Research - Robert Rauschenberg / by Ally McGinn

American painter, sculptor, printmaker, photographer and performance artist who lived and worked in New York.  Rauschenberg didn't identify with the movements at the time, often acting against them. In the case of Abstract Expressionism, the significant art movement of the time in New York, he thought that to be a good Abstract Expressionist you had to have “time to feel sorry for yourself,” something he considered a waste of time. (McEwan, 2008)

Rauschenberg was an inventive figure, he constantly worked at the edge of thinking, working against the norms of the art world at the time. He described his practice as one of “bringing the outside in” (Manufacturing Intellect, 2016) a process that involved the use of found materials, images and objects. His practice can be described as re-presenting and re-contextualising the everyday, which could be an argument for what art itself is.

Rauschenberg is an extremely influential figure most famously known for his ‘combines’ created throughout the 1950’s, which as the name suggests combined painting and sculpture.

 Robert Rauschenberg (1960)  Pilgrim . Combine: oil, graphite, paper, printed paper, and fabric on canvas with painted wood chair. 201.3 × 136.8 × 47.3 cm.

Robert Rauschenberg (1960) Pilgrim. Combine: oil, graphite, paper, printed paper, and fabric on canvas with painted wood chair. 201.3 × 136.8 × 47.3 cm.

Rauschenberg positioned his work in the spaces between. Talking about his work, he said, "Painting relates both to art and life. Neither can be made – I try to act in the gap between the two." (McEwan, 2008) Which can be applied to the mediums he explored, he bridged the gap between more than painting and sculpture. No medium was out of the reach of his curiosity, which he saw as one of the most important features an artist can have. (Manufacturing Intellect, 2016) Rauschenberg was a man who saw interest and beauty in all areas around him and worked with those ideas to form new conversations.

“I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly,” he once said, “because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.” (Kimmelman, 2008)

These gaps are undefined areas, albeit more extensively explored now than in the 1950’s, and that lack of definition gave Rauschenberg the freedom to explore with a light-hearted intelligence that comes through in interviews.

Rauschenberg avoided over-contextualising his works, preferring to deal with the issue of making rather than prescribing meaning. (Manufacturing Intellect, 2016)

Rauschenberg studied under Josef Albers, who had previously taught at the Bauhaus. Albers had a firm view of where he stood in the artworld, and what art is, which was translated into a preliminary course that offered little in the way of freedom. This stable standpoint allowed Rauschenberg to push hard against those ideas, and while Albers might not be considered an artistic influence for Rauschenberg in the traditional sense, he informed the artist Rauschenberg would become. (Manufacturing Intellect, 2016) (McEwan, 2008) (Kimmelman, 2008)

While Rauschenberg didn't associate with any particular movement he has been linked with the Dadaists; His work was sometimes called Neo-Dadaist.  (Robert Rauschenberg, 2016)

When asked “what guides you?” he responded with the beautifully dry, “A lack of purpose.” Which highlights his belief in the function of art, which is to say that it has less to do with the artist than the art itself. As he put it “I have a sense that when I'm working well, I'm invisible.”(Manufacturing Intellect, 2016)

He had an endless sense of what art is, in that it could be anything. Rauschenberg was asked whether he had suffered from a form of writer's block, the only answer, “no,” because he would “just go do something else.” (Manufacturing Intellect, 2016)

Rauschenberg was an avid egalitarian, believing in the equality of materials, subjects, and people. There is an honesty in this inclusion, which can be seen in the work. He was a man who was unafraid of challenging the paradigm.

Rauschenberg was an artist inspired by his surroundings and the people he met on his journeys. Reading about him and, more importantly, watching interviews with him hint at the fascinating way he saw the world. His prolific practice becomes more understandable when his perspective is appreciated, to Rauschenberg anything could be art with the right artist to pull strings.

Rauschenberg saw the potential of the materials he was working with, but more importantly perhaps saw the reality of what they already are. He worked with a surface of coloured pages from newspapers so that the painting wouldn’t have a beginning. (Robert Rauschenberg, 2016) He already had a surface to work on.  He then added to what was already there. It could be argued that paints already do this to a degree. If you begin with the possibilities of the material, and you then let them do what they want to do.  The artist becomes a bystander.

 Robert Rauschenberg (1954/55)  Collection.  Oil, paper, fabric, wood, and metal on canvas. 203.2 x 243.84 x 8.89 cm.

Robert Rauschenberg (1954/55) Collection. Oil, paper, fabric, wood, and metal on canvas. 203.2 x 243.84 x 8.89 cm.

In his combines, the hierarchy of the materials is questioned and challenged. The use of found objects in his work was far from a new idea (he was working 30 years after Duchamp's’ ‘Fountain’) and was being explored by other artists at the time, however unlike some of the other artists Rauschenberg recognised that it is the relationships of the images he uses that have the most meaning. (Robert Rauschenberg, 2016)

Equally inspiring for Rauschenberg was the work of dadaist Kurt Schwitters, whose collages contained rubbish collected off the streets. (Unnamed, 2013) Rauschenberg combined found objects (often found in his local neighbourhood in New York), with collage and painting. In this approach, he combined the reality of the objects represented against the illusionistic nature of painting. The medium became the representation of itself.

