Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg, iconic artist, dead at 82

Robert Rauschenberg was one of the most influential artists in the second half of the 20th Century. In this 1998 photo, Rauschenberg is seen in the Gemini GEL studios where he was working on a project on Los Angeles. (Los Angeles Times photo by Iris Schneider / January 26, 1998)

By Alan G. Artner | Tribune critic
10:30 AM CDT, May 13, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg, the American painter, sculptor, printmaker, photographer and performance artist who was one of the most influential artists in the second half of the 20th Century, died Monday night at his home in Captiva Island, Fla., according to news reports. He was 82.

The cause was heart failure, said Arne Glimcher, chairman of PaceWildenstein, the gallery in Manhattan that represented the artist.

A prolific worker in many media that he combined according to rules all his own, Rauschenberg was as much a catalyst for others as a creator who sought to operate in a kind of aesthetic no-man's land, which he famously called "the gap between art and life."

Like his friends and collaborators composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, Rauschenberg brought together chance procedures, everyday experiences and found materials to create pieces that testified to new possibilities in art. Such openness, along with his habitual blurring of the boundaries between media, gave a model for generations of younger artists.

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Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008 Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008 Photos

"His ferocious, almost omnivorous creativity as a young artist in the [late] '40s, '50s and even into the '60s was so liberating for his generation and the generation that followed," said James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago.

"He brought a freedom and openness not burdened by the weight of the immediate past. Everything he touched in the '40s and '50s seemed to be new and challenging, and it was not about him but the potential of artmaking.

"In a sense he was a naif, the innocent savant, the old boy from Texas who didn't have the intricate intelligence of Jasper Johns or the worldly intelligence of Cy Twombly [both his artist friends], but didn't see anything he didn't like and couldn't add to."

Rauschenberg was born Oct. 22, 1925, in Port Arthur, Texas. He studied for a year at the Kansas City Art Institute and School of Design, before a disappointing six-month stay in Paris at the Academie Julian. After reading about the work of artist Josef Albers, Rauschenberg returned to the United States to study with him at Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

Soon finding Albers intimidating, Rauschenberg moved to New York City to work at the Art Students League but also continued to visit Black Mountain College, where he met Cage and Cunningham, with whom he was to collaborate for many years. Working with others--especially avant-garde dancers and musicians--became a favorite way of creating.

"I like any kind of collaborative thing," Rauschenberg said in 1982. "In fact, even my personal work usually involves the handling or mishandling of someone else. I guess it's a sort of device to try to retard stylism, which to me is deadly. ... I think that two people in an exchange of information or techniques have a lot more. It's almost the equivalent of six sets of energies, not just two."

In the early 1950s, when Abstract Expressionist painters were being recognized as the strongest artists to have emerged in the United States, Rauschenberg found himself "revolted" by their rhetoric and began to paint very different abstractions. These were all in one color--white paintings, followed by a series in black, then red--and the first of them were made in conjunction with dance performances. They were not seen by Rauschenberg as a vehicle for projecting his own personality. Instead, he conceived them as screens that would reflect collaboration, changing with different lighting and the shadows of dancers.

The spareness of Rauschenberg's monochromes would one day make them seem anticipatory of Minimal Art, though the artist was only much later (in the 1970s) stimulated by austerity. His works of the mid-'50s, on the contrary, found ways to bring more, rather than less, into modern art--he even made "paintings" of earth and grass--and ultimately that meant a re-introduction of the figure.

A radical effort of the '50s was a group of monoprints Rauschenberg made with his wife, Susan Weil, by turning a sunlamp on a nude model who posed on blueprint paper. These works not only prefigured Yves Klein's creation of paintings by means of bodily imprints but also introduced new, mixed techniques to what would become a major area of his art production: printmaking.

"In thinking about the most impressive large bodies of prints in the 20th Century, Picasso is the main event and Johns and Rauschenberg are considered competitively," said Mark Pascale, associate curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago.

"But every time Rauschenberg approached printmaking, he did it freshly. He was always looking for a new facet to explore. He seemed to absorb the history of making prints, and it suggested to him so much more. He saw the potential of printmaking to do all sorts of other things. In that, he was more important than anyone."

