Robert Rauschenberg, the rebel; Robert Rauschenberg, the die-hard experimenter. This man who worked in “the gap between art and life” and who contributed to the emergence of the concept of the “visual artist”, would leave his mark on the history of art in the second half of the 20th century. But has the market followed him?
Robert Milton Ernest Rauschenberg was born on 22 October 1925 in Port Arthur, in Texas oil country. His parents, fervent Protestants, had limited means. He had a German physician grandfather who fell in love with a Cherokee Indian.
At the age of sixteen, young Rauschenberg started studying pharmacy at the University of Texas in Austin. In 1943, he signed up with the US army and joined the Navy Hospital Corps in San Diego, California. Upon his discharge in 1945, he enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute before setting off for the Académie Julian in Paris. This is where he met Susan Weil, with whom he would have a son. Rauschenberg continued his studies at Black Mountain College (North Carolina), where he met Josef Albers. A stint at New York and the Art Students League, alongside Morris Kantor and Vaclav Vytlacil, gave him the opportunity to meet Knox Martin and Cy Twombly.
1952 marked a turning point in his career. While he was still a student at Black Mountain College, he took part, with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, pianist David Tudor and Jay Watt, in the Untitled Event, also known as Theatre Piece N°.1, often referred to as the first happening by historians. In the same year, he travelled across Europe and North Africa with his lover Cy Twombly.
At the start of the 1950s when the United States was under the thrall of abstract expressionism, Robert Rauschenberg had already started to incorporate everyday materials in his works, to desacralize art and abolish the sacred principle of self-expression. His first works were white, black and red monochromatic paintings, made with glued painted newspaper. His first masterstroke was his Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953): after persuading the venerable artist to give him a drawing, he rubbed it out and exhibited it. This was also the era in which he started his Combines (1953-1964) series associating painting, collage and various everyday objects. At this time, he inspiration was largely fed by (just as he also inspired) Jasper Johns, his other lover. Between 1955 and 1959, he created Monogram, the most famous work in his Combines series: a type of abstract painting laid flat on the ground, on which perches an angora goat with a painted muzzle, wearing a car tyre like a belt. In this work going against the collage tradition as it was introduced in the 20th century, no unconscious associations are discernible. The goat remains irreducibly a goat, the tyre, a tyre.
Following his encounter with Merce Cunningham in 1952, Rauschenberg would collaborate for ten years with the Merce Cunningham Company as an artistic director, creating costumes and set designs, looking after lighting and controls. He would later also collaborate with Trisha Brown and Paul Taylor. Above all, Robert Rauschenberg was a man of the stage who was drawn by performance.
Combines was succeeded by his Silkscreen (1962-1964) period, when images and their reproduction took on a key role for him. Robert Rauschenberg called on silkscreen techniques which were associated with pop art and invented in 1962, possibly by Andy Warhol, possibly by Rauschenberg himself, as the paternity of this method is contested.
In 1964, Rauschenberg became the first American artist to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale – which would cause an uproar in Europe. Two years later, he continued his exploration of new media and emerging forms of expression by founding, with engineer Billy Klüver from Bell Laboratories, the Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT). The EAT promoted collaboration between scientists and artists, and the group set up series of performances (9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering in 1966) as well as the EAT Pepsi Pavilion for the 1970 Universal Exposition in Osaka (Japan).
In the 1970s, Robert Rauschenberg continued his series, deliberately tending towards more abstract works: his Cardboards (1971-1972) and Venetians (1972-1973) relied on found objects; his Hoarfrosts (1974-1976) and Jammers (1975-1976) used fabric, from cotton to satin: his Spreads (1975-1983) and Scales (1977-1981) showed a return to screen-printed transfers and installations.
The artist then took on two major projects. First, The ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (1981-1998), in other words 191 different panels using most of his techniques, including painting, fabric collage, sculptures in cardboard and iron, and different printing and image-transfer techniques. The second project was the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI), a series of voyages around the world demonstrating his faith in cultural and artistic exchange.
When he became famous, Robert Rauschenberg devoted part of his fortune to philanthropy, and financially supported artistic creation but also the US Democrats. He died on 12 May 2008, on Captiva Island, in his Florida studio.
A contemporary-art heavyweight
Robert Rauschenberg is big news at the moment. As well as his retrospective at the Tate Modern, the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac (Paris) is showing, until 14 January, the “Salvage” exhibition, revealing the artist’s last series on canvas, combining painting and serigraphs. Thaddaeus Ropac has represented the American artist’s estate since April 2015.
Robert Rauschenberg is a heavyweight in contemporary art. Since the end of the 1950s, his works have appeared in nearly 1,200 exhibitions, over a quarter of which (28 %) have been monographic shows – a significant proportion. The pace of his showings has been fairly regularly until the mid 1990s and the early 2000s when the number of curators including Rauschenberg in their exhibitions literally exploded. From around ten exhibitions per year, the number went up to about forty collective shows and roughly ten solo shows per year, between 1995 and 2003.
At the start of his career, Robert Rauschenberg started by going from gallery to gallery in New York. In 1951 his first exhibition was held at the Betty Parsons Gallery, during which no works were sold. In 1953, he showed his White Paintings at Eleanor Ward’s Stable. In 1954 and 1955, he put on two exhibitions at Charles Egan, namely unveiling Bed (1955), from the Combines series. At the end of the 1950s, Leo Castelli, convinced by his wife Ileana Sonnabend, showed Rauschenberg.
