Robert Rauschenberg

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Jonathan Horwich, Modern British art specialist

Rauschenberg was born in Texas in 1925, originally called Milton Ernest Rauschenberg he changed his name in 1946 as it sounded more artistic. At the age of 16 he was admitted to the University of Texas to study pharmacology and in 1943 he was drafted into the US Navy in where he served in California as a mental hospital technician until the end of the war. Post war he studied at the Kansas City art Institute, the Academie Julian in Paris and then later at Black Mountain College, North Carolina under Josef Albers, founder of the Bauhaus movement.

One glance at Albers work and working methods and another at Rauschenberg’s would confirm that things would not end well. Albers working methods were incredibly precise and didactic and would not allow for any undue influence or experimentation. Rauschenberg described this experience with Albers as influencing him to do exactly the reverse of what he was being taught, in his own words he says, “I became Albers’ dunce and an outstanding example of what Albers was not talking about” .

Buffalo II, 1964
Oil and silkscreen ink on canvas.
96 x 72.4 in
Sold May 2019, $88,800,000, world record price for the artist.

Later he found a more suitable mentor in the musician, artist and philosopher, John Cage who led Rauschenberg to create his ‘combines’ collages or montages of found objects. He later studied at the Arts Students League of New York where he worked alongside Cy Twombly and Knox Martin.

Rauschenberg’s approach to his art is sometimes called Neo Dadaist, and was once quoted as saying that ‘he wanted to work in the gap between art and life’, mirroring Dada and Marcel Duchamp.


Rauschenberg Market overview

I think its fair to say that Rauschenberg’s work is probably undervalued, however this doesn’t apply at the top end of the market , the buying opportunities exist at lower levels for small scale works, prints and works on paper. Equally the overall picture at the top end is not easy to clarify as the lack of supply and the fact that considerable numbers of works are in Museum collections and unlikely to move are also factors. The market currently heavily favours his early works which are rare such as pieces from his “Combine” found object series and his silkscreen paintings which mirror Warhol’s work at the same time.

Rigger, 1961
Oil, metal, rope, wood, fabric, plastic buttons, paper, graphite and sand on canvas.
102 x 60 in
Sold, May 2017 $12,275,000
This picture is from the combine series of works , which ‘combine’ found objects with traditional painting methods. This same painting was offered and unsold in 1997 at a $3-4 million estimate.

Works known as Combines, make up a majority of the highest-selling lots at auction, however their relative rarity means that far fewer Combine works come up at auction or are offered in commercial galleries. Of the remaining top twenty highest prices, eight are silkscreen paintings which include the top selling work at $88,800,000.

Not everything sells, a quick trawl through the last 50 works offered shows a lowish 70% sell through rate when compared with the average sell through for an average Contemporary auction of around 85% . In some years the Rauschenberg sell-through drops further, for example in 2016 the sell through rate fell close to 50%. Of course there could be various factors affecting this, over ambitious vendor expectation, condition, quality and freshness to market can all affect the sale results. However happily 2016 did not set a trend, as in 2017 only one of the 14 pictures offered remained unsold !