Robert Rauschenberg, with Toby Fitch, Harold Hodges, Billy Klüver, and Robert K. Moore: Oracle, 1962–65, five-part found-metal assemblage with five concealed remote-controlled radios and mixed mediums, dimensions variable; at Tate Modern. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

“I think a picture is more like the real world when it’s made out of the real world,” Robert Rauschenberg said in 1964. Rauschenberg thrust items from the real world—shoes, electric fans, chairs, taxidermied animals—into his work relentlessly. No object was too humble or abject for his egalitarian compositions, which have had significant reverberations for generations. Tate Modern’s retrospective, jointly organized with the Museum of Modern Art, New York (where it opens in May), brings together more than 250 works from an extraordinary range of disciplines, spanning the six-decade career of the artist, who died in 2008.

What stands out most is Rauschenberg’s continual innovation and restless curiosity. Take, for example, his use of the tire—that symbol of America’s wealth and disposable consumer culture—to two very different ends. For Automobile Tire Print (1953), he treated the tire as a printmaking tool by having the composer John Cage drive his Model A Ford across twenty sheets of paper glued end to end, with one wheel leaving a dirt track and another leaving a trail of black paint. In Monogram (1955–59), he incorporated a tire as a sculptural component, placing it around a stuffed goat that, in the work’s final version, he stood on a collaged painting laid horizontally; the unexpected juxtapositions here are at once ludicrous and liberating and conjure associations of man versus nature, capitalism versus biology (though the artist himself refused to interpret the work, despite the title’s suggestion that the piece is a personal insignia).

Rauschenberg’s experimental approach can be traced to his time, in the late 1940s and early ’50s, at Black Mountain College in North Carolina—a hothouse for vanguard artmaking that shaped much of America’s postwar art scene. There he encountered Cage’s multidisciplinary collaborations and participated in former Bauhaus teacher Josef Albers’s courses centered on assembling random materials to explore their relative properties, both of which would deeply impact his practice. The first room of the exhibition contains works from that period, including two important monochromes from 1951: a black textured painting composed of enamel and paper on four canvas panels, and a smooth reflective seven-panel painting from the series of White Paintings that Rauschenberg and his friends and assistants produced by applying paint to canvases with rollers. (Cage famously described the White Paintings as “airports for the lights, shadows, and particles,” and said they emboldened him to make 4´33˝, his composition consisting of the sounds of an auditorium.) Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953)—in which he rubbed out all but a trace of a drawing reluctantly given to him by Willem de Kooning, whom he much admired—is also displayed in this gallery, as are four Elemental Sculptures he made in New York around 1953: simple combinations of natural materials and detritus, such as stones, blocks of wood, nails, and twine, that presage Arte Povera. Throughout the gallery, one witnesses Rauschenberg’s disregard for authorship—his brazen challenging of the dominant current of Abstract-Expressionist painting, which sought to transcend the everyday through personal expression.  

With the Red Paintings, Rauschenberg’s work grew more theatrical, subsuming ever-larger found items, often scavenged junk. These works crackle with energy, particularly the joyfully makeshift Charlene (1954), a multi-panel piece that incorporates a flickering light bulb, an undershirt, art historical reproductions, a mirror, and an umbrella, the whole slathered in warm hues of oil paint. The Red Paintings represent an important transition into the Combines: the artist’s landmark three-dimensional painting-sculpture hybrids. A slide projection on view shows dancers moving through and under one of the first Combines, Minutiae (1954), a freestanding assemblage that Rauschenberg created as a set for a performance by Merce Cunningham’s dance company.

The curators—Tate Modern’s Achim Borchardt-Hume and MoMA’s Leah Dickerman—have reunited many of Rauschenberg’s most celebrated Combines. The show presents iconic examples like the aforementioned Monogram; Bed (1955), in which a wall-mounted quilt and pillow are smeared with paint, nail varnish, and toothpaste; and Gift for Apollo (1959), which features a collaged door placed on wheels and chained to a metal bucket. Such Combines retain a vitality today that belies their age. Indeed, working forty years later, Young British Artists such as Tracey Emin, with her rumpled bed, and Damien Hirst, with his animal carcasses in formaldehyde, clearly owed Rauschenberg a sizable debt. 

Just when it looked as though Rauschenberg might be developing a signature style, he was off in another direction, this time creating transfer drawings by dissolving printed news images with solvent and rubbing them onto paper with pencils. The thirty-four illustrations of Dante’s Inferno that he made between 1958 and 1960 present a bewitching, fragmented picture of contemporary life, with sportsmen, politicians, and astronauts looming ghostlike out of the smudgy compositions. His large-scale silkscreens collaging contemporary and historical images extend the approach of layering old narratives with new ones. Retroactive II (1964) marries a news photo of John F. Kennedy with images of space travel, a military vehicle, and an old master painting. At the 1964 Venice Biennale, Rauschenberg exhibited his silkscreens and was awarded the Golden Lion, after which, to avoid getting trapped by a successful technique, he promptly had his assistant destroy the approximately 150 screens he had used to make such work.

This imperative to keep moving led Rauschenberg to collaborate through the ’60s with Bell Laboratories engineer Billy Klüver, with whom he founded Experiments in Art and Technology, a groundbreaking partnering of artists and technicians. With Klüver and a few other collaborators, he produced Oracle (1962–65), an exuberant junk-metal installation whose five components are placed on wheels and fitted with concealed remote-controlled radios. (One of them also contains a babbling water feature.) The rolling parts can be combined in multiple configurations, the installation seeming curiously animate, as if a harbinger of an automated future. 

In 1970, Rauschenberg moved to Captiva Island, off the coast of Florida, signaling a turning point in his production. He went back to basics, making simple wall pieces from cardboard boxes; sail-like textile sculptures he called Jammers; and, later, a series of assemblages from metal road signs and car parts that he designated Gluts. Although attractive, these various series feel largely derivative of his earlier works. For instance, the cardboard works, some of which incorporate materials such as rope and rubber hosing, are reminiscent of the Elemental Sculptures, while the Gluts recall the Combines, although the amalgamations are less startling.

Toward the end of the retrospective is a series of posters produced for the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (ROCI), a program conceived by Rauschenberg through which, between 1984 and 1990, he traveled to countries where freedom of expression was restricted, such as China and Cuba, and made and exhibited artwork there. Some criticized ROCI as imperialistic and hubristic, yet, in its efforts to forge cultural dialogue across international boundaries, it can be seen as foreshadowing today’s globalized art world.

Rauschenberg’s achievements appear all the more far-reaching when considered alongside the work shown in the Abstract Expressionism survey held recently at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and on view at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao until June 4. Rauschenberg was instrumental in diverting the course of art away from subjective gesture and angst-ridden outpouring and toward an embrace of the real in multidisciplinary works. “My whole direction,” he once said, “has been to confront people with something that might remind them of their own lives, in some way that they might look at it differently.”