Rauschenberg: The American Artist of the 20th Century

By any and all of the three main ways of measuring an artist's greatness—what the work looks like, its situation in art history, and the influence on younger artists—Robert Rauschenberg is at the top of the heap. Rauschenberg, who died May 12 at the age of 82, made paintings and sculpture (and practically everything in between) that captured the gritty, cacophonic essence of industrialized urban life and, more important, found the overlooked beauty in it. A quilt-covered mattress, a stuffed goat and a tire, a bucket, newspaper photographs of JFK and an astronaut on the moon, faded wallpaper, a screen door, and cardboard boxes—these were the raw materials of a Rauschenberg artwork. They were tubes of paint and brushes to Rauschenberg (he used those, too), and with them he created some of the most electrifyingly and strangely familiar works of art of the last 60 years.

Historically, Rauschenberg got us from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art—one of the greatest stylistic leaps ever—by introducing those bits of the readymade and the already-seen into the meaty coherence of such abstract "action painters" as Willem de Kooning. With a restless creative energy to rival Picasso's he then crunched, stretched, pounded and exploded the combination of objects and paint into a kind of art full enough and big enough to go way beyond what the critics first called his art"Neo-Dada"—and to almost get its own "ism": Rauschenbergism. (But we won't call it that, because Rauschenberg hated categorical boxes.) Finally, there was a time, from about 1964, when he was the first American ever to win the grand prize at the Venice Biennale, to the mid-1970s, when just about every ambitious young artist was imitating Rauschenberg's techniques (such as putting solvent on a newspaper photograph and rubbing the image into a drawing, or chaining a found object to the frame of a painting) or his look (the orderly randomness of a sock drawer). And when you look around today and see Damien Hirst's rectangular tanks containing pickled animals, Chris Burden's agglomeration of street lamps, Jeff Koons's "Easy Fun" paintings or Ann Hamilton's cavernously melancholic installations, what you're seeing is actually, in the lingo of cable television sports, X-treme Rauschenberg.

He was born in 1925 in Port Arthur, Texas, the same town that gave us Janis Joplin, another genius at turning the raw into the lovely—and vice versa. He went to a couple of art schools—one in Kansas City, the other in Paris—before showing up at the famously experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He studied with the Bauhaus-educated, lab coat-wearing German neatnik master of clean, hard-edged abstract painting, Josef Albers. Rauschenberg once recalled that Albers "was my best teacher, and I was his worst student," meaning that although down deep Rauschenberg absorbed Albers's precision and discipline, he applied it in his own, raucous, disobedient way. In New York in the early 1950s Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns—his artistic cohort, competitor, downtown loft neighbor and sometime lover—looked to the precedent of Marcel Duchamp to try to find a way through what they saw as the impasse of just-let-paint-be-paint Abstract Expressionism. While Johns played it conceptual and close to the vest, condensing and confining Ab-Ex's brush strokes inside such readymade images as targets and flags, Rauschenberg, in effect, unscrewed Duchamp's notorious bicycle wheel from its stool and rode it wherever he felt like.

And while he rode, he produced … like crazy, in New York City and in his other studio on Captiva Island, Fla. Rauschenberg's oeuvre—paintings, "combines," sculpture, prints, photographs and collaborative theater/dance performaces—may amount to one of the largest bodies of works in all of American art. At his best Rauschenberg reinvigorated American art with a Whitmanesque inclusiveness that was both visually bold in its slam-bang juxtapositions and surprisingly poignant in little, telling details, such as a lonely drop of paint dribbling down from under an open book glued to a canvas. The sheer size and force of Rauschenberg's output, however, sometimes made it seem as though there were a sort of Rauschenberg sauce—a semi-pop salsa—that could be ladled over just about anything to flavor it "a Rauschenberg." And in the half-century since Rauschenberg first hit his stride, countless graphic designers, illustrators and admen have appropriated his keen sense of how to transform the Rust Belt raggedness of our everyday visual environment into an elegant synopsis of it. They've made it seem smooth and tasteful. Still, an original Rauschenberg packs a punch that no amount of commercial-art borrowing can take away from it.

Rauschenberg's secret was simply that he was an artist, not a philosopher. So what if Duchamp had "proved" that any object—a bottle rack or a snow shovel—could stand in as a work of art just from an artist's choosing it. That didn't end matters for Rauschenberg; it only began them. He made up his mind, as he put it, to "act in that gap between art and life." Fifty-five years ago Rauschenberg asked de Kooning for a drawing … so he could erase it. De Kooning rolled his eyes and said OK. He'd been a young artist once and knew what it was to want to trump his artistic elders. De Kooning gave Rauschenberg a negligible little sketch. As Rauschenberg started to walk away with his prize, de Kooning called him back and gave him a good, densely done drawing. Rauschenberg worked on it and worked on it, but "Erased de Kooning Drawing" never quite became invisible. It did, however, become a Rauschenberg. As has almost any and every peek down a downtown street in urban America. Yes, he was that encompassing.