Robert Rauschenberg, Titan of American Art, Is Dead at 82

Posted: Updated:
Print

TAMPA, Fla. — Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg's mediums knew few bounds.

One of his most famous works or "combines" was "Bed," created when he woke up in the mood to paint but had no money for a canvas. His solution was to take the quilt off his bed and use paint, toothpaste and fingernail polish for his creation. He was also a sculptor and a choreographer.

Rauschenberg died Monday of heart failure at 82, it was announced Tuesday by Jennifer Joy, his representative at PaceWildenstein gallery in New York. His use of odd and everyday articles earned him regard as a pioneer in pop art, first gaining fame in the 1950s.

"The most famous thing he said was that he worked in the gap between art and life," said John Elderfield, chief curator of painting and sculpture at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "I think what he meant by this is life was his materials as much as art was his materials."

Rauschenberg didn't mine popular culture wholesale as Andy Warhol (Campbell's Soup cans) and Roy Lichtenstein (comic books) did, but his combines _ incongruous combinations of three-dimensional objects and paint _ shared pop's blurring of art and objects from modern life.

He also responded to his pop colleagues and began incorporating up-to-the-minute photographed images in his works in the 1960s, including, memorably, pictures of John F. Kennedy. He even won a 1984 Grammy Award for best album package for the Talking Heads album "Speaking in Tongues."

"I'm curious," he said in 1997 in one of the few interviews he granted in later years. "It's very rewarding. I'm still discovering things every day."

Nan Rosenthal, who curated "Robert Rauschenberg: Combines," a joint exhibition by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, called Rauschenberg a "tremendously imaginative artist."

Rosenthal said she believed Rauschenberg would be best remembered for his series of all-white, all-black and all-red paintings, as well as the combines. The Met owns about 25 Rauschenberg paintings and about 75 drawings and prints.

"A lot of the time he was tremendously ebullient, a kind of irrepressible person," who was also "quite a wonderful host and cook," she said.

Rauschenberg's more than 50 years in art produced such a varied and prolific collection that it consumed both uptown and downtown locations during a 1998 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes, in his book "American Visions," called Rauschenberg "a protean genius who showed America that all of life could be open to art. ... Rauschenberg didn't give a fig for consistency, or curating his reputation; his taste was always facile, omnivorous, and hit-or-miss, yet he had a bigness of soul and a richness of temperament that recalled Walt Whitman."

Rauschenberg split his time between New York and Captiva Island in Florida, where he kept a house stocked with his and his friends' art.

"I like things that are almost souvenirs of a creation, as opposed to being an artwork," he said in a 1997 Harper's Bazaar interview, "because the process is more interesting than completing the stuff."

He studied painting at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1947. He later took his studies to Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he studied under master Josef Albers (who supposedly hated his work), and alongside contemporary artists such as choreographer Merce Cunningham and musician John Cage. He also studied at the Art Students League in New York City.

Rauschenberg's first paintings in the early 1950s comprised a series of all-white and all-black surfaces underlaid with wrinkled newspaper. In later works he began making art from what others would consider junk _ old soda bottles, traffic barricades, and stuffed birds and calling them "combine" paintings.

One of Rauschenberg's first and most famous combines was titled "Monogram," a 1959 work consisting of a stuffed angora goat, a tire, a police barrier, the heel of a shoe, a tennis ball, and paint.

"Initially, these were thought to be ugly and unpleasant, but as happens ... in time they are perceived as being beautiful," Elderfield said. "It's more than that these things were beautiful" but that he was using them to tell stories.

"Not in the way we are used to having stories told in narration, but more like the contents of a person's purse, you could tell the personality from the objects collected," he said.

By the mid-1950s, Rauschenberg was also designing sets and costumes for dance companies and window displays for Tiffany and Bonwit Teller.

He met Jasper Johns in 1954. He and the younger artist, both destined to become world famous, became lovers and influenced each other's work. According to the book "Lives of the Great 20th Century Artists," Rauschenberg told biographer Calvin Tomkins that "Jasper and I literally traded ideas. He would say, `I've got a terrific idea for you,' and then I'd have to find one for him."

Born Milton Rauschenberg in 1925 in Port Arthur, Texas, and raised a Christian fundamentalist, Rauschenberg wanted to be a minister but gave it up because his church banned dancing.

"I was considered slow," he once said "While my classmates were reading their textbooks, I drew in the margins."

He was drafted into the U.S. Navy during World War II and knew little about art until a chance visit to an art museum where he saw his first painting at age 18. He drew portraits of his fellow sailors for them to send home.

When his time in the service was up, Rauschenberg used the GI Bill to pay his tuition at art school. He changed his name to Robert because it sounded more artistic.

In recent years he founded the organization Change Inc., which helps struggling artists pay medical bills.

"I don't ever want to go," he told Harper's Bazaar in 1997 when asked of his own death. "I don't have a sense of great reality about the next world; my feet are too ugly to wear those golden slippers. But I'm working on my fear of it. And my fear is that something interesting will happen, and I'll miss it."

__

Associated Press Writer Ula Ilnytzky in New York contributed to this story.