A prolific worker in many media that he combined according to rules all his own, Rauschenberg was as much a catalyst for others as a creator who sought to operate in a kind of aesthetic no-man’s land, which he famously called “the gap between art and life.”
Like his friends and collaborators composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, Rauschenberg brought together chance procedures, everyday experiences and found materials to create pieces that testified to new possibilities in art. Such openness, along with his habitual blurring of the boundaries between media, gave a model for generations of younger artists.
In the early 1950s, when Abstract Expressionist painters were being recognized as the strongest artists to have emerged in the United States, Rauschenberg found himself “revolted” by their rhetoric and began to paint very different abstractions. These were all in one color–white paintings, followed by a series in black, then red–and the first of them were made in conjunction with dance performances. They were not seen by Rauschenberg as a vehicle for projecting his own personality. Instead, he conceived them as screens that would reflect collaboration, changing with different lighting and the shadows of dancers.
The spareness of Rauschenberg’s monochromes would one day make them seem anticipatory of Minimal Art, though the artist was only much later (in the 1970s) stimulated by austerity. His works of the mid-’50s, on the contrary, found ways to bring more, rather than less, into modern art–he even made “paintings” of earth and grass–and ultimately that meant a re-introduction of the figure.