Robert Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas on October 22, 1925. After briefly attending the University of Texas to study pharmacology and serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he decided to study art. In 1947, he enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute. In early 1948, Rauschenberg traveled to Paris to study at the Academie Julian, where he met the artist Susan Weil; they later married and had a son, Christopher. In the autumn they returned to the United States and studied under Joseph Albers at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, until the spring of 1949. Later that year Rauschenberg moved to New York and took classes at the Art Students League where he worked with Morris Kantor and Vaclav Vytlacil. Rauschenberg returned to Black Mountain College in 1951 and again in 1952, where he formed friendships with Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and David Tudor. While at Black Mountain, he participated in Theatre Piece #1 by John Cage, which has since become acknowledged as the first “Happening.” Since the early 50’s, Rauschenberg’s sustained involvement in theatre and dance has resulted in costume and set designs for Merce Cunningham, as well as Paul Taylor, Viola Farber, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, and for his own productions.
Rauschenberg’s first solo exhibition was held at the Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, in 1951. Prior to this, he and Susan Weil had experimented with photographic blueprints, and subsequently he began several groups of paintings, including the White Painting series, most of which were completed by the summer of 1952. From the autumn of 1952, to the spring of 1953, Rauschenberg traveled to Europe and North Africa with Cy Twombly, whom he had met at the Art Students League. During his travels, Rauschenberg worked on a series of small collages, hanging assemblages, and small boxes filled with found elements, which he then exhibited in Rome and Florence. Upon his return in 1953, he began work on the Red Paintings. He applied paint on newspaper and patterned fabric, which had been incorporated onto the surface of the canvas. It was towards the end of this year that Rauschenberg first met Jasper Johns. Their friendship was significant during this period due to their regular exchange of ideas. By the summer of 1954, the Red Paintings had developed to include found objects, and he began producing his first Combine works, in which he combined aspects of painting and sculpture. This interplay of different media has remained central to Rauschenberg’s work, which has been marked throughout his career by a sense of experiment and play.
In 1958, Rauschenberg began to employ solvent-transfer techniques, using glossy magazine photographs to make drawings. He combined this technique with his own drawings and watercolors when he produced his monumental series based on the 34 cantos of Dante’s Inferno. Rauschenberg spent two and a half years on this project, incorporating images from contemporary culture. Inferno is currently owned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1962, Rauschenberg made his first lithograph at Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) in West Islip, New York, at the insistence of the late founder, Tatyana Grosman. At the same time, he incorporated the silk-screen process in his paintings. In the mid 60’s, he experimented with the use of electronics in his art, and in 1966, with electronics engineer Billy Klüver, co-founded Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) to promote cooperation between artists and engineers. His five-part construction, Oracle, owned by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and Soundings, owned by Museum Ludwig in Cologne, came from this collaboration.
Subsequent endeavors at ULAE as well as at Gemini G.E.L., the publisher/workshop in Los Angeles, resulted in limited edition books and lithographs created collaboratively with Alain Robbe-Grillet, Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky, and American poet William Burroughs. Rauschenberg has also produced editions with Graphicstudio in Tampa, Florida; Styria Studio in New York; and Saff Tech Arts in Oxford, Maryland, as well as at his own studio, Untitled Press, established in 1971, on Florida’s Captiva Island. Projects at these various studios have taken him to France, India, and China.
In 1984, the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (ROCI) was established. It was an evolving exhibition of over 200 works by the artist, based on his visits and collaborations with artists and artisans throughout the world. The global, peace-seeking odyssey of art and information included paintings, sculptures, videotapes, prints, and photographs that reflect the artist’s respect for the qualities which mark the differences between the various cultures of the world. The eight-year tour included exhibitions in Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, China, Tibet, Japan, Cuba, Russia, Germany, Malaysia, and a final exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1991.
Rauschenberg founded and directs Change, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides emergency funds for artists, now in its 32nd successful year. The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, started in 1990, is also a non-profit entity devoted to projects that increase public awareness about subjects of vital interest to the artist. Over the last fifteen years, he has produced original art work for seven posters for the United Nations, and in 1996, created a series of prints/posters to benefit the people of Tibet, through the organization Future Generations.
Since 1951, Rauschenberg’s work has been exhibited extensively. His major museum exhibitions include those organized by: The Jewish Museum, New York (1963); Whitechapel Gallery, London (1964); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1965); The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1966 and 1969); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1968); Israel Museum, Jerusalem (1974); National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C. (1976, touring to 1977); Staatliche Kunsthalle, Berlin (1980), tour included Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark (1980) and Tate Gallery, London (1981); Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1981); Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul, France (1984); 41st Venice Biennale (1984); Fundación Juan March, Madrid, and Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona (1985); Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston (1986), touring to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1987); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1990); the Menil Collection, Houston (1991, touring to 1993); Aktionsfourm Praterinsel, Munich (1997); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Guggenheim Museum Soho, New York (1997), touring to the Menil Collection, Contemporary Arts Museum and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1998); Museum Ludwig, Cologne (1998); Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (1998 – 1999); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2000); the Baltimore Museum of Art (2000 – 2001); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2002).
Rauschenberg has also received many awards and honors including: Grand Prize, 32nd Venice Biennale (1964); Creative Arts Award, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts (1978); Grand Prix d’Honneur, International Exhibition of Graphic Art, Ljubljana, Yugoslavia (1979); Gold Medal for Graphics, Oslo (1979); Skowhegan Medal for Painting, Skowhegan College, Maine (1982); Grammy Award for the best album design for the pop group Talking Heads (1984); Jerusalem Prize for Arts and Letters, Friends of Bezalel Academy of Jerusalem, Philadelphia Chapter (1984); Golden Plate Award, 25th Anniversary Salute to Excellence, American Academy of Achievement (1986); International Center of Photography Art Award (1987); The Algur H. Meadows Award of Excellence in the Arts, Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University, Dallas (1989); Federal Design Achievement Award (1992); National Medal of Arts Award presented by the U.S. President and First Lady (1993); Second Hiroshima Art Prize, Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art (1993); “Leonardo da Vinci” World Award of Arts, World Cultural Council, Mexico City (1995); Lifetime Achievement Award in Contemporary Sculpture, International Sculpture Center, Washington, D.C. (1996); First Prize in Contemporary Arts Awards, ARCO and Fundación Argentaria, Madrid (1997); The Eighth Wexner Prize, Wexner Center, Ohio State University (2000); The Harbourfront Centre World Leaders Prize, Toronto, Ontario (2001); Medal Award, The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2002).
Rauschenberg has been elected a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Science, Boston (1978); Foreign Member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Stockholm (1980); Officer in the Ordre des Arts et Lettres, Ministry of Culture and Communication, France (1981); appointed Fellow, Rhode Island of Design (1981); presented Band of Honour from the Order of Andres Bello by the government of Venezuela (1985); elected Honorary Royal Academician, Royal Academy of Arts, London (2000), and has received honorary doctoral degrees from Grinnell College, Iowa (1967), University of South Florida in Tampa (1976), and New York University (1984).