JEFFREY BROWN: From the everyday — an old three-speed rocket bike with fat tires — to the eccentric — a stuffed goat wearing a tire — Robert Rauschenberg’s work was always surprising and sometimes perplexing. He’s been celebrated as one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century.
Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas, at a time and place, he once said, where “it was very easy to grow up without ever seeing a painting.”
He first gained notice on the art scene in the early 1950s and came to be known best for works that pushed the very idea of what a painting or sculpture could be.
Incorporating everyday and found objects into his art, Rauschenberg created collages and what he called “combines.” He was also known for his experiments with printmaking and had this to say in the late ’90s.
ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG, artist: The working process is ideally freeing my mind. I consider it a one-to-one collaboration with the materials that I’m using. I want my paintings to look like what’s going on outside my window rather than what’s inside my studio.
JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Rauschenberg died of heart failure last night at his home in Captiva, Fla. He was 82 years old.
And joining us now to talk about the artist and his influence is Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times.
Well, we talked about an artist who was hugely influential, who helped change the face of art. What exactly does that mean? How did he do it?
CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT, Los Angeles Times: Well, there were really two ways in which he contributed to changing the way both Americans and European art has looked for the last 50 years.
The first way was he was instrumental in reintroducing representational imagery into avant-garde art. In the 1950s, if you had ambitions of being a significant artist, essentially that meant that pure, abstract painting is what you were expected to do. And that’s not what Rauschenberg did.
The second thing that he upended was that very idea of purity contained in pure, abstract painting. Rather than purity, he introduced a hybrid kind of art.
The combine paintings that he made were part-sculpture, part-painting, part-drawing, part-photography, part-printmaking. And essentially he smooshed them all together into these combines, which were like collages on steroids.
Becoming a post-war artist
JEFFREY BROWN: I mentioned in the introduction that he grew up in a small Texas town. And he really had little exposure to art as young man. So how did he become an artist?
CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT: Not only did he have little exposure; he grew up in a very religious family, a fundamentalist church of Christ, which was opposed to ideas of images whatsoever. That was transgressive enough.
In about 1944, he was 19 years old, he had dropped out of the University of Texas, where he was studying pharmacology. He didn't know it at the time, but he was dyslexic. And he was drafted. The war was on.
He was a confirmed pacifist, so he ended up being sent to San Diego to work in a neuropsychiatric hospital at Camp Pendleton. Since he didn't know anyone in California, when he had leave, he used to hitchhike up and down the California coast.
And one day, he decided to go to Los Angeles to the Huntington Art Gallery library and botanical gardens. He had heard that there was a really interesting desert garden there, cactus garden.
And when he got there, he ended up wandering into the art gallery and came face to face with a painting from 1770 by Thomas Gainsborough, a portrait of a young man named Jonathan Buttall, better known as the Blue Boy.
And the impact of seeing that painting was profound. Like most Americans, he was familiar with the image from cocktail napkins and playing cards and calendars and so on.
But when he saw the painting, the light bulb that went off over his head was that this image that he knew so well had actually been made by a human being. It was painted by an artist. And he thought to himself, if this Gainsborough guy could do it, maybe I could do it, too.
JEFFREY BROWN: There was a phrase that he used to use, talking about working in the gap between art and life. And I wonder, does that help -- I want to help people understand about this use of everyday items and found items, things that he would just pick up around the street. How would he work? And how did he think of those things?
CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT: Well, he had a really interesting process. When he was living in Lower Manhattan, is when he really began making the combines.
And he set up a rule for making art, which was that he could go outside of his studio and walk one square block -- he lived on Fulton Street at the time -- he could walk one square block around his studio, scavenging materials, and bring them back to his studio.
And those are the only materials that he could use, in addition to the paint and canvas that he might have, to make works of art. And the criterion he had was that what the work of art looked like had to be at least as interesting as what he could see out the window of his studio.
JEFFREY BROWN: And to further help people sort of set the cultural context here, he was also well-known for working with other artists at the time, Jasper Johns, people in other fields, Merce Cunningham, the choreographer, John Cage, the composer.
Was there a common thread that pulled these artists together or that they were reacting against?
CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT: Well, I think one of the things they were responding to Rauschenberg for was his interest in a hybrid kind of art, one that was impure, one that was not separate from life, from daily life, from ordinary life, a kind of art that could be made out of anything.
And it's that kind of experimentation, that kind of openness to the everyday, that kind of willingness to try anything that became extremely important for so many other artists in the '50s, '60s, and beyond.
JEFFREY BROWN: And we just have a minute left here, but tell us a little bit about Rauschenberg, the man. What was he like?
CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT: I met him only a few times on a professional basis. And it sounds a bit like a cliche, but he was very much like his work.
He was really easy-going, gregarious, very funny, smart and extremely generous. In the 1980s, he started a project called the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Initiative, in which he poured millions of dollars of his own money.
And he traveled around the world, China, Russia, Central America, places where the Reagan administration in the '80s was sort of beating the war drum in the Cold War, and he would gather together people, just ordinary Chinese people, Russian people, and so on, and collectively make works of art with them, hybrid, combine works of art.
And those works themselves may not always be of great artistic interest, but the spirit behind that project was quintessential Rauschenberg.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times on the life of Robert Rauschenberg. Thank you very much.
CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT: You're welcome.