The rules of art
Book tickets to see Robert Rauschenberg at Tate Modern, until 2 April 2017
Robert RauschenbergBorn 22 October, 1925 Port Arthur, Texas
Died 12 May, 2008 Captiva, Florida
An American artist of the twentieth century who created his own path, redefining how art could be made and what it could be. He worked in collaboration with many pioneering artists, painters, dancers, composers and activists to create artworks that elevated the everyday. He shared his spirit and influenced the art world that came after him, in painting, printmaking, performance and protest.
Rauschenberg in his Broadway studio with Stripper 1962, New York, c.1962 Photo: Unattributed
Alex Hay, Rauschenberg, Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown rehearsing Spring Training in Rauschenberg’s Broadway studio, New York, 1965 Photo: Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs
Rauschenberg, c.1964 Photo: Saulnier
Gold Standard 1964 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Pilot (Jammer) 1976 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Rauschenberg performing Elgin Tie at Five New York Evenings, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 13 September, 1964 Photo: Hans Malmberg
Balcone Glut (Neapolitan) 1987 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Robert Rauschenberg, Time magazine cover, 29 November 1976 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Global Loft (Spread) 1979 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Persimmon 1964 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
National Spinning / Red / Spring (Cardboard) 1971 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Glacier (Hoarfrost) 1974 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Rauschenberg working on L.A. Uncovered series, Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles, 1998 Photo: Sidney B. Felsen © 1998
Oracle 1965 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Read on to learn from the master...
‘I was considered slow. While my classmates were reading their textbooks, I drew in the margin’
Though Rauschenberg had always enjoyed drawing, he didn’t at first know art was a career path for him.
In 1943 he enrolled at University of Texas at Austin, studying pharmacology, but undiagnosed dyslexia affected his coursework and he ultimately dropped out after refusing to dissect a frog.
Drafted into the US Navy in 1944, a posting in San Diego gave him his first opportunity to visit his first art museum. Inspired by what he saw, he began to paint.
By 1947, he enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute, taking classes at night, but also working on window displays, industrial model making, movie sets and photographers’ props around his studies, while saving to study in Paris.
Rauschenberg designing unicorn costume for his sister Janet, for a Mardi Gras celebration, modeled by fellow student Inga Lauterstein, Black Mountain College, North Carolina, 1949. Photo: Trude Guermonprez
In 1948, he moved to Europe, to attend the Académie Julian, Paris and met his future wife and collaborator, Susan Weil. Rauschenberg saw the work of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso for the first time here. He was so passionately inspired he often painted directly with his hands.
Rauschenberg creating First Time Painting (1961) during Homage to David Tudor, Théâtre de l’Ambassade des États-Unis, Paris, June 20, 1961. Photo: Shunk-Kender © J. Paul Getty Trust
In 1948, Rauschenberg moved back to the US with Weil, enrolling at Black Mountain College, North Carolina after reading an article in Time magazine about teacher Josef Albers’ disciplined approach. Albers had been a professor at the influential German art school The Bauhaus, and had become head of Black Mountain College after fleeing Nazi persecution. He brought with him much of the Bauhaus’s ethos, including the idea that fine art is not separate from the applied or performance arts.
Detail from Rauschenberg’s handwritten draft of a statement on art and obscenity, first published in 'What Is Pornography?' Artnews 88, no. 8, October 1989. Courtesy Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
In the early 1950s after a move to New York, Rauschenberg enrolled in the Art Students League and met painters Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns. Embedded in the exciting new art scene he saw the work of Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Rauschenberg and Weil also created window backdrops for Bonwit Teller and later Tiffany & Co. using the blueprint photogram technique Weil introduced to him.
Robert Rauschenberg and Susan Weil, Female Figure, ca. 1950
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
In 1951 he met the composer John Cage and returned to Black Mountain College to work with him and dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham. They were to become lifelong friends and collaborators.
Rauschenberg with Jasper Johns, John Cage, and others in Rauschenberg’s or Johns’s Pearl Street studio, New York, ca. 1955. Photo: Jerry Schatzberg
WHITE PAINTING 1951
While learning from those around him, Rauschenberg also inspired others with his work.
