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The Priciest Robert Rauschenberg Artwork Auction Room Has Seen

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May 17, 2016
Studied Photography at IED in Milan, Italy. Passionate about art, frequent visitor of exhibitions, Widewalls photography specialist and Editor-in-Chief.

Groundbreaking, iconoclastic, prodigious, daring, influential. These are just some of the words that could be used to describe any Robert Rauschenberg artwork created over the course of his rich, remarkable career which spanned over five decades. Radical, innovative and considered by many to be one of the most influential American artists, Robert Rauschenberg was a defining figure of the 20th century history of the arts. He was pivotal to the creation of Neo-Dada and crucial in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to… just any movement that was trying to break away from its strong influence in the 1950s. With an original mind and an idea that changed the way we understand art materials and methods, Robert Rauschenberg redefined the role of an artist, the meaning of an artwork, the purpose of the arts as it reflects on the contemporary world around.

Always working ”in the gap between art and life,” Robert Rauschenberg revived the revolutionary visions of Dadaists, who vowed to raise the mundane to the level of a highly appreciated artwork. In the manner of Marcel Duchamp, he questioned the role of an artist as the creator of a certain work by going against the establishment and doing pretty much whatever he pleased. Despite this rather arrogant approach to the world of the arts, Robert Rauschenberg was deeply respected and admired by his fellow artists, especially those with whom he collaborated (and was romantically involved in too), like Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns. Shortly after creating – and exhibiting! – his very first artwork in form of White Paintings in New York in 1953, he established himself as a force to be reckoned with on the national and the international art scene.

Combines and Silkscreen Paintings – The Most Famous Robert Rauschenberg Artwork

Changing the context of whichever thing out there gives it a new meaning, a new life. This is something Robert Rauschenberg strongly believed in, and with this in mind, it comes as no surprise that many of his artworks were implemented with trash and found objects picked up off the streets of New York. These he called Combines, as they combined paint and objects on canvas, and their sole purpose was to interpret life as art and vice versa. Created mainly between 1954 and 1962, the Combines incorporated a variety of materials, such as clothing, newspapers, comics, quilts, photographs, urban debris and even taxidermied animals. The other, Silkscreen Paintings, introduced Rauschenberg as the pioneer of the technique that would also inspire another great artist. Being intriguing, ever-changing and provocative, many of these artworks turned out to be the artist’s most expensive artworks at auctions over the years, and in this article we’ve highlighted the ten best-selling ones.

For every Robert Rauschenberg artwork at auctions, make sure you visit his dedicated page, and for his most expensive art, scroll down!

   Editors’ Tip: Rauschenberg: Art and Life

It is not just about his art – but also his life. Rauschenberg: Art and Life is a complete portrait of this remarkable individual, consisting of 200 illustrations – of which 92 in full color. In addition to the scores of works of art reproduced (paintings, combines, floor and wall constructions, prints made at U.L.A.E., and more), and personal photographs of Rauschenberg and his friends and family, creating in sum an intimate portrait of this living legend. A special feature of the book are the many reproductions, for the first time, of his most recent and significant work – ROCI. The author interviewed just about everybody who has been important to Rauschenberg over the course of some six decades.

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Combine, 1954

An entirely free-standing combine painting, this work is one of the finest examples of Robert Rauschenberg artwork and conceptual practice. It was given as a gift to choreographer Paul Taylor in 1964, where it remained until Sotheby’s 2014 auction in New York. One of the artist’s earliest works, it is an elaborate piece consisting of materials like oil, charcoal, fabric assemblage, newspaper, canvas, light bulbs and glass radiometers, all attached to a wooden structure. Each of these elements is a part of an ensemble, yet leads a full individual life of its own.Furthermore, the radiometers feature an internal spindle supporting a number of vanes which, when exposed to the light of the bulb, rotate with varying degrees of speed. So, not just an artwork – a work of science too!

Combine was sold for $5,765,000 with buyer’s premium at Sotheby’s New York in 2014. For more auction data, click here!

