Rauschenberg Shifted Path of American Art

Robert Rauschenberg, one of the most influential artists of his generation, has died at 82. A man of seemingly limitless imagination, Rauschenberg created works of great beauty out of objects that most people would overlook.

: brightly painted canvasses, collage, silkscreen and found objects. But he refused to be confined to single medium. The artist died of a heart attack yesterday at his home in Florida, and NPR's Lynn Neary has this appreciation.

LYNN NEARY: Born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1925, Robert Rauschenberg grew up poor, knowing absolutely nothing about art. Calvin Tomkins, who wrote about Rauschenberg in his book "Off the Wall," says when Rauschenberg was serving in the Army during World War II, he visited a museum and saw his first painting - Gainsborough's "Blue Boy."

CALVIN TOMKINS: He said this was the first time it has ever occurred to him that somebody had actually done that, that somebody had actually sat down and painted a portrait of somebody else. It just never had come into his thinking before. He'd never had any contact with art of any kind.

NEARY: Tomkins believes Rauschenberg's openness as an artist was shaped by this background. He says Rauschenberg was the least doctrinaire artist he ever met.

TOMKINS: He did not believe in art as self-expression. It just didn't interest him in the slightest bit. He thought of it more as of collaboration with materials. His attitude was to art was in reactivity, and that it could be anything at all.

NEARY: After the war, Rauschenberg studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he met composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham. Over the years, he would collaborate with both. Cunningham remembers the first set he ever asked Rauschenberg to design.

MERCE CUNNINGHAM: He made this object out of sticks of wood he found in the street, pieces of newspaper, some plastic. There were some comic strips on it. There were ribbons hanging, and you could go through it or around it or even underneath it. I thought it was beautiful. The color was so extravagant with all of these materials he'd found in the street.

: Rauschenberg began creating works out of found objects when, like other artists of his generation, he was looking for a way to move beyond the abstract expressionism of artist like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Branden Joseph, Columbia University professor and author of "Random Order," says Rauschenberg began using different kinds of materials to create texture in his paintings.

BRANDEN JOSEPH: What happens is that he begins to be more and more interested in these materials. And as they start to build out, as he starts to put more and more things onto the canvass, he starts to make these things that are called combines - combinations of, or somewhere in between painting and sculpture. And these become a whole new sort of genre of art, and they open up a number of possibilities for a whole series of artists that come afterwards. The most famous would be, say, Jasper Johns, and then from him, Andy Warhol. There's a huge number.

: Rauschenberg experimented with all kinds of objects. One of his most famous works is "Monogram," a stuffed goat with the tire wrapped around its body, its nose and base covered in paint. Later, Rauschenberg would use photos from newspapers and magazines in his work. His art can be both beautiful and imbued with a mischievous sense of humor. Nothing seemed beyond his imagination. But in the 1999 NPR interview, Rauschenberg said he didn't work in the realm of ideas.

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG: People ask me don't you ever run out of ideas? Well, on the first place, I don't use ideas. Every time I have an idea, it's too limiting and usually turns out to be a disappointment. But I haven't run out of curiosity.

: Branden Joseph says Rauschenberg never wanted his work to be held back by an idea of what something should look like.

JOSEPH: And he was very interested always in striving for effects, materials, combinations that to him were unknown. And that's really what he means. He wants his work to be for himself and for the viewer a sort of adventure and discovery.

: Rauschenberg's home for many years was in Captiva, Florida, where he had a studio and continued to work until the end. Calvin Tomkins, who visited him there, says he will remember Rauschenberg for his exuberance.

TOMKINS: His marvelously active sense of life and the fact that he enjoyed everything he did so much, and also for the surprises. You never had contact with Bob in which he didn't say something that completely surprised you.

: The artist Robert Rauschenberg died of a heart attack after a brief illness. He was 82 years old. In addition to all his other artistic accomplishments, Rauschenberg also composed music. Here's a piece he co-wrote and performed at his home in 1999.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

: Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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