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Creativity Knew No Limits

In the 1950s,artist Robert Rauschenberg stretched the domain of art with unorthodox ideas and materials

By Jerome Tarshis / September 14, 1992

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG is admired as one of the most inventive artists of our day. His financial success allows him to travel around the world and make art by combining objects and images found abroad. Rauschenberg hopes to promote international understanding by exhibiting these works, which present mass-media imagery and impressions of everyday life from many countries.

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His interest in discarded materials and printed images began long before he studied art. As a child he built what he calls a "collection wall" in his room, by assembling crates and planks that he had found. The wall must have looked like an array of glass cases in a museum, and Rauschenberg used it to display such objects as plants, insects, and stones.

In his collection, art was represented by drawn, traced, and cutout pictures. The rectilinear arrangement, the illustrations recycled from newspapers and magazines, and the variety of materials Rauschenberg collected, natural and artificial, are prominent features of the artwork he has done as an adult.

If a single idea can be said to run through all of his work, it is that any material, and any procedure, can be used to create a legitimate work of art. In 1953 and 1954, to test conventional attitudes about materials, he undertook to make similar abstract paintings of tissue paper, dirt, and gold leaf.

Although the abstract imagery would be much the same in each painting, the material would vary. Rauschenberg predicted that people would value his gold paintings most highly, because the material was considered valuable in itself, and would devalue those made of dirt or paper.

As things turned out, he was right. None of the tissue-paper paintings have been preserved, and only one of the dirt paintings, but the gold-leaf paintings have been kept and admired.

Since the 1950s many other artists have used lowly materials. Compared with more recent avant-garde art, Rauschenberg's one surviving dirt painting now looks acceptable and even rather elegant.

Two of his most famous works explore the possibility of creating an artwork on paper without drawing, painting, photographing, or even making an assemblage of pre-existing objects. One was his "Erased De Kooning Drawing" (1953), a sheet of paper bearing the dimly visible lines of a drawing.

Rauschenberg was playing with the idea that artists like Willem De Kooning began work without any preconceived idea of the final image. The critic Harold Rosenberg had called this procedure "action painting" in a much-discussed article published in 1952. Brush in hand, the artists improvised, and the completed painting was only a residue of the true work of art, which was the improvisatory act itself.

But if a process rather than an image was the true goal, then perhaps the process of effacing an artwork could be just as artistic as the process of creating it. Although De Kooning hardly liked the idea, he liked Rauschenberg and gave him an unusually dense drawing, so that erasing it would be an ambitious project in itself. The erasure was not complete; traces of the original can still be seen on the otherwise blank sheet of paper.

Neither Rauschenberg nor De Kooning regarded the erasure as an act of personal hostility or cultural vandalism. It was a way of taking a fashionable idea about art and following it to its logical conclusion.