A defier of convention

Robert Rauschenberg 1925-2008

May 14, 2008|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Robert Rauschenberg, the multifaceted artist who pioneered a new sense of openness and unlimited possibility in American painting, sculpture, photography and printmaking, died Monday at his home in Captiva Island, Fla. He was 82.

Mr. Rauschenberg was an artistic polymath whose interests spanned the visual arts, music and dance. He was most famous for transforming ordinary objects such as bedsheets, newspaper scraps and stuffed animals into mischievously ingenious creations that defied conventional notions of what artworks should be.

"He had an extraordinary understanding of the potential of everyday objects to redefine the art of today," said Darcie Alexander, senior curator of contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "It's almost impossible to trace the legacy of someone like Rauschenberg, whose presence is still being felt in the work of artists today."

Mr. Rauschenberg belonged to a generation of artists who reacted against the heroic idealism and painterly aesthetic of 1950s-era abstract expressionism.

With his contemporary Jasper Johns, whose images of bull's-eyes, flags and numerals prefigured the pop revolution of the 1960s, Mr. Rauschenberg sought to introduce commonplace objects into his artworks as a way of making art more in tune with the world in which people lived.

Among his most famous early works were the so-called "combine" paintings of the 1950s -- canvases to which Mr. Rauschenberg attached such everyday, "nonartistic" materials as magazine clippings, photographs and bits of junk found near his studio.

One such painting, called Bed, consisted of the artist's own pillow, sheet and quilt splashed with paint. Another featured a stuffed eagle, buttons, a mirror and a tube of paint. The artist explained that his artworks would look "more like the real world if they had pieces of the real world in them."

In 2000, the BMA devoted part of its Contemporary Wing to an exhibition of about a dozen of Mr. Rauschenberg's "combine" paintings. The museum has about 20 of the artist's works in its permanent collection.

More recently, the National Gallery of Art in Washington exhibited 58 of Mr. Rauschenberg's highly innovative prints in a show that closed last month. Mr. Rauschenberg had planned to attend the opening reception but fell ill and was forced to cancel his appearance. The National Gallery owns more than 400 of his works.

Mr. Rauschenberg was fascinated by the ambiguity that lies in the intersti- ces between art and life. His quirky "combine" paintings not only were accumulations of art and nonart objects but also of painting and sculpture, literary and visual ideas, formal and informal materials and high and low definitions of art itself.

"His whole thing was collage, the idea of putting disparate things together," said Ruth Fine, curator of special projects in modern art at the National Gallery.

"From the time he hit the scene in the 1950s, he was a lightning rod for new ideas," Ms. Fine added. "In the 1960s, he was collaborating with artists involved in performance art and art and technology. He was very much everywhere with everybody."

He collaborated with painter Joseph Albers, composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham at Black Rock College in North Carolina during the 1950s, which set the stage for his collaborations with other artists throughout his life.

Mr. Rauschenberg was also a highly original printmaker whose innovative use of materials and techniques inspired other artists to experiment in unprecedented ways. His own works included offset printing, lithography and dye-transfer printing on both paper and cloth, as well as new ways of using presses and printed motifs that he later incorporated into his paintings.

Born Milton Ernst Rauschenberg in Port Arthur, Texas, Mr. Rauschenberg served in the Navy during World War II and attended art school on the GI Bill after his discharge. He changed his name to Robert after deciding to become an artist.

In the 1990s, Mr. Rauschenberg embarked on a series of overseas travels that took him to China, India, Cuba and France, among other destinations, as a sort of self-appointed roving cultural ambassador. His odyssey allowed him to continue to collaborate with artists around the world who shared his interest in enlarging the possibilities of art as a way of bridging different cultures.

"He wanted to know everybody," said Ms. Fine. "That desire for a broader world-view was absolutely critical for him, a central part of his being."

Mr. Rauschenberg's greatest legacy may be the adventurous spirit of complete artistic freedom that in a sense gave all the artists who followed him permission to experiment with new ways of conceiving and making artworks.

As the critic Robert Hughes said, "Every artist after 1960 who challenged the restrictions of painting and sculpture and believed that all of life was open to art is indebted to Rauschenberg."

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

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