NASA invited Rauschenberg to watch the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969 (The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Undated) and was an artist working with developing technologies. In 1966 he launched ‘experiments in art and technology’ a non-profit organisation to promote work between artists and engineers. (Tate, Undated)

 Robert Rauschenberg (1961)  This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert If I Say So.  Telegram with envelope. 44.8 x 22.5 cm.

Robert Rauschenberg (1961) This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert If I Say So. Telegram with envelope. 44.8 x 22.5 cm.

As an example that could be considered both condescending and enlightened Rauschenberg submitted a piece to the Galerie Iris Clert, for an exhibition where the subject was the owner herself. Rauschenberg’s offering was a short telegraph stating “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.” I have read a few opinions of this piece as one of the signs of the size of the artist's ego, but I think it can be taken to mean far more than that, echoing the opinion of ‘Fountain’ in its original form. Regardless of the artist's intentions, the fact remains, that art through nomination has precedent, and this ‘artwork’ is seen as one because of the very reason stated on it. (Lippard, 1997)

 Robert Rauschenberg (1951)  White Painting [three   panel  ].  Latex paint on canvas. 182.88 x 174.32 cm.

Robert Rauschenberg (1951) White Painting [three panel]. Latex paint on canvas. 182.88 x 174.32 cm.

In 1951 he created a series of ‘White Paintings.'  The antithesis of the emotional and colourful work being done by the Abstract Expressionists, this series has been said to have been a precursor to Minimalism, by a decade.

The works in the series are formed of groups of modular panels, each the same size, shape, and form. Their size is based on a simple mathematical formula; the width is half the length of the height. This is the limit of the prescribed control that the artist has, beyond which the works become something more. Conceptual paintings.

They were first shown in 1953, at which point they were not well received, but by the mid-1960’s, when Minimalism was a more accepted form, they were re-shown and regarded far more positively.  (SFMOMA, Undated)

Rauschenberg was friends with composer and artist John Cage, whose theories of chance were influential. (Painters painting, 1973) The ‘White Paintings’ have been compared to Cage’s musical piece 4”33’, in which the musician plays nothing, and the music is the ambient and other sounds in the space itself. The ‘White Paintings’ can be seen similarly, their uniform surface allows for an appreciation of the space in the gallery, and the shadows cast onto the paintings themselves become a focus, as opposed to any subject within the paintings themselves. These white panels reflect the light of the space and reflect the mute potential of a blank canvas while highlighting the features of the existing surface.

An interesting note, I thought, was that the surface of these works is more important than any historical integrity for them. If the surface were marred in any way then it would be repainted, something Rauschenberg confirmed in a 1999 interview, so they become something beyond nostalgia. These panels have been repainted by some of Rauschenberg’s artist friends, including Cy Twombly and Brice Marden. (SFMOMA, 1999)

In the same discussion, Rauschenberg referred to the works as clocks, a way, if you were a sensitive enough viewer, to read the details of the space around you, using the surface of the paintings, in this sense they are mirrors that encourage the viewer to see beyond the work, to the world around them.

 Robert Rauschenberg (1957)    Factum I and Factum II . Combine painting: oil, ink, pencil, crayon, paper, fabric, newspaper, printed reproductions, and printed paper on canvas. 156 x 91 cm. 

Robert Rauschenberg (1957) Factum I and Factum II. Combine painting: oil, ink, pencil, crayon, paper, fabric, newspaper, printed reproductions, and printed paper on canvas. 156 x 91 cm. 

In 1957 he created a diptych, which was displayed at a recent exhibition at the Tate Modern. (Robert Rauschenberg, 2016) ‘Factum 1’ and ‘Factum 2’ are collages that are identical in size and near identical on the surface. After creating the first, the second was made as close to the ‘original’ as the materials, and the artist's hand would allow. The pieces highlight the importance of the chance elements in the work, the drips that could not be controlled entirely for example. These aspects of the incidental and uncontrolled form a pause of sorts between the two pieces, a visual stutter as the viewer attempts to unpick the differences between the works. The external visuals Rauschenberg has used are identical, but other paint marks are not, which opens an interesting dialogue about the nature of accidents.

 Robert Rauschenberg (1953)    Erased de Kooning Drawing . Traces of drawing media on paper with label and gilded frame. 64.14 x 55.25 x 1.27 cm.

Robert Rauschenberg (1953) Erased de Kooning Drawing. Traces of drawing media on paper with label and gilded frame. 64.14 x 55.25 x 1.27 cm.

