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Robert Rauschenberg

American Collagist, Painter, and Graphic Artist

Born: October 22, 1925 - Port Arthur, Texas
Died: May 12, 2008 - Captiva Island, Florida
Robert Rauschenberg Timeline
Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in the gap between the two.)
Robert Rauschenberg Signature

Summary of Robert Rauschenberg

In the early 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg roiled the art world by subverting contemporary notions of painting by incorporating found, everyday imagery and objects into his art works. One of the key Neo-Dadaists, along with Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns, his experimental assemblages of painting and sculpture expanded the traditional boundaries of art and questioned the status of the artist as original genius, hallmarks of later postmodern movements.

Although many considered Rauschenberg the enfant terrible of the art world for his irreverent attitude toward fine art, he was deeply respected and admired by his predecessors. Despite this admiration, he disagreed with many of their convictions and even (literally) erased their precedent to move forward into new aesthetic territory that not only encompassed multiple mediums but also reiterated and updated the earlier Dadaist inquiries into the nature and definition of acceptable art, opening the pathways even wider for experiments in Performance, Conceptual, and Installation Art that followed.


  • Rauschenberg updated Marcel Duchamp's notion of the readymade, reinjecting humor and popular culture into art. To create his assemblages, which he termed "combines," Rauschenberg appropriated photographs and urban detritus and combined them with painting. Initially these hung on the wall like traditional painting, but eventually he moved them to the floor, where they behaved more like sculpture and presaged Installation Art.
  • In taking up a Dadaist attitude that questioned the definition of a work of art and the role of the artist, Rauschenberg effectively rebelled against contemporary tastes that favored Abstract Expressionist painting. Instead of imbuing gestural brushstrokes with the existential, or authentic, mark of the artist that pointed to the artist's inner world, Rauschenberg embraced an exploration of contemporary culture that emphasized the notion of a self that is socially constructed - produced by the media, advertisements, consumer goods, and popular ideas that one consumes.
  • In many cases, Rauschenberg allowed chance to determine the placement and combination of the found images and objects in his artwork. By reducing the role of artistic intention in arranging a composition, Rauschenberg disavowed the more traditional role of the artist as singular genius and creator of wholly original works of art.
  • Because of Rauschenberg's use of chance, he insisted, like many artists who came before and after him, that his combines had no predetermined, or fixed, meaning, thus allowing viewers to create narratives and meanings through their own free association with the imagery. In many ways, Rauschenberg invited, and even emboldened, the viewer to take a more active role in the artistic process by generating new interpretations, an attitude later embraced by many postwar artists.
  • Some art historians have pushed back on Rauschenberg's downplaying of intended meaning in order to point to ways in which the artist's homosexuality informed the images and objects he chose in his early combines, creating a sort of coded language. They also point to his collaborative approach to art-making as a signal of a burgeoning gay identity that relied on community to stave off the isolation and pathologizing imposed by the Cold War policing of homosexuality.

Biography of Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg Life and Legacy

Robert Rauschenberg was born Milton Ernest Rauschenberg in the small refinery town of Port Arthur, Texas. His father, Ernest, was a strict and serious man who worked for the Gulf State Utilities power company. His mother, Dora, was a devout Christian and a frugal woman. She made the family's clothes from scraps, a practice that embarrassed her son.

Important Art by Robert Rauschenberg

White Painting (four panel) (1951)

The White Paintings were initially exhibited in the dining hall of Black Mountain College in the summer of 1952 as a backdrop for John Cage's untitled event (Theater Piece #1) - a multimedia performance combining poetry, dance, and music determined by chance processes. During the performance, four panels of the White Paintings were suspended from the ceiling with films and slides projected on them. Merce Cunningham danced through the audience, while others read poetry and played the piano. Cage lectured on Meister Eckhart and Zen, and Rauschenberg himself played wax cylinders of Edith Piaf records on an old Edison horn recorder.

Raushcenberg's White Paintings - there are five of them, each with a different number of panels - are challenging paintings that often elicit frustration and incredulity from viewers. Painted a flat white, there are no gestural traces of the artist's hand and no composition to speak of except the arrangement of the panels - there seems to be nothing to look at. What one realizes though, standing in front of the canvas, is that the surface of the paintings is not in fact blank. One sees shadows pass over it as people walk and stand in front of it. The White Paintings, then, act more like a screen than a painting. It is not the screen for slides as in its original installation, but a screen that displays the goings-on in the environment - the movement of people, the floating of dust motes, the lights of the gallery. With the simplest of means, Rauschenberg hearkened back to earlier modernist works like the monochromatic paintings of Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich but also created a viewer-centered art that highlighted the experiential nature of looking at art that would become increasingly prominent in the 1960s and beyond.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953)

In the early 1950s, Rauschenberg explored the boundaries and the definition of art, following the radical precedent set by Marcel Duchamp's readymades in the early 20th century. In this "drawing," Rauschenberg set out to discover if erasure, or the removal of a mark, constituted a work of art. He realized in order for the piece to succeed, he required an already notable work of art. Willem de Kooning was an established, leading figure in the New York art world when the young Rauschenberg asked him for a drawing that he could erase. De Kooning eventually acquiesced to Rauschenberg's request, albeit reluctantly. He intentionally made Rauschenberg's act of erasure difficult by deliberately choosing a heavily marked drawing filled with charcoal and pencil. Rauschenberg needed two months, and dozens of erasers, to complete the herculean task of erasing the drawing; even after he finished, traces of De Kooning's work were still present.

Through the erasure of De Kooning's drawing, Rauschenberg acknowledged his admiration for his predecessor, but also signaled a movement away from Abstract Expressionism. He framed the erased drawing within a simple, gilded frame, with a mat bearing an inscription typed by Jasper Johns that identified the significance of the seemingly empty paper. The absent drawing is presented as a important art, designating the act of erasure as belonging to the realm of fine art - a typically Neo-Dada act of questioning the definition and importance of the art object.

Automobile Tire Print (1953)

An early collaboration between Rauschenberg and John Cage, this print redefined the medium for the 20th century in a fatalistically Neo-Dada fashion. Rauschenberg glued together 20 sheets of typewriter paper into a continuous scroll and laid them out on an empty Fulton Street road in front of his studio. He poured black house paint in a pool in front of the rear tire of his Model A Ford and directed Cage to drive over the 23 feet of paper, with the front tire embossing the scroll and the rear imprinting the paper with a continuous black tire tread mark. While this work is categorized as a print, it is the product of a collaborative performance that explored process printing, the artist's mark, and serial imagery. While it was Rauschenberg's idea and direction that initiated the creation of the print, Cage acted as the printer and press. In the creation of this work, Rauschenberg effectively shifted the term "Action Painting" from the Abstract Expressionist active creation of the artist's mark with their own hands to the action of driving a car, part of his continued interest in the obfuscation of traditional notions of the artist and work of art.

The continuous nature of the print as a scroll also points to the importance of Zen ideas in the 1950s in the United States. Cage in particular was keenly interested in Eastern ideas of chance, continuity, and communion, ideas that also interested the young Rauschenberg.

Influences and Connections

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Content compiled and written by Julia Brucker

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Robert Rauschenberg Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Julia Brucker
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 05 Jun 2014. Updated and modified regularly
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