1. Training and early work, to 1953
Source: Oxford University Press
Rauschenberg studied at Kansas City Art Institute and School of Design from 1947 to 1948 under the terms of the GI Bill before travelling to Paris, where he attended the Académie Julian for a period of about six months. On reading about the work of Josef Albers he returned to the USA to study from autumn 1948 to spring 1949 at Black Mountain College, where he was taught by Albers and his wife Anni Albers; he moved in spring 1949 to New York, where he attended the Art Students League until 1952. During this period he continued to visit Black Mountain College, where he came into contact with members of the department of music and dance, in particular john Cage and merce Cunningham, who helped shape his own ideas and in particular his reliance on chance methods, daily experiences and found material as elements of his art.
In the early 1950s, just as Abstract Expressionism was being recognized as the most important avant-garde movement to have emerged in the USA, Rauschenberg produced several series of abstract paintings: a group of White Paintings (1951; e.g. artist’s col., see 1980–81 exh. cat., p. 259), followed by Black Paintings (1951–2; e.g. artist’s col., see 1976–8 exh. cat., p. 67) and Red Paintings (1953; e.g. Beverly Hills, CA, Frederick R. Weisman priv. col., see 1976–8 exh. cat., p. 75). His concern, however, was not so much to project his personality through the individuality of the brushwork, as in action painting, but to present the textured surfaces of these essentially monochromatic works as screens whose appearance changed in response to the lighting conditions and the shadows cast on them by the spectators.
The first of Rauschenberg’s monochromes, some of which were painted on multiple panels measuring over 3 m in width overall, were made as backdrops for dance performances. While their austerity of form prefigures Minimalism of the 1960s, they were thus conceived largely in relation to the human figure. Rauschenberg’s importance and influence, in fact, were centred from the beginning on the highly original ways in which he reintroduced recognizable imagery. From 1949 to 1951 he and his wife, Susan Weil, whom he had met as a fellow student in Paris and married in 1950, produced a group of large-scale monoprints by shining a sun-lamp over a nude model resting directly on blueprint paper; Female Figure (Blueprint) (2670×910 mm, c. 1949; artist’s col., see 1980–81 exh. cat., p. 57) is one of the most imposing of these works. In combining elements of photography, printmaking and painting in a single image, these experimental works presaged the deliberate blurring of the boundaries between different media that quickly became one of the characteristic features of Rauschenberg’s art.
A desire to assimilate but also transcend the lessons of Abstract Expressionism was a strong motivating force in Rauschenberg’s early work. In a collaboration with John Cage, Automobile Tire Print (ink on paper mounted on canvas, 420×6720 mm, 1951; artist’s col., see 1976–8 exh. cat., p. 65), he elaborated two of the movement’s essential concerns—that of revealing the process by which the marks are made and of working on an environmental scale—while simultaneously parodying them and stripping them of their pretensions to grandeur and sublimity. Instead of suggesting that the marks are the result of an existential struggle between the artist and his or her materials, he presents the imprint made by a car driven into wet ink and then on to the paper; the extensive scale similarly functions on an equally literal, even banal, level, as the image as a whole can be apprehended only through the spectator’s actual movement over a period of time.
From Grove Art Online