Robert Rauschenberg first made his mark with a tire track. In 1951 he collaborated with John Cage to produce Automobile Tire Print, a work that is pretty much what the title says it is: A 23-foot-long automobile tire track on a scroll. It was a deliberate provocation to Abstract Expressionism, the dominant American art form of the early 1950s. Abstract Expressionism held dearly onto the painted mark as the unique trace of the individual who makes it. With one burned rubber streak, Rauschenberg and Cage ran over the Expressionists' claims to authenticity, spontaneity, and risk. And if the message of that gesture wasn't clear enough, Rauschenberg produced another work called Erased de Kooning Drawing. The Abstract Expressionists and the critics who loved them closed ranks against Rauschenberg , the Dadaist menace with a GI Bill art school degree. One critic declared that Rauschenberg made nothing but "handmade debris," a remark that was meant to be wounding.
Undaunted, and untempted by the reigning ideology of Abstract Expressionism, Rauschenberg continued to work against the grain of his times. Soon after Erased de Kooning Drawing he experimented with photo-sensitive surfaces that recorded the ghostly traces of a nude female body, creating a set of anti-Pollack paintings, or photographs, or some combination of the two. The Rauschenberg canvas wasn't a screen upon which the artist projected his psyche, nor was it a window onto the world. Rather, it was a surface upon which the real leaves its traces and language drops its extraneous signs. In this sense Rauschenberg was the bridge between modernism and postmodernism.
The strain of modernism Rauschenberg bequeathed to postmodernism was Duchamp's brand of cerebral Dadaism. Rauschenberg first encountered Duchamp's work in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which holds The Large Glass. Rauschenberg read The Green Box, Duchamp's notes for The Large Glass, and, according to one story, passed his enthusiasm for Duchamp's work onto Jasper Johns, whose career closely paralleled Rauschenberg's throughout the 1950s.
Rauschenberg was never interested in recreating the presence of the artist behind the artwork, so he also never felt bound by the requirements of painting and its history of auratic genius behind the pigment. He was as famous for his restless experimentation with different media as he was for his impish Dadaism. Printmaking, a medium in which Rauschenberg excelled, allowed him to combine a Kurt Schwitters-like Dadaism with a nascent Pop Art sensibility at the same time Andy Warhol was developing his screenprints. By the mid-1960s, Rauschenberg moved more deliberately into the artistic mainstream, staging live performances and constructing elaborate readymade sculptures.
Although later in his career Rauschenberg gave up on his more provocative gestures, he retained his absurdist sense of beauty, telling an interviewer that he felt sorry for people who didn't realize that Coca-Cola bottles were beautiful. He even adopted a Beat Generation version of Duchamp's withdrawal into chess: he abandoned New York for the humid isolation of Captiva Island, Florida because a psychic suggested it might be a good idea. From there he continued to tinker with different media and disperse his millions to women, children, and Democratic politicians. He died on the island on Monday at age 82.