by William O’Connor

This month I had the great experience of spending time with Dan Dos Santos at Illuxcon.  We had a fun conversation in the bar one night talking about Muddy Colors and I admitted that the Artist of the Month blogs that I’ve filed on modern painters had created a bit of an outcry amoungst the more ardent traditionalists.  We got to talking and I joked that I had been wanting to do a blog on Robert Rauschenberg, but was afraid that I would get lynched by the fans.  Much to my pleasure and delight, Dan lit up, and admitted that he was a huge Rauschenberg fan, and he encouraged me to write this blog!

When I was an art student, I was not an illustrator.  In fact, my school didn’t even offer illustration. I was a full-on, post modern artist, focusing on assemblage works in the vein of Motherwell, Keifer, Schnabel and one of my favorites, Robert Rauschenberg (1925 – 2008).

Mixed Media
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Rauschenberg was an archivist of New York.  His assemblage and collages of his period are relics of the time.  Living in lower Manhattan in the 1960’s he would often wander the streets and pick up found objects from his neighborhood and work them into his “paintings” calling them Combines, because he was combining found objects into a single work.  They became time capsules of the world around him.  His Combines are considered modern master pieces, and if you ever have the opportunity to see them in person, its a unique experience. 

I became enamored of Raushenberg as a student, and loved his use of texture and found objects to create depth and volume to his paintings, with breath taking compositions.  Dumspter diving and skulking through junk shops became a favorite pastime to find some unique object to add to my work.

Mixed Media
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Later, as a novice illustrator, I would often utilize what I had learned from Rauschenberg in my illustrations by incorporating collage and objects into my paintings.  (Why render a facsimile of leaves when you could just attach actual leaves into the image?) Quickly, I began to realize that art directors did not appreciate paintings arriving in their office with sticks, dirt and broken glass collaged into the illustrations, so I eventually removed all of those elements for a purely painted smooth surface that could be reproduced easily on a drum or flatbed scanner.

More than a decade later  I had begun to adopt the digital medium and immediately became re-inspired by Rauschenberg.  Digital painting aloud me to scan found objects and photos and layer them into my work in a way that was almost identical to my student assemblage work.  Broken glass, crumpled newspapers, concrete, metal, text, wood, leaves, everything was now available as a medium and perfectly reproducible to a commercial client. Many people who look at my digital work are often surprised by the texture and depth I’m able to achieve, and I explain to them that its because there are often dozens of layers of texture and elements combined into the image that produce that effect.  Every time you find a cool texture file or photo online and combine it onto your painting, you’re channeling Rauschenberg. 

Rauschenberg is one of the most inspirational and influential artists in my career.  If you look closely at some on my digital work you can see pieces of assemblage and collage peeking through, thanks to Mr. Rauschenberg.  Today, as I evolve back into oil painting, I am deeply inspired to re-connect with my roots and begin to incorporate assemblage into my traditional fantasy work.

Go Forth and Learn!


For an interesting intro lecture on Rauschenberg and his contemporaries view: