Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, one of the pioneers of pop art, in a 1996 photo. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Robert Rauschenberg, the protean artist from small-town Texas whose imaginative commitment to hybrid forms of painting and sculpture changed the course of American and European art between 1950 and the early 1970s, died Monday night, according to New York's PaceWildenstein Gallery, which represents his work. He was 82.

According to the gallery, Rauschenberg died of heart failure at his home in Captiva, Fla., after a brief illness.
Rauschenberg obituary: The news obituary of artist Robert Rauschenberg in Wednesday's Section A said only that he died after a brief illness. He died of heart failure after a brief illness. —

Rauschenberg was widely regarded as a principal bridge between Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s and Pop art in the 1960s, but he did not subscribe to any narrow doctrine. His work also influenced the emergence of Neo-Dada, Minimal, Conceptual, Post-minimal, Process and performance art. His deep and abiding interest in printmaking facilitated a major revival in the medium, and his achievements in lithography were instrumental in the creation of a contemporary market for prints. In Europe, the humble, everyday objects of the Arte Povera ("poor art") movement expanded on his use of cast-off materials retrieved from the trash bin and the attic.

Rauschenberg's art was instrumental in reintroducing representational imagery into common usage. Until then, avant-garde art on both sides of the Atlantic was most closely identified with pure abstraction, which the general public regarded with skepticism. Rauschenberg mixed traditional forms of modern painting and sculpture with photographs, found objects, studio printmaking techniques and mass-produced pictures gathered in postcards, postage stamps and newspapers. In one of the most often repeated, yet frequently misquoted statements in postwar American art, he asserted: "Painting relates to both art and life. . . . (I try to act in that gap between the two)."

Together with painter Jasper Johns, with whom he was romantically linked, Rauschenberg was the most important American artist to emerge into prominence in the 1950s. When he was awarded the grand prize for painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale in Italy -- only the third American to receive the distinguished honor, after James Whistler and Mark Tobey -- the surprise selection ignited a firestorm of controversy in Europe but secured his international reputation. Rauschenberg had been using commercially made silk screens to reproduce photographic images on his canvases, a technique that he picked up from Andy Warhol, and the imagery mingled with energetic brushwork in brilliant colors. The day after the Venice Biennale announcement, he had all the silk screens in his New York studio destroyed, to forestall any temptation to repeat himself.

Rauschenberg's voracious appetite for experimentation characterized his working method, which employed new techniques and unusual materials. In 1954, a decade before his Venice triumph, he began to make a new kind of art that combined traditional elements of painting and sculpture, together with collage and printing. He dubbed these works "combine paintings." Two of the most famous are "Bed" (1955) and "Monogram" (1955-1959). For "Bed," he scribbled pencil marks and smeared paint on a well-worn pillow, sheets and a quilt, which hang on the wall like a traditional painting. "Monogram" is a floor piece featuring a stuffed Angora goat with a used automobile tire around its middle; the goat is mounted atop a low platform covered with painted and collaged images.

Rauschenberg's combines were inspired by the work of the German Dada artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1949), who affixed ticket stubs, dishes, old bicycle wheels, wood scraps and other refuse to canvas and paper. Both artists made a highly refined effort to reclaim beauty through the formal rearrangement of society's everyday waste. "I often had a house rule," Rauschenberg explained about his working method in the shabby downtown Manhattan neighborhood where he lived. "If I walked completely around the block and didn't find enough [trash] to work with, I could take one other block and walk around it in any direction -- but that was it. The works [I made] had to be at least as interesting as anything going on outside the window." With that house rule, Rauschenberg assumed the role of an American flâneur, eyeing chance juxtapositions on the street and incorporating them into his art.

The materials for "Bed" didn't even require a walk outside the studio. The sleeping stuff was piled over in a corner, since Rauschenberg's studio was located in an old industrial building not zoned for residential use.

