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Robert Rauschenberg, 1925 - 2008

He led the way to Pop Art

Influential works combined sculpture, collage, cast-off items.

May 14, 2008|Christopher Knight | Times Art Critic

Robert Rauschenberg, the protean artist from small-town Texas whose imaginative commitment to hybrid forms of painting and sculpture changed the course of American and European art, died Monday night after a brief illness at his home on Captiva Island, Fla., according to New York's PaceWildenstein Gallery, which represents his work. He was 82 and had been in poor health for several years.

Rauschenberg was widely regarded as a principal bridge between Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s and Pop Art in the 1960s, but he did not subscribe to any narrow doctrine. His work also influenced the emergence of Neo-Dada, Minimal, Conceptual, Post-minimal, Process and performance art. His deep and abiding interest in printmaking facilitated a major revival in the medium, and his achievements in lithography were instrumental in the creation of a contemporary market for prints. In Europe, the humble, everyday objects of the Arte Povera ("poor art") movement expanded on his use of cast-off materials retrieved from the trash bin and the attic.

Rauschenberg's art was instrumental in reintroducing representational imagery into common usage. Until then, avant-garde art on both sides of the Atlantic was most closely identified with pure abstraction, which the public regarded with skepticism. Rauschenberg mixed traditional forms of modern painting and sculpture with photographs, found objects, studio printmaking techniques and mass-produced pictures gathered in postcards, postage stamps and newspapers. In one of the most repeated, yet frequently misquoted, statements in postwar American art, he asserted: "Painting relates to both art and life. . . . (I try to act in that gap between the two)."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, May 15, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Rauschenberg obituary: The news obituary of artist Robert Rauschenberg in Wednesday's Section A said only that he died after a brief illness. He died of heart failure after a brief illness.

Together with painter Jasper Johns, with whom he was romantically linked, Rauschenberg was the most important American artist to emerge into prominence in the 1950s. When he was awarded the grand prize for painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale in Italy -- only the third American to receive the distinguished honor, after James Whistler and Mark Tobey -- the surprise selection ignited a firestorm of controversy in Europe but secured his international reputation. Rauschenberg had been using commercially made silk screens to reproduce photographic images on his canvases, a technique that he picked up from Andy Warhol, and the imagery mingled with energetic brushwork in brilliant colors. The day after the Venice Biennale announcement he had all the silk screens in his New York studio destroyed, to forestall any temptation to repeat himself.

Rauschenberg's voracious appetite for experimentation characterized his working method, which employed new techniques and unusual materials. In 1954, a decade before his Venice triumph, he began to make a new kind of art that combined traditional elements of painting and sculpture, together with collage and printing. He dubbed these works "combine paintings." Two of the most famous are "Bed" (1955) and "Monogram" (1955-59). For "Bed" he scribbled pencil marks and smeared paint on a well-worn pillow, sheets and a quilt, which hang on the wall like a traditional painting. "Monogram" is a floor piece featuring a stuffed Angora goat with a used automobile tire around its middle; the goat is mounted atop a low platform covered with painted and collaged images.

"I often had a house rule," Rauschenberg explained about his working method in the shabby neighborhood in downtown Manhattan where he lived. "If I walked completely around the block and didn't find enough [trash] to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction -- but that was it. The works [I made] had to be at least as interesting as anything going on outside the window."

The influential critic Clement Greenberg, who championed the Abstract Expressionists, wrote a 1955 essay extolling the rise of those artists and the decline of the School of Paris. Europe had been the home of the avant-garde, but Greenberg unfavorably compared postwar developments in Paris to the distinctive work he described as "American-type painting." Conforming to Greenberg's idea, Johns began to use the American flag and the map of the United States as subjects, while Rauschenberg made his canvas for "Bed" from a pieced quilt -- a unique bit of traditional Americana.

The rumpled combine, with its gestural smears and dribbles of oil paint, also made wry fun of the sometimes-grandiose claims for the Abstract Expressionist paintings of the generation that preceded him. Rauschenberg was friendly with many of those artists, including Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and he admired the fusion of liberating gesture, precise control and conceptual complexity embodied in their paintings. But he was equally ready to be sardonic and amusing.

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