Robert Rauschenberg, one of America’s most famous contemporary artists, died of heart failure Monday night in Florida. Perhaps best known for his mixed media assemblages in the 1950s, which he called “Combines“, Rauschenberg rejected traditional art disciplines. He remixed painting, sculpture, photography, silkscreen printmaking, performance, technology, commercial materials, and most importantly, junk found on the streets–to produce juxtapositions he could not have anticipated. In an interview a couple years ago:
“I wanted something other than what I could make myself and I wanted to use the surprise and the collectiveness and the generosity of finding surprises. And if it wasn’t a surprise at first, by the time I got through with it, it was. So the object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing.”
Building on the work of Marcel Duchamp, Rauschenberg (together with his contemporaries John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and former partner Jasper Johns) opened the doors to chance and gave rise to generations of critical experiments with art, life, and American culture. These include Pop Art, Conceptual Art, and Minimalism. In 1964, he became the first American artist to win the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale. He also won a Grammy award for designing the limited edition discs of Talking Heads’ famous Speaking in Tongues album in 1983.
As I tip my hat in farewell to Rauschenberg, I had to revisit one of my most favorite works of art: Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning Drawing“. In 1953, he asked Willem de Kooning if he could erase one of his drawings as an act of art. Intrigued, de Kooning chose an ink and crayon work that would be difficult to erase and it took Rauschenberg one month to get the paper relatively clear of marks. The result is a profound blurring of both presence/visibility and absence/invisibility, creation and destruction, fullness and nothingness. Here’s to the passing of a mighty great man.