The influential critic Clement Greenberg, who championed the Abstract Expressionists, wrote a 1955 essay extolling the rise of those artists and the decline of the School of Paris. Europe had been the home of the avant-garde, but Greenberg unfavorably compared postwar developments in Paris to the distinctive work he described as "American-type painting." Conforming to Greenberg's idea, Johns began to use the American flag and the map of the United States as subjects, while Rauschenberg made his canvas for "Bed" from a pieced quilt -- a unique bit of traditional Americana.

The rumpled combine, with its gestural smears and dribbles of oil paint, also made wry fun of the sometimes-grandiose claims for the Abstract Expressionist paintings of the generation that preceded him. Rauschenberg was friendly with many of those artists, including Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Barnett Newman, and he admired the fusion of liberating gesture, precise control and conceptual complexity embodied in their paintings. But he was equally ready to be sardonic and amusing.

The intimate precinct of a bed is inevitably associated with dreams, sexual activity and the private inner life of its inhabitant -- all subjects that figured prominently in the mythologies of Abstract Expressionist art. The much-romanticized notion of the social alienation of the Modern artist was even reflected in Rauschenberg's choice of a single rather than a double bed as a painting support. His "Bed" is a bed for one.

While conforming to one aspect of Greenberg's thought, combines such as "Bed" and "Monogram" also contradicted the critic's central idea, which held that a good painting is one that articulates its unique characteristics as a flat, illusion-free surface that is covered with colored marks and hangs on a wall. "Bed" took Greenberg at his literal word, but the result didn't look anything like an ordinary abstract painting.

The goat for "Monogram" was found in the commercial window display of a neighborhood store that sold used typewriters. The animal stands atop a collaged painting that lies flat on the floor. Like Rauschenberg rummaging on the streets of the city, the goat is grazing in a field of ordinary debris, prepared to consume just about anything. The artist later recalled that, as a child in rural Texas, he suffered emotional scars when his father killed his pet goat for food.

The candidly titled "Monogram" is also an unconventional declaration of identity. Western art has used goats as a symbol for priapic sexual energy ever since the Dionysian satyrs of ancient Greece -- half man and half goat, always merrily drinking and dancing. The outrageous interlace formed by the goat and the tire astride a landscape of cast-off debris dates from the conformist social atmosphere of the Eisenhower years, when an anti-Communist "Red Scare" was accompanied by an anti-homosexual "Pink Scare." Critic Robert Hughes described the unforgettable "Monogram" as "one of the few great icons of male homosexual love in modern culture" -- the complement to Meret Oppenheim's famous Surrealist sculpture of a phallic spoon in a fur teacup.

Rauschenberg made 162 combines between 1954 and 1964, and they remain the most highly regarded and influential body of work by the unusually prolific artist. (During his career he produced about 6,000 unique paintings and sculptures, along with a sizable number of prints and multiples.) The largest collection of combines -- 11 works -- is housed in Los Angeles at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Chief curator Paul Schimmel organized an exhibition of 70 combines in 2005, which traveled to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and to museums in Paris and Stockholm.

The month before the show opened, the Met acquired its first important work by the artist, the 1959 combine "Winter Pool." Rauschenberg's 1959 "Canyon," which employs a stuffed eagle carrying an empty cardboard box to suggest an American version of the Ganymede myth, is the most important combine not in a public collection; long on loan to Washington's National Gallery of Art, it is currently on loan to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Milton Ernest Rauschenberg was born on Oct. 22, 1925, in the Texas oil-refining town of Port Arthur, on the Gulf Coast near the Louisiana border. His mother, Dora Carolina Matson, and father, Ernest Rauschenberg, who worked at the local power and light company, were of Dutch, Swedish, German and Cherokee descent. Raised in the fundamentalist Church of Christ, which forbade dancing, drinking and card playing, he was encouraged by his deeply religious mother to become a preacher. Instead, after public school he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin to study pharmacology. But he soon dropped out, unaware that dyslexia was contributing to his difficulties as a student.