d experimented with transfer drawing, and in 1958 he embarked on a grand project of illustrating Dante’s Inferno using lighter fluid to transfer images on to paper. In 1962, Andy Warhol introduced him to a far more sophisticated technique: the wizardry of using photographic images on silkscreen canvases.

Now he could reuse and resize his own photos and those he snipped from newspapers and magazines, giving him an unprecedented power of composition. Anything could be incorporated: John F Kennedy; a water tower; Bonnie and Clyde. As he gleefully observed of the silkscreen paintings: “It’s as much like Christmas to me as using objects I pick up on the street.” He was giddy for them, until in 1964 he was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. Terrified of stasis, the next day he called his New York studio and asked his assistant to burn all the screens.

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Rauschenberg’s Monogram (1955-59). Combine featuring rubber tyre on Angora goat. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist/Tate

Focusing on any one aspect of Rauschenberg’s life risks distorting the kaleidoscopic whole. Throughout the 1950s, he was as deeply involved in dance as art, designing sets, scores, lighting and costumes – headdresses like “inhabited seashells”; a two-man horse suit – for Paul Taylor and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. An “awkward, but beautiful addition to my work”, he called it: a collaborative antidote to “the privateness and loneliness of painting”.

The possibilities of bodies mingling on a stage excited him. His own forays into the form were characteristically surreal: roller-skating in his 1963 piece Pelican with a kind of huge umbrella made of parachute silk lashed to his back; abseiling from a skylight into a drum of water for 1964’s Elgin Tie.

He was always pushing forward, willingly lowering himself into new elements. In 1966, he co-founded the astonishingly forward-thinking Experiments in Art and Technology, an organisation that sought to promote the non-industrial use of technology by arranging collaborations between artists and engineers.

The 1970s, by contrast, were less frenetic. Rauschenberg moved to the luscious Captiva Island in Florida, slowly establishing a substantial compound of studios and houses in the jungle. Inspired by a trip to India, the most beautiful work from those years involved a newly subtle use of fabric. In the enigmatic, haunting Hoarfrost series he used the old solvent technique to transfer ghost images from newspapers on to shrouds of chiffon and cotton. The Jammers were even more simple: bright lengths of silk, slung from rattan poles, like washing lines or prayer flags.

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Robert Rauschenberg in 1966. Photograph: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

The world gnawed at him. He wanted to get out into it; to scoop it up. In 1982, a project at a paper mill in China kick-started his most ambitious work. The Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (ROCI) was an attempt to engage artistically with countries he felt were culturally isolated. Announcing its launch at the United Nations in December 1984, he said: “I feel strong in my beliefs … that a one-to-one contact through art contains potent peaceful powers and is the most non-elitist way to share exotic and common information, seducing us into creative mutual understandings for the benefit of all.”

Rauschenberg had initially hoped for public or corporate funding, but in the end he footed nearly all the $10m bill for ROCI himself, selling a Warhol and some of his own early work to fund an immense tour of 11 countries, including the US. Between 1985 and 1991, he visited Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, China, Tibet, Japan, Cuba, the USSR, Malaysia and Germany, working with local artists for weeks before hosting a substantial exhibition in each country.

“At once altruistic and self-aggrandising, modest and overbearing,” the critic Roberta Smith wrote of this unprecedented project, while the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko described it as “one of the symbols of a spiritual perestroika of our society”. No other artist could have done it; no one else came close to Rauschenberg’s stamina or appetite, his outsized faith.

There was no question of running short of inspiration. For many artists the avalanching awards and wealth of later life come with an unwelcome diminishing of ideas, but Rauschenberg was still avid for discoveries in his 80s. Digital printing thrilled him, and he was making and exhibiting new work with the help of studio assistants even after 2002’s stroke (with his right hand paralysed, he simply learned to paint with his left).

His 1997 retrospective was the largest ever American one-man show. It far exceeded the capacity of the Guggenheim, spilling out into two other museums. A glut, you might call it, lifting the title of a late series; a lavish extravagance. He was equally generous with what had become a substantial fortune, donating heavily to Aids research, education and environmental causes. When he died on 12 May 2008 of heart failure, the New York Times described him as an artist “who time and again reshaped art in the 20th century”.

In a wheelchair, he’d still dreamed of photographing the entire world, inch by inch, asking friends to snap the most boring details they could find. Nothing was beneath his regard, and no one exceeded his vision for art as a kind of alternative planet, equally vast in scope and scale. “I’m for yes,” he said firmly. “No excludes. I’m for inclusion.”