One could say that Robert Rauschenberg was all over the map, literally and figuratively. Born in Texas, he studied in North Carolina, came of age artistically in New York, traveled extensively abroad, and spent his last three decades in Florida. Rauschenberg was a remarkably versatile talent and innovative technician who embraced abstraction, photography, borrowed sources, and tangible objects to create a repertoire of imagery uniquely his own—most notably, his signature two and three-dimensional “combines.” He was based in the SoHo district of New York in the early 1950s when Abstract Expressionism raged, but pivotal to his evolution as an artist was the time he spent at Black Mountain College, as both student and artist-in-residence.
Milton Ernest Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas, a booming center of the petrochemical industry. He joined the Navy in 1944 and afterward studied on the GI Bill at the Kansas City Art Institute and in Paris. It was then that he changed his name to “Bob,” later formalizing it to “Robert.” He first went to the experimental enclave at Black Mountain in the fall of 1948, staying through the next summer. His encounters with the slightly rigid Josef Albers, the domineering head of the art curriculum, were fraught with tension. Albers heartily disapproved of the freewheeling young artist; nevertheless, Rauschenberg learned much from the German master, especially in regard to color theory and combining different materials and textures, the focus of a course called “Surfaces.”
Rauschenberg maintained important liaisons with many creative individuals: the musician John Cage and the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, whom he met at Black Mountain; and the artists Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns. The interaction with Johns was particularly dynamic; they worked together as window designers for Tiffany’s and Bonwit Teller’s, disdained Abstract Expressionism, and encouraged one another to pursue their individual artistic visions.
Much of Rauschenberg’s oeuvre is autobiographical. The most classic example is Bed, the 1955 combine in which he used his own bed—complete with sheets, quilt, and pillow—as the canvas for a painting. Soon after, in 1963, the Jewish Museum in New York gave Rauschenberg his first career retrospective, which helped to launch him on the international stage the next year at the Venice Biennale. The ensuing years saw many exhibitions at such prestigious museums as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Centre Pompidou in Paris. In addition to his achievements as a visual and performance artist, Rauschenberg was also a political activist opposed to the war in Vietnam. In 1984, he established the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI), a philanthropic initiative aimed to promote understanding through artistic dialogue.