Rauschenberg wanted to create paintings that looked as if they were untouched by human hands and even allowed the works themselves to be remade without his direct involvement. These canvases, painted entirely in white, reflect the chance effects of changes in the light and shadows.
Seeing Rauschenberg ’s White Paintings inspired composer John Cage to fully explore silence in his own work. Cage often worked with found sound, but credited the White Paintings with leading eventually to his most famous piece 4’33’’, where no sound is played by the musicians performing it.
‘That's why I like dance, music, theatre, and that's why I like printmaking, because none of these things can exist as solo endeavors. Also, the best way to know people is to work with them, and that's a very sensitive form of intimacy.’
SHORT CIRCUIT 1955
Painter, printmaker and book artist Susan Weil met Rauschenberg in 1948 studying at the Académie Julian in Paris. They enrolled together at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, and the Art Students League, New York. They were married from 1950 to 1952 and collaborated on various art and commercial projects.
Susan Weil and Rauschenberg, Black Mountain College, North Carolina, 1949 Photo: Trude Guermonprez
Susan Weil and Rauschenberg on their wedding day with members of their wedding party: James Leonard Weil, Donald Droll, and Janet Begneaud. Outer Island, Connecticut, June 1950
Susan Weil and Robert Rauschenberg in Paris, 1948
Artist, famous for his flag paintings, and widely regarded as a forerunner of pop art. From their meeting in 1951 they became partners and collaborators, working and living together for a number of years.
Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in Johns’s Pearl Street studio, New York, c.1954 Photo: Rachel Rosenthal
Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg, Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles, 1980 Photo: Terry Van Brunt
Untitled (Jasper, Pearl Street Studio) 1955 Photo: Robert Rauschenberg
Painter, renowned for using expressive handwriting and scratching in his paintings. He met Rauschenberg in 1951 in New York and they travelled to Europe and Africa together, becoming lovers, and lifelong friends.
Rauschenberg (left) and Cy Twombly (seated) returning from Italy to New York City aboard SS Andrea Doria with fellow passenger Kurt Osinski (right), April 1953 Photo: Edith Osinski
Cy + Relics, Rome 1952 Photo: Robert Rauschenberg
Untitled (Cy with his artwork, Rauschenberg's Fulton Street Studio) 1954 Photo: Robert Rauschenberg
Merce Cunningham & John Cage
Rauschenberg first met composer John Cage in New York in the early 1950s. He then studied with Cage and Cunningham at Black Mountain College. Rauschenberg travelled with the Cunningham Dance Company as a collaborator and costume and set designer. They maintained a close relationship throughout their careers.
Untitled (John Cage, Black Mountain) 1952 Photo: Robert Rauschenberg
Costumes by Remy Charlip in collaboration with Rauschenberg, Ray Johnson and Vera Williams for Merce Cunningham Dance Company's Springweather and People 1955. Pictured: Merce Cunningham and Carolyn Brown. Photo: Louis Stevenson
Costumes by Rauschenberg for Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Antic Meet 1958 at Five New York Evenings, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, September 1964. Pictured: Carolyn Brown and Merce Cunningham. Photo: Hans Malmberg
Participating in composer John Cage’s Theatre Piece #1 (sometimes referred to as the first happening) in the dining hall of Black Mountain College in 1952 began Rauschenberg's involvement with performance.
Later, on tour with the Cunningham Dance Company, Rauschenberg developed the idea of ‘live decor’, making new scenery and sets through his own found objects and improvised actions for each performance, including painting backdrops as the dancers performed or even ironing costumes at the back of the stage.
Set and costumes designed by Rauschenberg for Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Interscape 2000. Pictured: Jeannie Steele, Derry Swan, Maydelle Fason, and Holley Farmer. Photo: Ed Chappell
Set, costumes, and lighting by Rauschenberg for Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Nocturnes 1956. Pictured: Carolyn Brown performing a lift with members of the ensemble. Photo: Oscar Bailey.
