Robert Rauschenberg, one of America's greatest artists, died Monday (May 12, 2008) of heart failure at his home on Captiva Island, near Fort Myers. He was 82.
Famous for pioneering the use of everyday objects to create art that fetches millions of dollars, Mr. Rauschenberg was known in the Tampa Bay area both for his international reputation and his loyalty to the University of South Florida's famed Graphicstudio.
"He taught me one shouldn't qualify anything," said James Rosenquist, an equally distinguished artist and friend of 50 years who lives in Hernando County. "Just do it and be surprised. He was the most generous genius I ever met."
Rosenquist last saw Mr. Rauschenberg, whom he described as "my best art buddy," on May 5 in a Fort Myers hospital.
"He wanted to go home," Rosenquist said. "And he did."
Mr. Rauschenberg, born in 1925, was famous for his eclectic and democratic use of materials. His "Combines" are assemblages that contain all types of oddments along with more prosaic and traditional elements. Canyon, from 1959, for example, is a painting onto which Mr. Rauschenberg attached buttons, a photograph, a pillow and a stuffed eagle. Although he shocked audiences a half-century ago, today we're used to seeing this kind of mixed media work and accepting it as art because Mr. Rauschenberg made it so, working, as he said, "in the gap between art and life.''
Of his work, he once commented: "I think a painting is more like the real world if it's made out of the real world."
He had a reverence for every thing that came his way. His collaged works might have seemed random but were actually highly deliberate, meant to produce myriad associations and interpretations in viewers.
"I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly," he once said, "because they're surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable."
"He was a great designer," said Rosenquist. "He put together junk but with incredible finesse and beauty."
Mr. Rauschenberg rose to prominence in the 1950s, breaking the stranglehold of abstract expressionism in the art world and paving the way for new movements such as pop art. He was prolific and moved easily between painting, sculpture, photography, collage, even music and the performing arts, collaborating famously with composer John Cage and choreographer Trisha Brown.
Margaret Miller, director of the Contemporary Art Museum and Institute for Research in Art at the University of South Florida in Tampa, first met him in the 1970s when he began a relationship with USF's Graphicstudio, which creates very limited editions of fine prints and sculptures.
"He owed an allegiance to Dada and (Marcel) Duchamp," said Miller. "But he was innovative. His use of nontraditional materials is at the heart of so many artists' practices today. I couldn't think about contemporary art without thinking about Bob."
His work is in the collections of major museums throughout the world, and he had numerous retrospectives and honors during his lifetime. Two of his works are on view locally, a print at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg and a metal sculpture from his "Glut" series at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.
He became a wealthy man, able to maintain a residence in Manhattan and amass 35 acres of beachfront on Captiva, which had been his primary home and studio since 1970. When Hurricane Charley wreaked havoc on the island in August 2004, Mr. Rauschenberg was evacuated by helicopter. His house and studio sustained major damage, which he repaired in several months.
His most coveted works are the "Combines." One of them, Rebus, fetched $30-million in 2005.
Mr. Rauschenberg was generous with his wealth, giving millions to various charities including Change, which helps struggling artists pay medical bills.
His own health had been in decline since a stroke in 2003.
Miller remembers a party at Mr. Rauschenberg's Captiva home in the 1980s.
"I danced with Robert Rauschenberg," she said. "I remember thinking, 'This is an important moment.' And I remember everything was on. The TV, the record player, people were talking, laughing, he was cooking. There was no hierarchy. Everything was fully engaged. That's the kind of artist he was."
Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report. Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or [email protected]