With his use and combinations of a variety of mediums, techniques, and materials, Robert Rauschenberg’s work cannot be linked to any single style or movement. White Painting [two panel] (1951) was first presented as part of Theater Piece No. 1 (The Event) (1952), a multimedia performance by Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham (1919–2009), and their mentor John Cage (1912–1992) at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, for which Rauschenberg’s series of “White Paintings” were hung from the ceiling in the shape of a cross.
Unlike other monochromatic paintings of the period that evidenced the painter’s hand, White Painting [two panel] does not. The twin canvases lack both luster and gesture, due to the artist’s decision to spread the paint onto a raw, unprimed canvas with a paint roller. Moreover, Rauschenberg made it clear that others could repaint the panels as needed in order to maintain the original surface, without any suggestion of age or patina. Critics and viewers scoffed at the painting when it was shown at New York’s Stable Gallery in 1953. Rauschenberg had exhibited black monochromes in 1951, but even artists who were invested in the possibility of the monochrome saw Rauschenberg’s White Painting [two panel] as nihilistic. John Cage, however, described the “White Paintings” as “airports” where changing light, shadow, even dust particles could “land,” thereby capturing subtle changes in the world around them. In the decades that followed, the “White Paintings” became influential precursors for minimalism, conceptualism, and process-based art.
Before he became an artist, Robert Rauschenberg served in the U.S. Navy Hospital Corps in San Diego during World War II. In 1947 he began his art career by studying fashion design at the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, followed by a stay in Paris. In 1948 he enrolled at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he studied under Joseph Albers (1888–1976) and met John Cage (1912–1992), among others. In the 1950s, after traveling Europe and North Africa with Cy Twombly (1928–2011), Rauschenberg befriended Jasper Johns (b. 1930) during his early years in New York. He soon became famous for his series of “Black Paintings” and “White Paintings,” which commented on Abstract Expressionism. Although Rauschenberg is often associated Pop art, his work cannot be linked to one style or movement. His notable “Combined Paintings” series of sculptural collages reflect his lifelong practice of using various mediums, techniques, and materials, as well as his belief in the relationship between art and life. In 1963 Rauschenberg earned an early retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York; the following year he was awarded the grand prize for painting at the Venice Biennale (1964).