The more I look into Rauschenberg’s extensive works, the more I find of interest, but it remains relatively simple to articulate my favourite. ‘Erased de Kooning Drawing.’ Rauschenberg asked himself if there was a way to create something with an eraser.  When he realised that rubbing out one of his drawings was not wholly satisfying, he decided that what he needed was a drawing that was already a work of art.  Although initially reluctant De Kooning was convinced, although he proceeded to find a drawing with a combination of marks that would be difficult for Rauschenberg to erase, it took several weeks for him to complete the work.

The work has been compared to Duchamp’s LHOOQ, in which Duchamp drew a moustache on the Mona Lisa.

While the drawing is sometimes seen as a negative comment by Rauschenberg, the artist meant it as anything but.  Firstly it was done with Willem de Kooning’s consent and is often considered both a performative and collaborative work, the title contained within the frame was written by Jasper Johns. (Painters Painting, 1973)

For me, the work is important on various levels.  The fact that Rauschenberg chose De Kooning, who was possibly the most prominent Abstract Expressionist at the time, that he was able to create something with something normally used for destruction, that the result is minimal, that he is deleting a drawing (which was still and is still seen as the vital prelude to painting) and most importantly for me, that he is questioning what is art.  Was it art before he started??  Is it art now?? Whether both are true, or only one is, the comment and the process remain essential for our understanding of what art can be, and what artists can do.

Robert Rauschenberg was a man who responded to the world around him with clarity and confidence. His works are creative, challenging and deeply communicative. To Rauschenberg art doesn’t come from art, it comes from the world around us, and it should reflect that.

Attempting to quantify the influence of Rauschenberg on the artworld, and the world in general, would be incredibly difficult, and this short text barely touches the surface of a man I find endlessly fascinating, however, it shows a few of the ideas that Rauschenberg worked with and part of his perspective. (it might be better to say ‘the perspective he was’because everything I've read and seen of the man shows that his art was such a part of who he was that he became Art.)

A short note about the Tate Modern Exhibition (2016) made after my visit.

 Robert Rauschenberg (1955-59)    Monument . Combine: oil, paper, fabric, printed paper, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe heel, and tennis ball on canvas with oil and rubber tire on Angora goat on wood platform mounted on four casters. 106.7 x 160.7 x 163.8 cm.

Robert Rauschenberg (1955-59) Monument. Combine: oil, paper, fabric, printed paper, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe heel, and tennis ball on canvas with oil and rubber tire on Angora goat on wood platform mounted on four casters. 106.7 x 160.7 x 163.8 cm.

Being able to see works I have only appreciated either digitally or in print remains indescribable. The rooms are varied, and occasionally the single link between the work is Rauschenberg himself. His prolific practice is explored, though apparently not fully experienced, through a brilliantly curated show, which retains a coherence that is a risk when investigating such a massive and varied archive of works.

This exhibition seems to epitomise the man rather than focus on any single aspect of his work. This exhibition showed the variety and accomplishment of this artist. Rauschenberg is hugely inspirational to me, regarding his fantastic work and the way he worked and lived.

As a retrospective, it is incredibly successful, in my opinion, as it balances the variety and development of his work without losing coherence or contact.

Rauschenberg was an incredibly inspirational man and artist, one who claimed to never experience writers block.  In his work the line between art and life is diminished, understanding the artist it becomes more evident that this line was reduced in his life as well as his studio. Art was his life, and he continued to do it whether feeling inspired and productive or depressed and drinking. A restless, curious, passionate, talented and inspirational artist and figure, the exhibition is one I am singularly glad I was able to go to.


Kimmelman, M. (2008) ‘Robert Rauschenberg, American Artist, dies at 82’, New York Times, [Online] New York Times. Avaliable from: [Accessed 18.11.18].

Lippard, L. ed (1997) Six years: the dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972…. London: University of California Press.

Manufacturing Intellect (2016) Robert Rauschenberg Interview (1998) [Online Video] Avaliable from: [Accessed 17.11.17].

McEwan, J. (2008) ‘Robert Rauschenberg: Restlessly experimental artist whose career was a celebration of change’, Independent, [Online] Avaliable from: [Accessed 18.11.17].

Painters painting: a candid history of the modern art scene. (1973) [DVD] Emille de Antonio. USA: Arthouse films.

Robert Rauschenberg (2016) [Exhibition]. Tate Modern, London. 1 December 2016 - 2 April 2017.

SFMOMA (Undated) ‘Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting [three panel], 1951’ [Online] SFMOMA. Available from: [Accessed 17.11.17].

SFMOMA (1999) ‘Robert Rauschenberg, video interview by David A. Ross, Walter Hopps, Gary Garrels, and Peter Samis, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 6, 1999.’ [Online] Available from: [Accessed 17.11.17].

Tate (Undated) ‘Experiements in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) [Online] Available from: [Accessed 17.11.17].

The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (Undated) ‘The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’ [Online] Available from: [Accessed 17.11.17].

Unnamed (2013) ‘Kurt Schwitters, inspiration of Pop Art’, The Telegraph, [Online] Available from: [Accessed 18.11.17].