Groundbreaking postwar artist Robert Rauschenberg died last night at the age of 82. The adventurous painter, photographer, printmaker, choreographer, set designer and composer was born Milton Ernest Rauschenberg on Oct. 22, 1925, in Port Arthur, Texas, a small refinery town with little cultural stimuli. (In his adult life he took the name Robert.)
His father worked for a local utility, and the family’s lifestyle was so financially tight that, according to the Times, Rauschenberg’s mother once made herself a skirt out of the back of the suit that her younger brother was buried in. His future aesthetic, often distinguished by fabric strips or other found scraps (he would collect trash from NYC streets), would seem influenced by his frugal childhood.
After service in World War II, Rauschenberg attended the Kansas City Art Institute on the GI Bill and later studied in Paris and at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. His famous all-white paintings raised eyebrows in 1951, and were said to influence the work of his composer friend (and Black Mountain professor) John Cage. “We both thought, ‘Here was somebody crazier than I am,’” Rauschenberg later said of Cage. Painter Jasper Johns was also an intimate friend.
By 1965 the Sunday Telegraph of London had called him “the most important American artist since Jackson Pollock.” In 1983 he won a Grammy for his design of a limited-edition release of Stop Making Sense by Talking Heads; his last New York retrospective was an acclaimed 2005 exhibit at the Met.
Rauschenberg continued working well into his twilight years on the island of Captiva, off Florida’s Gulf coast. He once said, “I think you’re born an artist or not. I couldn’t have learned it. And I hope I never do because knowing more only encourages your limitations.”