Obituary: Robert Rauschenberg

Pop art pioneer whose wide-ranging work evoked the spirit of the old frontier

The American artist Robert Rauschenberg, a man of few words, made one famous statement. He said that his ambition was to fill the gap between art and life. Even these few words were not original. His friend John Cage had already said that this should be the aim of the modern artist. Similarly, Rauschenberg's art was not especially original; it could scarcely have existed without cubist collage and the work of Kurt Schwitters. And yet he created a body of unmistakably American work that threw down a challenge to the abstract expressionism of Pollock and de Kooning; work of a similar scale and ease, metropolitan art that evoked the spirit of the old frontier so dear to the late 20th century American public.

Rauschenberg, who has died aged 82, was born of mixed German and Cherokee descent in Port Arthur, Texas. He had a good war, "that is, practically no war at all" as a neuropsychiatric technician in naval hospitals in California. Like many Americans, he had never seen a real painting, and when he did in a California exhibition, he was none too impressed: Reynolds's portrait of Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse was, he remarked, "an enormous brown thing". But it was his first inkling that being an artist might constitute a career, and as he wasn't much good at anything else, when he was demobbed he signed up at the Kansas city art institute under the GI bill of rights.

From there he saved up to go to Paris but learned very little from the Académie Julian ("the criticism was once a week in French, and I didn't understand any French"), painted a few desultory cityscapes, fell in love with Sue Weil, a New York art student whom he was to marry, and joined her at Black Mountain college in North Carolina to study under Joseph Albers.

On the face of it, Albers's Bauhaus aesthetics were not ideal for the scruffy and undirected work that Rauschenberg was producing, but Rauschenberg needed and wanted the discipline, and it is possible to see in the delicate discrimination with which he placed the elements of his collages the influence of Albers's elegant control.

But it was Rauschenberg's fellow student, John Cage, who had the major influence on him. Cage's 4 min 33 sec, the work which starts when the pianist raises the lid of the piano and finishes, without him having played a note, four minutes and 33 seconds later, has its parallel in Rauschenberg's white paintings. Not White On White like Malevich earlier in the century, but white, so that its only surface interest would be the shadows of passers by falling upon it, just as Cage's work was a collage of sounds from outside the concert hall (and, presumably, coughs within).

From Black Mountain he went to New York, where he had his first show in 1951, at the Betty Parsons Gallery, the prime mover and shaker in Manhattan. It attracted withering reviews - "stylish doodles," said the New York Times - and no sales. About now, too, he used an eraser to bring a drawing by de Kooning back to the faint indentations that pencil had made on paper. This was construed as a radical attack by a younger painter on the values of the abstract expressionist, who were by now regarded as world leaders of the avant garde.

It was compared with Duchamp drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Leaving aside that de Kooning was hardly Leonardo, Rauschenberg's act was condoned by de Kooning, who, indeed, dug a drawing out of his portfoliofor that express purpose.

Undaunted by unpopularity, though he was never to make much money until he and Jasper Johns began to decorate the windows of Bonwit Teller and Tiffany under a joint pseudonym in the mid 50s, Rauschenberg pressed on with theatre designs for another Black Mountain friend, Merce Cunningham, and for Paul Taylor. Meanwhile, he developed his collages, reaching some kind of summation in 1955 when, apparently short of a surface to work on, he decided to paint the quilt on his own bed, hanging it vertically to do so. The quilt's pattern of orange squares was too dominating, so he added the pillow on top, splashed on some more paint, and, with some logic, called the resulting work Bed.

Simultaneously, he was developing his so-called combines, which were paintings with objects mounted on the surface, and his constructions, which were paintings with bigger objects mounted on the surface. Part of the New York legend is that these caused great consternation. It is hard, after Dada, to see how. When Monogram, his painted construction with an amiable stuffed angora goat encircled by a tyre, was exhibited in the Tate Gallery exhibition, Painting and Sculpture of a Decade 1954-64 (he had a one-man Whitechapel show the same year), it looked absolutely right, the subject of nice judgment, and totally unshocking. As well it might: it had taken Rauschenberg months to hit on the right arrangement. And by now he was regarded as one of the leading lights of New York art.

The contradictions mounted. No great thinker, Rauschenberg had instinctively allied himself with the post-Duchamp vanguard; a slosher of paint without much regard for the colour, he came to be an artist of fine discrimination; not much of a reader, he embarked on a series of illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy (now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York), involving the silkscreened mass media images he was by now deploying in all his work combined with non-representational marks in paint or pencil.

Rauschenberg created the 38 Inferno drawings as a modern counterpoint to Dante and Virgil's journey through hell, replacing Dante's characters with his own heroes, American figures like Pollock and de Kooning. It is clear that non-representational are the key words. Even during his anti-Vietnam war period the serigraphed images did not amount to a political declaration. Their drama was inherent in the image itself, mediated by the other marks on the canvas; if a viewer wished to attribute political intent then that, one feels, was fine by Rauschenberg. He himself refrained from overt comment.

In the 1990s he embarked on a series of collaged images called Anagrams (collages after all amount to visual anagrams). They included political processions, buildings, sculpture, vegetables, table lamps, jetties, beach scenes, flags, posters from all parts of the world, the images recurring in different works and in different combinations. They still rely on a flattened cubist spatial structure but on a much larger scale and with light flooding the canvases and brush marks recalling American art of the heroic post-war days; recalling, in fact, his own heroic days, for despite an increasingly sure technique, these later works are quieter, blander even, than the assertive and clamorous combines of his early maturity.

As Rauschenberg found acclaim (including the grand prize at the Venice Biennale of 1964) and financial security, he never forgot the earlier struggles and in 1970 he helped to found Change, an organisation devoted to providing emergency funds for artists.

· Robert Rauschenberg, artist, born October 22 1925; died May 12 2008


Michael McNay

The GuardianTramp

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