Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Robert Rauschenberg: The Pop-NeoDada-Conceptualist Printmaker

Milton Ernest Rauschenberg a.k.a. Robert Rauschenberg was born in the southern oil refinery town of Port Arthur, Texas in 1925.  His parents were Fundamentalist Christians and they believed in instilling a hard-work ethic in their children. Rauschenberg said he never liked school because he suffered terribly from dyslexia. After he managed to get through high school Rauschenberg chose to go into the military, enlisting with the Navy. He was stationed in California, and it was during a visit to the Huntington estate in Pasadena that he was first exposed to fine art. He decided to study art after finishing his military service and went to the Kansas City Art Institute. Then he went to France for a brief study at the Académie Julian in Paris. and after returning to the United States in 1948 Rauschenberg went to study at the famed Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

Josef Albers was one of his instructors at BMC, and Rauschenberg often credited Albers as inspiring him to move toward experimentation [the opposite of what Albers taught], which lead to his now infamous combine painting/sculptures. Rauschenberg later studied with Vaclav Vytlacil and Morris Kantor at the Art Students League of New York, from 1949-1952.  He briefly married artist Susan Weil in 1950 and they had a son, Christopher. After his divorce he was known to be involved with fellow artists Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns and Darryl Pottorf, but he mostly kept his private life out of the public’s eye.
In 1966, Rauschenberg, along with Billy Klüver, established a non-profit organization called Experiments in Art and Technology  (E.A.T.) to promote collaborations between artists and engineers. He continued that idea and expanded upon it in 1984, when the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) was announced at the United Nations. This seven-year project was designed to encourage "world peace and understanding" as he went on a ten-country tour of Chile, China, Cuba, Germany, Japan, Malaysia,  Mexico, the Soviet Union, Tibet, and Venezuela; leaving behind a piece of artwork about the culture he observed.  The ROCI venture, supported by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., was exhibited in 1991.

In 1990, Rauschenberg created the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (RFF) to promote awareness of the causes he cared about, such as world peace, the environment and humanitarian issues. In 2011, the foundation launched its “Artist as Activist” print project which will invitean artist to come to work at the late artist’s estate on Captiva Island in Florida to create an editioned work on a subject of his/her choice. The foundation also maintains the 19th Street Project Space in New York. Additionally, Rauschenberg set up one-time only grants via Change, Inc., to assist financially-challenged visual artists.
Artistically, Rauschenberg questioned the difference between art and everyday objects, much in the same vein that Marcel Duchamp’s "Fountain" revisited art’s meaning in the eye of the observer. In in Rauschenberg created an international incident in 1953 when he asked Abstract Expressionism’s leader, Willem DeKooning,  to participate in an ‘art experiment’ where he ‘erased’ a multimedia drawing by de Kooning. The result initially sent shock waves throughout the art world for defacing a work of art by a modern master, but  the concept held ground and he was seen as a pioneer of Neo-Dada.
"Combines" mainly refers to Rauschenberg's work begun from 1954 to 1962. Critics first saw these as difficult to interpret due to his densely-laden imagery with no apparent order to their presentation. By 1962, Rauschenberg regularly utilized appropriated images from mainstream newspapers and magazines. He transferred photographs to canvas via the silkscreen process and this touched off a firestorm of interest in printmaking. Rauschenberg liked the multiplicity of creating images, and continued to embrace this flattened over-layered image for the rest of his career, but he challenged the parameters of the medium like everything else he touched. This work propelled him to become seen as one of the pivotal artists of the Pop Art movement and put him on a par with Andy Warhol.

As for his prints, one of the first series he attempted was the 16.5-meter-long silkscreen print called  Currents (1970), and his Surfaces project (which soon followed). They both consisted of large-scale screened prints with newspaper headlines and textures, creating the illusion of looking at a television screen with bad reception. The air wave patterns he created while layering his images cover over and obscure the messages of the clippings. His subtle yet hit-you-over-the-head commentary about the effects of bombarding our ever-acquiring society with information couldn’t have been better timed. It pre-dated the movement of social consciousness and political art which defined work in the 70s. Likewise, Rauschenberg’s obsessive exploration of alternative media and manipulation allowed him a freedom to break with traditional means of making art. His combines and assemblages broke new ground and liberated younger artists to mix media, much in the same manner as Pablo Picasso’s assemblages, or Frank Stella’s combined sculpture/painted/prints of the late 1980s. 
In printmaking, Rauschenberg left no inked method untouched. He printed with anything available; including a rubber car tire and etched sheets of glass and backlit them within a frame. One of his multi-media prints stretches a staggering ¼ mile in length. His prints’ subjects spanned all the current events of the mid-20thc, and they brought a new voice to the collage method introduced by Picasso fifty years prior. One of his last technological innovations was making large-scale digital Iris prints and using biodegradable vegetable dyes in his transfer processes, which advanced the medium toward the bio-friendly movement in the 1990s.
Robert Rauschenberg was a dominant force behind the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, and he continued to challenge himself artistically up until his death. As a printmaker, Rauschenberg was a leader in the social/political circles. His comments were not only pointed, but they were diplomatic and ‘inclusive’. Some saw the work as a mere reflection of ‘current’ events, but looking back on those Currents and Surfaces series now, one can see his vision was a clear and pointed criticism of the mass media frenzy which surrounded people and events of the day. He was unafraid of people’s responses to the work, and said what he wanted to say. You see, he felt he had nothing to lose. He came from no art experience, from a nothing town to become a pinnacle voice of the 20th c. art world. He felt his background permitted him a fresh look at the world, and left him untainted by his ignorance. The viewer was called to give an opinion of what they saw and responded to his word collages at a time which pre-dated Joseph Kosuth’s conceptualist group and their minimal ‘worded’ images of the 1970s. From 2003 Rauschenberg worked at his home and studio on Captiva Island, in Florida. He died there in 2008, from heart failure, but his legacy continues a support for younger artists, artists in need and intercultural exchange. 

Honors and Awards
1964 the first American artist to win the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale
1983 Grammy Award for Album Design, Talking Heads
1993 National Medal of Arts
1965 Life magazine Inferno: theVietnam War, racial violence, neo-Nazism, political assassinations, and ecological disaster. 
1998 Vatican commission commemorate controversial Franciscan priest Pio of Pietrelcina,

1951 one-man show at Betty Parsons Gallery
1954 one-man show at Charles Egan Gallery
1963 first career retrospective, at the Jewish Museum
1976& 1978 retrospective by Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., traveled throughout the United States
1997-1999 retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Houston, Cologne, and Bilbao.
2005-2007 traveling retrospective to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 
2008 collection of photographs shown at the Guggenheim Museum
2009-2010 Peggy Guggenheim Colleciton, Venice. Tinguely Museum, Basel, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and Villa e Collezione Panza, Varese.

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