Robert Rauschenberg: A 20th-century artist for our 21st-century world

by Thomas McMullan

Ahead of a major exhibition of the famous 20th-century artist at the Tate Modern, we look at why Rauschenberg is relevant today.

Robert Rauschenberg: A 20th-century artist for our 21st-century world

There are three concealed radios in Robert Rauschenberg’s 1959 painting Broadcast, embedded into the canvas so that only their knobs poke through. I know this because, even though I have never seen the painting in real life, I can see a photograph of it, in one of the nine browser tabs currently open on my screen, besides a piece of text that tells me as much.

BROADCAST. 1959. Combine: oil, graphite, paper, fabric, newspaper, printed paper, printed reproductions, and plastic comb on canvas with three concealed radios 61 x 75 x 5 inches (154.9 x 190.5 x 12.7cm)

This way of coming across Rauschenberg’s cut-and-paste painting, between incongruous Wikipedia pages, Spotify playlists and news articles, seems to fit the spirit of the work. Fiontán Moran, assistant curator on a new blockbuster exhibition of Rauschenberg’s art coming to the Tate Modern, tells me that Broadcast is one of the artist’s combine paintings. These combines do exactly as they suggest, combining flat painted canvases with objects such as cloth, photographs, stuffed birds, newspapers, doors, windows and radios.

“He’s layering different sorts of images that don’t relate in a traditional sense,” Moran tells me over the phone. “I think you can see that he’s giving a similar visual form to how people browse the internet.”rauschenberg_broadcast

(Above: Broadcast by Robert Rauschenberg)

Rauschenberg was making art in the decades following World War II, largely in New York. It was a time of mass media and urban growth for the city, when walking down the street became a tangle of disparate sounds, scenes and advertisements. For today’s world, where a walk down the street tends to encompass both the multiplicity of real-world objects and the digital layer of social media and 24-hour news alerts, his way of seeing rings true. For an age where I stumble across a photo of his painting beside Wikipedia, TweetDeck, emails and Spotify, his folding of objects and images onto a single canvas resonates.

“He was trying to convey that modern-day experience of encountering a variety of different things at the same time,” says Moran. “The combines, in their combination of different objects that don’t have any obvious relationship to each other, reflect that.”


(Above: Section of Retroactive I by Robert Rauschenberg)

After the combines, Rauschenberg turned his attention to silkscreen paintings, something his contemporary Andy Warhol was also doing. Taking a technique generally used for commercial advertisements and using it in his practice let Rauschenberg engage with layers in a new way. In pictures such as Retroactive I, he would silkscreen one image, wait for it to dry, and silkscreen another on top. “You get this diverse array of different images that work in layers, in a way that Photoshop or other design programs work now,” notes Moran.

Art will EAT itself

Aside from combine and silkscreen paintings, Rauschenberg also engaged more explicitly with technology in his frequent collaborations with scientists and engineers. After embedding radios into the canvas of Broadcast, for example, he set about constructing a more technically ambitious piece using radio signals. Moran tells me it took Rauschenberg about five more years before he was able to create a piece called Oracle, made up of five metal objects on wheels that pick up five different radio signals. He did so with the help of Billy Klüver, an electrical engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories.

“So even though he was working with technology you’d see in your day-to-day life, he was also thinking of ways technology can be pushed further,” notes Moran.rauschenberg_oracle

(Above: Oracle by Robert Rauschenberg)

After making Oracle, Rauschenberg and Klüver collaborated on a series of performances, titled 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, where artists including John Cage and Yvonne Rainer developed pieces alongside engineers from Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. From there, the pair set up an organisation dedicated to cross-disciplinary collaborations, along with the engineer Fred Waldhauer and the artist Robert Whitman.

The project was called Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), and encompassed a number of large-scale immersive installations – including a vast dome in the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan, which included a sculpture made of water vapour by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya.

“It seems that now more than ever [Rauschenberg’s] legacy is important, because so many artists are working with digital technology, or thinking about opening up the art object to the audience in more ways than one,” says Moran. “It might not necessarily be about having a hi-tech electrical system, but it’s about finding ways for the viewer to become either a part of the work, or for the work to relate to the sitter. You can see this in Rauschenberg’s work from the beginning.”

The way we think about images, changed by the rise of advertising, is changed again by the rise of smartphones.

Looking at pictures of Broadcast and Oracle, on two of my concurrently open browser tabs, it’s apparent that things have changed. The way we encounter the world is arguably different to how it was in the decades following World War II. The way we think about images, changed by the rise of advertising, is changed again by the rise of smartphones, by social media, by 24-hour news cycles, by scrolling streams of photographs. For artists working now, digital technology isn’t only a subject, it’s another part of the fabric they work with. Rauschenberg and his collaborators preempt that. 

“If you think about the time Rauschenberg was working, I think it must’ve seemed very strange to a lot of people to be working with these cold, supposedly unexpressive objects,” Moran ponders. “When he started working with technology, he’d only just won the prize for painting at the Venice Biennale for his silkscreen paintings. And so the fact he chose at that period to embrace technology is quite an impressive thing.

“Now we can’t even think about an artwork without Googling it or seeing it as a digital image.”

Robert Rauschenberg opens at the Tate Modern on 1 December.r_google

(Above: Looking for Retroactive I on Google)

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