Set and costumes by Rauschenberg for Paul Taylor Dance Company’s Images and Reflections 1958. Pictured: Maggie Newman and Taylor. Photo: Unattributed.
Minutiae 1954 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Set designed by Rauschenberg for Trisha Brown Dance Company’s Lateral Pass 1985 at Napoli Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, January 1987. Photo: Luciano Romano.
Costumes and set, entitled Tantric Geography, designed by Rauschenberg for Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Travelogue 1977. Photo: Charles Atlas.
‘The idea of having your own body and its activity be the material – that was really tempting.’
Pelican was first performed at Concert of Dance Number Five, an evening of performances by Judson Dance Theater, Pop Festival, Washington DC, 9 May, 1963.
As the programme was to take place in a roller skating rink, Rauschenberg decided to perform on skates.
‘A pair of socks is no less suitable to make a painting with than wood, nails, turpentine, oil and fabric.’
GLUTS 1955From 1986, Rauschenberg began a series known as Gluts. A native Texan himself, Rauschenberg was visiting Houston, and noted that the Texas economy was in recession due to a surplus or glut in the oil market – Texas's major export. He began to collect gas-station signs and other metal scrap from cars and industrial processes, transforming them into sculptures. ‘It’s a time of glut. Greed is rampant. I’m just exposing it, trying to wake people up. I simply want to present people with their ruins ...’ – quoted in Gluts Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2009
Bed 1955 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Bed remains one of Rauschenberg’s most famous works – he used his own quilt as a surface to begin a painting.
He hoped to create an abstract artwork with it, but no matter how hard he tried he could not look at the piece without thinking of a bed. So, finally he gave in and put a pillow on it.
‘Because it was just a bed … no matter what I did, it was just a bed’– quoted in Robert Rauschenberg and Calvin Tomkins: A Conversation about Art and Life (2006)
‘The best part of my joy and adventure is that I don't have the foggiest idea about what I might be doing next, and I don't stay awake at night thinking about it.’
A term invented by Rauschenberg to describe a series of works that combine aspects of painting and sculpture. Combines can either hang on the wall or stand freely.
‘I wanted something other than what I could make myself and I wanted to use the surprise and the collectiveness and the generosity of finding surprises. And if it wasn’t a surprise at first, by the time I got through with it, it was. So the object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing.’
Monogram was one of Rauschenberg's most important artworks, bringing together sculpture and painting into one ‘combine’.
Originally the goat lived in the window of a second hand furniture store in New York. Rauschenberg found it there, ‘almost invisible with dirt’. After some solid bargaining with the shop owner, who considered the stuffed animal lucky, Rauschenberg managed to secure a deal. He paid $15, which was all he had, towards the $35 asking price, with a promise to return with the rest when he could.
It was the largest object he’d ever tried to combine in a painting, and he tried a number of different positions and paintings. Sometimes the goat was attached vertically to a painting or on a ladder, before he finally settled on this composition, where the goat could be seen from all angles.
Young and broke, Rauschenberg could only return with the rest money a few months later. The shop was closed down. He recalls thinking ‘it was probably the goat that was keeping that store open’.
Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.)
In 1960, Rauschenberg began working with Bell Laboratories engineer Billy Klüver. In 1966, they organised 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, which took place at the Armory in New York. Forty engineers and ten contemporary artists worked together to create performances using new technology.
Together with engineer Fred Waldhauer and artist Robert Whitman, Rauschenberg and Klüver formed E.A.T. The project aimed to develop links between artists and technologists and engineers, to find new creative possibilities.
OPEN SCORE 1966
Rauschenberg and EAT presented Open Score at 9 Evenings.
As Rauschenberg explained in the programme notes:
‘My piece begins with an authentic tennis game with rackets wired for transmission of sound. The sound of the game will control the lights. The game's end is the moment the hall is totally dark. The darkness is illusionary. The hall is flooded with infra red (so far invisible to the human eye). A modestly choreographed cast of from 300 to 500 people will enter and be observed and projected by infra-red television on large screens for the audience.’
