Robert Rauschenberg Dies at 82: Re-Conceived 20th Century Art

Robert Rauschenberg: Re-Conceived 20th Century Art

Robert Rauschenberg: A 20th Century Art Icon

Robert Rauschenberg, the prolific American artist who over and over again reshaped art in the 20th century, died Monday night at the age of 82. A painter, photographer, printmaker, choreographer, onstage performer, set designer and, during his later years, even a composer, Mr. Rauschenberg defied the traditional idea that an artist had to stick with one particular medium or style.

Rauschenberg pushed, prodded and sometimes re-conceived all of the mediums in which he worked. Building upon the legacies of Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell and others, he helped obscure the lines between painting and sculpture, painting and photography, photography and printmaking, sculpture and photography, sculpture and dance, sculpture and technology, technology and performance art.

He initially attended the Kansas City Art Institute, then traveled to Paris and enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he met Susan Weil, a young painter from New York. Soon thereafter, Ms. Weil entered the historic, experimental Black Mountain College in Asheville, North Carolina. Having read about and come to admire the Austrian immigrant Josef Albers, who at that time was the head of fine arts at Black Mountain, Mr. Rauschenberg saved enough money to join Ms. Weil there. For a while, Rauschenberg moved between New York and North Carolina, where he studied at both the Art Students League and at Black Mountain College.

Black Mountain’s Josef Albers was famously known to be a disciplinarian and strict modernist who was shocked by his new student, and he later disavowed ever even knowing Mr. Rauschenberg. On the other hand, in retrospect Albers was recalled by Mr. Rauschenberg as both “a beautiful teacher and an impossible person.” “He wasn’t easy to talk to, and I found his criticism so excruciating and so devastating that I never asked for it,” Mr. Rauschenberg added. “Years later, though, I’m still learning what he taught me.”

Rauschenberg’s Controversial “Erased de Kooning Drawing”

Robert Rauschenberg’s controversial Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), is about minimizing the subject, indicating that the removal of one subject can allow for the appearance of another. The things that go undiscussed in conversation are in some way equivalent to those that are talked about.

The Erased de Kooning Drawing symbolised what was iconic about much of what Rauschenberg did in his early days, it was iconic and iconoclastic at the same time, although William de Kooning was not the icon the young Turk wanted to smash. His iconoclasm took a more genteel and personal approach. As he explained in an interview: “I erased the de Kooning not out of any negative response.” Rauschenberg had been doing the same thing with his own drawings, but there was not much tension in that; it didn’t push out into the world. He had a fascination with William de Kooning, photographing his studio in 1952. Another key factor was that “de Kooning was the most important artist of the day.”

The inception of the project has been well-documented. Rauschenberg went over to the master’s studio and said that he’d like to erase one of de Kooning’s drawings as an act of art. De Kooning, apparently intrigued, had three groups of drawings. The first was comprised of drawings with which he was not satisfied, but that wouldn’t work. The next group was of drawings that he liked, but which were all in pencil, too easy to erase. If de Kooning was going to participate in this neo-Dada performance, he would play his part. He looked in his third group and found a multi-media work on paper that would be quite difficult to eradicate (the media of the Erased de Kooning Drawing included “traces of ink and crayon on paper“). Apparently, it took Rauschenberg one month to get the sheet relatively clear of marks. No photograph exists of the work that Rauschenberg erased; however, there is a photograph of the relatively simple sketch of it on the reverse of his work.

The Erased de Kooning Drawing

Rauschenberg on The Erased de Kooning Drawing

Tribute to Robert Rauschenberg: A Music Video Slideshow

Music by Philip Glass: Mishima

Interested viewers might want to read a New York Times op-ed piece written as a memorial to Robert Rauschenberg by the musician and visual-artist David Byrne, which can be accessed here.

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