Robert Rauschenberg’s art and life were always open to the world, but his pursuit of interconnectedness and his refusal to accept conventional boundaries put him at odds both with authority and Port Arthur, the oil refinery town in Texas where he was brought up. His blatant refusal to fire a gun and shoot ducks put him at loggerheads with his father, a keen hunter, who turned to him on his deathbed and hissed “I never liked you, you son of a bitch.” When studying to become a pharmacist his inability to dissect and kill a frog resulted in his expulsion and the creature’s escape. A month later in 1945, drafted into the navy, he only narrowly escaped combat by training to become a neuropsychiatric technician.

When considering Robert Rauschenberg’s life and art none of these stories are at all surprising, for this big-hearted artist celebrated the spirit of all things and continually inventing new ways of expression. His work, so vastly ahead of his time, ushered in the attitude of Pop Art and even the shock art of artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Rauschenberg’s Bed, 1955, was an entirely new species of art, fusing a flat painterly surface with a 3-dimensional object. Waking up in his dilapidated New York studio one morning penniless and without materials, the artist removed the quilt from his bed and painted it using fingernail polish, toothpaste, and paint. A kind of visceral self-portrait, the work predates Emin’s My Bed, 1998 by 50 years. Suddenly a work of art could be made out of anything, could be shown anywhere, and for any purpose.

On the left Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955 and on the right Untitled (Spread), 1983

As a young man Rauschenberg was at one time married to the painter Susan Weil. It was she who persuaded him to attend the radical Black Mountain College in North Carolina, at the time presided over by the abstract painter Josef Albers. The student and teacher never got on, but Rauschenberg would later cite Albers as his most important teacher. After it became clear he was only attracted to men, he and Weil separated, shortly after the birth of their son, Christopher. He then moved to New York where his career really began to take off. One of his first major works was Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, which was quite literally an erased drawing by Willem de Kooning. Rauschenberg had visited de Kooning at his studio and asked for a drawing so that he could erase it. de Kooning, intrigued and confused in equal measure, obliged and gave Rauschenberg a highly complex drawing which took Rauschenberg over two months to erase. The resultant roughened white page has been seen as iconoclastic, even an act of vandalism, but as a pioneering work of conceptual art it undoubtedly expanded the notion of what “Art” could be. 

Alongside his one-time lover Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg was one of the most influential American artists of the 1950s, together they cemented New York’s position as the epicenter of the art world after the Abstract Expressionists. Even early on in his career his embrace of change marked him out, allowing him to break down all the existing divisions between painting, sculpture, printing, photography, dance, and forming endlessly inventive ways of forging them together. The art critic Robert Hughes once noted that Rauschenberg “didn’t give a fig for consistency or curating his reputation”—his joy was in creating works that produced a thrilling interchange between viewer and artwork.

On the left Robert Rauschenberg, Statue Of Liberty, 1983, in the middle Robert Rauschenberg, Flaps, 2000, and on the right Robert Rauschenberg, Reunion, 2000

Now Tate Modern’s major retrospective of Rauschenberg’s work will be the most comprehensive of the last 20 years. Francis Morris, the Director of Tate Modern, has spoken about the increasing difficulty to persuade institutions to send their most prized works abroad, and managing to get the rarely seen Monogram, 1955-59—an outlandish hybrid of sculpture and painting featuring a stuffed Angora goat—from the Moderna Museet in Stockholm is a sizeable coup. Monogram epitomizes Rauschenberg’s refusal to follow conventional pathways, “Every artist after 1960 who challenged the restrictions of painting and sculpture and believed that all of life was open to art,” wrote the art historian Robert Rosenblum “is indebted to Rauschenberg—forever.”

Whatever medium he turned his hand to Rauschenberg would reinvent and alter. After throwing himself into printmaking the medium would never be the same again. Prints such as Booster, 1957 were groundbreaking and for the first time a print had the scale and imposing presence to challenge the pre-eminence of painting itself. His transfer drawing technique, which required dissolving printed images from newspapers and magazines with a solvent, then rubbing them onto paper with a pencil, became a sort of trademark. Collaborating mostly with Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, the work they produced was colossal in its scale and ambition.  

Robert Rauschenberg, Watermark, 1973 and on the right Robert Rauschenberg, Ten til Too, 2000

Despite suffering depression and experiencing years of financial hardship Rauschenberg retained his wry view of the world and remained charitable throughout his career. When the demand for his work increased he quickly set up The Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange in 1982 to kick-start an artist exchange with culturally isolated countries. Over six years he would visit Cuba, the USSR, Malaysia, Germany, and many more, working with local artists and setting up significant exhibitions with each country. He funded the $10 million himself, an unprecedented move that was not just financially generous but revealed his undying belief in the capacity of art to build bridges across national borders.

The exhibition at Tate Modern captures the hectic pace that Robert Rauschenberg’s life and artwork were conducted, the swerves and creative shifts that saw him endlessly explore the changing world around him. As his son Christopher is quoted as saying at the opening of the exhibition “by the time he knew what he was doing it was time to do something else.” Even after he won the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1964—the first American artist to do so—his reaction to receiving the award was to completely change direction again, and dedicate years of his life to touring with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company designing sets and lighting. Without doubt Rauschenberg reshaped art in the 20th century, and did so with the charm and generosity of spirit for which he was noted as a man. Fittingly he died in his own studio in 2008, aged 83, with a half finished painting in front of him. 

Robert Rauschenberg” is on at Tate Modern from the 1st of December through to the 2nd of April 2017. 

By Duncan Ballantyne-Way — Senior Editor