Very quickly, institutions wanted their share of the artist. In 1959, the artist took part in the inaugural Biennale de Paris while showing his work at Daniel Cordier in 1961. In 1963 he held his a first retrospective (at the age of 38) at the Jewish Museum (New York). In 1976, a mid-career retrospective was dedicated to him at the National Collection of Fine Arts – today the Smithsonian Museum of American Art — at the Smithsonian Institute (Washington). The Centre Pompidou (Paris) held an exhibition on him in 1981, then the Guggenheim (New York) in 1997, while the Metropolitan Museum (New York) show in 2005 would also travel to the MoCA (Los Angeles), the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris) and the Moderna Museet (Stockholm). The last major event on the artist dates back to 2009 when the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Venise) organised “Robert Rauschenberg: Gluts”, an exhibition of his last sculpture series, subsequently shown at the Tinguely Museum (Basel), the Guggenheim Museum (Bilbao) and the Villa e Collezione Panza (Varese).
In 1970, Rauschenberg had the opportunity to take part in the 35th Venice Biennale, but he was amongst the artists who withdrew their works from the American Pavilion in protest against US military action in Vietnam. He would nonetheless go on to participate in the Venice Biennale in 1978, 1990, 1995, 2003 and 2015 (posthumously), in Performa in 2007, in the Whitney Biennial in 1973 as well as the prestigious Documenta in 1968 and 1977.
The United States has hosted 55 % of Robert Rauschenberg’s exhibitions, followed by Germany (13 %), Italy (5 %) and other European countries. Even if nearly 170 institutions in some 30 countries own his works, Robert Rauschenberg remains a herald of Western art.
As for press coverage, The New York Times has been an incredible echo chamber for Rauschenberg. This US newspaper has published 1,500 articles on him in 30 years, in other words one-quarter of articles written in English about Robert Rauschenberg, and one-sixth of all articles published. The fact that English and German together make up 80 % of Robert Rauschenberg’s press coverage once again underlines the Western lean of the artist.
Works from Combines series most coveted today
While the primary market has not raised any obstacles for Robert Rauschenberg, the latter has come across some tension with the auction world, primarily in the 1970s when he fought to get his artist’s resale royalties respected in the United States. The case emerged following the sale, by Robert Scull at Sotheby’s in 1973, of part his collection, comprising Rauschenberg’s works which had gone strongly up in value. While on a federal level, this lobbying attempt failed, it nevertheless gave birth to the California Resale Royalty Act, in 1976.
At auctions, since the end of the 1990s, Robert Rauschenberg’s business volume has been fairly stable, swinging between $3 and 8 million per year, with the exception of a few frenetic years, between 2006 and 2010, when his sales peaked: an average of $20 million in business volume despite a slump in 2009 ($5.9 million). These fat years yielded a number of good scores. In 2010, Studio Painting (1960-1961), a work in the Combines series, estimated at between $6 and 9 million, was purchased by the Michael Crichton Collection for $11 million at Christie’s (New York). Works from the Combines series are today the ones most coveted ones by buyers.
Since 2007, the artist’s unsold rate has tended to increase – a fairly common consequence of the growth in the number of lots offered on sale. For example, an average of 155 lots placed on sale between 2004 and 2007 produced a negligible unsold rate of 6.25 % – but the 240 lots offered since 2010 have resulted in an unsold rate of 27 %. Since 1990, the artist has proven to be a sure value – while not performing extraordinarily –, with a low unsold rate of 15 %. Less reassuring is that out of the 18 lots offered at prices over one million dollars, eight have found no takers.
More recently, in 2014, Paul Taylor Dance sold, at Sotheby’s, four Robert Rauschenberg pieces: two Combines, but also Tracer (1962), a work created for a Paul Taylor dance by the same name, which went for a disappointing $437,000 (incl. expenses), and Pink Clay Painting (to Pete), considered the only example of Robert Rauschenberg’s clay paintings still on the market, going for a sturdy $425,000 (incl. expenses).
These results set the tone… Robert Rauschenberg’s market is dominated by the United States which has sold 63 % of his works and accounts for 90 % of his business volume. Sotheby’s takes the lion’s share with 52 % of the artist’s business volume at auctions, for 17 % of the lots sold. Its rival Christie’s, selling 27 % of lots to make 42 % of the business volume, struggles to secure the top lots.
Today, Robert Rauschenberg’s works sell at entirely reasonable levels: an average of $300,000 for a painting, $55,000 for a drawing, and $3,500 for a multiple. Despite his powerful institutional presence, the artist hasn’t really taken off at auctions.
Rauschenberg at the Tate
Six decades of work are currently on show at the Tate in London, for as many mediums: drawings, paintings, sculptures, prints, sound and performance videos. The London retrospective on Robert Rauschenberg shows the artist’s immense spectrum. From 21 May to 17 September 2017, the exhibition will be travelling to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, then the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from 4 November 2017 to 25 March 2018.
“Robert Rauschenberg”, until 2 April. Tate Modern, Bankside, London, Great Britain. www.tate.org