Rauschenberg's desire to go beyond Abstract Expressionism led to several works, such as the erasure of a Willem De Kooning drawing, that were initially misconstrued as anti-art or Dada gestures. However, he did show strong kinship with one Dada artist, Kurt Schwitters, who early in the century made collages from materials found in the gutter.

In the mid-'50s, Rauschenberg began to use the collage technique, incorporating found objects and other materials from everyday life into paintings he called "combines." These were some of the most arresting works of the post-war period. On some of them, such as "Bed"--his own paint-splattered pillow, sheet and patterned quilt--rests the artist's reputation as a significant linking figure between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.

"My heading for collage before I had any real aesthetic reason showed an appetite that still exists, an appetite for something other than the preconceived," Rauschenberg said in 1982. "To me, generously encouraging and including paradoxes is closer to realism than a single point of view which can imply that things should be a certain way. I think the interesting thing in life is that it can be any way, and it's always changing."

An aid to Rauschenberg's practice of combining images was a transfer-drawing technique he developed in the '50s. By dissolving printed images with a solvent and rubbing them onto paper with a pencil, Rauschenberg was able to combine many images from newspapers and magazines on a single surface. This method he later adapted to canvas by use of the photomechanical process of screenprinting. The early pieces he produced using screenprinting--contemporaneous with those by Andy Warhol--were among the most important works of the 1960s.

In 1963, Rauschenberg became one of the first artists younger than 40 to receive an important museum retrospective (at the Jewish Museum in New York). The following year, amid controversy, he won the grand prize for painting at the Venice Biennale, the world's oldest exposition for contemporary art.

Thereafter, Rauschenberg's interest in painting waned, and he was more occupied with performances, sculptures and installations. For four years (1963 through 1967) he staged, designed and choreographed live performances in which he also appeared onstage. Some were notable for an exploration of new electronic technology, others for a freewheeling sense of play. His elaborate sculptural installations, such as "Oracle" (1965) and "Soundings" (1968), also showed a remarkable development from junk contraptions to pieces of refined poetic beauty.

Rauschenberg often had said that New York was essential to an artist's development. But in 1969, on the advice of his astrologer, he sought a more peaceful existence and found it on Captiva, an island in the Gulf of Mexico near Ft. Myers, Fla. The compound he built there soon housed Untitled Press, which he intended to give printmaking opportunities to emerging artists as well as established masters. The venture was characteristic of both his generosity and desire for continuing experimentation.

In 1976, Rauschenberg became the Smithsonian Institution's "Bicentennial Artist," honored with a traveling retrospective that came to Chicago. During the run of that show, a survey published in West Germany named him as the most prominent contemporary artist in the world, with more work represented in museums, private collections and art publications than any other living artist from the previous two decades. He also was the first living American artist to be featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Near the end of his retrospective were two series of pieces that pointed in directions that would be seen in later works. The "Hoarfrost" series (1975) called upon Rauschenberg's familiar newspaper reproductions and fragments, printing them on veils of silk and other gauzy materials. This was a variation on early ideas brought together with continued exploration of the possibilities of the print medium.

The 1975 "Jammers" (1975-79), colored panels of silk propped against the wall by poles, was inspired by a trip to India but reflected the sea spray and sun of his home on Captiva. Here were large works resulting from a visit to another culture that remained autobiographical even while reflecting more impersonal artistic currents (Minimal and Process Art).

Rauschenberg said that his retrospective had set him thinking about earlier works. The large, openly autobiographical paintings he subsequently produced thus had recourse to older images and ways of working. However, the beginning of the 1980s also saw a new project: to present the small scenes and details of America in straight, black-and-white photographs. They eventually made up several exhibitions and books.

Among the more notable later projects, most of which extended a vocabulary he had invented earlier, were the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (1982-90), in which he intended to make art from the materials and artifacts of 22 countries; and the "One-Quarter Mile or 2 Furlong Piece," an additive work on his travels that, by continually unfolding, aspired to turn the world into a single painting.

"In the multiplicity of his interests and the wide-ranging collaborations he pursued, he was a distinctive figure," said Elizabeth Smith, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art. "He took from different sources, combined images and used popular materials, prefiguring much that came later [in art]. I see him as a precursor of post-modernism."

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