Beginning in the early 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg countered abstract expressionism with works he called Combines, fusions of painting and sculpture that incorporate everyday items. By introducing real objects into Combines and paintings, Rauschenberg effectively reinstated representation into the avant-garde. In terms of materials, he employed almost anything; to Rauschenberg a kite, which he included in the work Wall-Eyed Carp/ROCI JAPAN, 1987, was as valid a medium as oil paint. Rauschenberg challenged preconceptions about the boundaries between art and life and profoundly altered the course of art after midcentury.
In Rauschenberg’s practice, sculpture, painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, theater, dance, video, poetry, and musical composition all expanded to absorb the everyday and accidental. He thrived on intermixing these genres: for example, Rauschenberg’s photography embellishes many of his prints (as in the series Soviet/American Array, 1988); his drawings frequently include printed elements (lithography was integral to For Dante's 700 Birthday, 1965); his sculpture and costumes enrich dance performances (as in his 1991 collaboration with Trisha Brown in Astral Converted (50”) at the National Gallery); and his paintings are animated with electronic elements such as lights (Doric Circus, 1979).
Rauschenberg is most extensively represented in the National Gallery’s collection by his prints. His open-minded approach, which welcomed chance and the commonplace, proved to be a powerful influence on the modern print workshop. Despite an unexpected break of the stone matrix for Accident, 1963, Rauschenberg refused to abandon the lithograph; indeed his insistence on printing it spotlighted the printmaking process itself and opened up a new range of subject possibilities. Rauschenberg exploited not only the virtually endless supply of novel materials and techniques offered by print shops but also the expertise of master printers, who acted as advisors and contributors. When the artist’s landmark print Booster, 1967, challenged boundaries of size and complexity, Rauschenberg relied on skilled printers to combine printing stones and develop techniques in order to realize that opus. Rauschenberg steered fine-art print studios in pioneering directions by discarding customary approaches to lithography, screenprint, and intaglio, while adopting new processes such as digital imaging and printing on such unconventional supports as fabric, cardboard, and plastic.
Rauschenberg’s love of collaboration took him to the far ends of the globe. The launch of his 1984 Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) generated an exhibition that traveled to Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, China, Tibet, Japan, Cuba, the Soviet Union, Germany, and Malaysia before it concluded its tour at the National Gallery of Art in 1991. Rauschenberg’s ebullient personality frequently disarmed intolerant regimes, allowing him to forge international collaborations with artists and artisans and cultivate global audiences as he broke down the borders of art and the barricades of the world.
department of modern prints and drawings
National Gallery of Art