Mud Muse 1968–71
Rauschenberg continued to experiment with technology. In 1968 he began working on Mud Muse together with engineers Carl Adams, George Carr, Lewis Ellmore, Frank LaHaye and Jim Wilkinson.
The piece was inspired by the bubbling natural springs and geysers of Yellowstone National Park. The mixture in the tank bubbles and splatters in response to ambient noise, including the pre-recorded soundtrack (including birdsong and music), audience noise and the sound it makes itself.
Background images: E.A.T. news Vol. 1, no. 2 (1 June, 1967) New York: Experiments in Art and Technology 1967 Poster for 9 Evenings: Theatre & Engineering 1966 Mud Muse 1968–71 (detail)
‘I know that art has the energy to change minds and hearts. Art is a powerful source of fact and joy.’
The Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange
The Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange was an expression of Rauschenberg’s commitment to human rights and freedom of artistic expression.
Through the R.O.C.I. project Rauschenberg travelled widely, often visiting places where artistic experimentation had been suppressed. He showed his own artwork, while exploring local art-making, aiming to spark conversations and create mutual understanding through creative processes.
Rauschenberg travelled to ten countries between 1985 and 1990: Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, China, Tibet, Japan, Cuba, the USSR, Malaysia and Germany, and finally in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
On its inception in 1984, he explained he saw the project as a way of ‘taking, making, and exchanging art and facts around the world.’
‘I have discipline, I just go to work, and I work every day and I NEVER know what I’m doing.’
‘Screwing things up is a virtue. Being correct is never the point.’
‘Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.’
Rauschenberg performing in Steve Paxton’s Jag vill gärna telefonera (I Would Like to Make a Phone Call) at Five New York Evenings, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, September 1964 Photo: Stig T. Karlsson
Rauschenberg and unidentified woman, dancing, Dylaby (Dynamisch Labyrint), Stedelijk Museum, September 1962. Photo: Billy Klüver
Rauschenberg in Captiva, Florida, 1978
Rauschenberg during a break for the proofing session for Stoned Moon 1969–70 lithograph series, Gemini G.E.L. parking lot, Los Angeles, 1969. Photo: Sidney B. Felsen © 1969
Rauschenberg in India, 1975. Photo: Hisachika Takahashi
Rauschenberg returning to his studio in his Volkswagen Bug convertible after a run to the Gulf Iron and Metal Junkyard, a source of materials for his Kabal American Zephyr series, Captiva, Florida, 1982. Photo: Unattributed
Rauschenberg with his Art Car-BMW 1986, at the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: Beamers Eckert Fine Art, Naples, Florida, 2002
Untitled (Gold Painting) 1955 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Allan Kaprow, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns Untitled [Remnant from 18 Happenings in 6 Parts] 1959 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Black Market 1961 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Scanning 1963 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Cat Paws 1974 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
N.Y. Bir Calls for Öyvind Fahlström 1965 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Hiccups (detail) 1978 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Untitled (Spread) 1983 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Stop Side Early Winter Glut 1987 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Poster for ROCI USSR 1989 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Triathlon (Scenario) 2005 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
- Performance Art 101: The Black Mountain College, John Cage & Merce Cunningham
- Performance Art 101: Painting and Performance
- Performance Art 101: Dance Magic Dance
- Pop art glossary term
- Abstract expressionism glossary term
- Postmodernism glossary term
- Robert Rauschenberg Tate Artist Page
- Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Overview
- Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Chronology
- Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives
- Rauschenberg Research Project at SFMOMA
Credits and acknowledgements
Words & Storyboard: Kirstie Beaven & Lily Bonesso
Digital design: Mark Hume
Tate Digital production team: Jen Aarvold, Kirstie Beaven, Lily Bonesso, Lucy Noakes, Saskia Mercuri, Hilary Knight With thanks to Kayla Jenkins and Shanna Kudowitz at Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
All archival photographs and original writings Courtesy Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Full details for all artworks can be found at Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Art & Archives