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Forge, 1959

At first sight, this artwork seems like a work of Abstract Expressionism – a movement Robert Rauschenberg briefly dedicated himself to with a series of White Paintings, Black Paintings and Red Paintings in the early 1950s. Yet Forge is a canvas created in the late 1950s which contains oil, printed paper, fabric, a necktie, a sock, a paper plate and found metal object. Escaping two-dimensionality, the work is 185cm high and its every detail gloriously emerges from the surface, quite literally. On the rusty metal surface, we even recognise a writing, saying “Calcium Carbide Dangerous if not kept day” – as if it further emphasised Robert Rauschenberg’s ironic take on life, and for that matter, art.

Forge achieved $6,200,000 with buyer’s premium at Christie’s New York in 2007. Click here for more information on the work!

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Trapeze, 1964

In the early 1960s, Robert Rauschenberg dedicated himself to a different kind of image-making, one that involved photographic transfer onto canvas. It was the birth of his celebrated series of Silkscreen Paintings which anticipated the post-modernist idea of appropriation, later one of the protagonist techniques of Pop art. What’s interesting is that in 1964, after he won the International Gran Premio for Painting at the Venice Biennale, the artist promptly phoned home to order that all of his remaining silkscreens be destroyed – that way, he couldn’t possibly repeat himself in the future. Luckily, Trapeze survived this fate, and we can now witness it put Renaissance masterpieces and contemporary imagery together in splendid colors.

Trapeze reached $6,354,500 with buyer’s premium at Christie’s New York in 2010. Full data can be accessed here!

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Rebus, 1955

Did you know that Rebus also includes a drawing by Cy Twombly? Right in the middle of synthetic polymer paint, oil, pencil, crayon, pastel, cut-and-pasted printed and painted papers and fabrics. Three of its panels are mounted on canvas, then subsequently on fabric, just to prove Robert Rauschenberg’s innovative style once again. The artist himself described the painting as ”a record of the immediate environment and time.” In 2005, New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquired the seminal painting for its collection, some forty years after the founding director of MoMA, Alfred H. Barr, had asked Jasper Johns which Rauschenberg he would recommend if the museum were to buy just one. You can guess Johns’ answer…

Rebus went for $5,750,000 with buyer’s premium at Sotheby’s New York back in 1988. More data here!

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Red Interior, 1954

It is important to list all of the materials used by Robert Rauschenberg in the Combines, because it is as if each of them is trying to outdo its predecessor with originality and yet another element we surely did not expect. Red Interior, made in 1954, is often described as one of the elegant Combines, and while it contains the usual newspaper, fabric, oil, plastic and wood, it also featured metal-and-porcelain pulley, pebbles and string. It is alluring in color, perhaps calling to mind the sublime hues of Mark Rothko while implementing rough patterns and edges that prove its materiality and immediacy. The artwork has a rich exhibition history, having provided to many important institutions by Victor and Sally Ganz, who owned many gems of contemporary art in their remarkable collection.

Red Interior sold for $5,800,000 with buyer’s premium at Christie’s New York in 1997. Click here for complete info!

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Bait, 1963

Another seminal silkscreen, Bait is the artist’s extraordinary example of skill in silkscreening. Even though this technique would define the career of one Andy Warhol only a little later, Robert Rauschenberg distanced himself from the Pop Art movement by keeping it distinctly personal and intuitive, almost totally improvised, and as further as possible from the mechanical approach its mass production firmly dictated. What characterizes these silkscreens is an abundance of imagery of numerous provenance, from architecture, cultural icons and transportation to Old Masters paintings and mundane objects, like a simple glass of water, in this particular artwork places right next to a photograph of the Sistine Chapel…

In 2015, Bait went for $6,746,000 with buyer’s premium at Sotheby’s New York. More auction data after the click!

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Exile, 1962

Speaking of silkscreens and Andy Warhol being the other master of the technique, it should be mentioned that Robert Rauschenberg actually visited Pop artist’s studio in 1962, the year Exile was created. This influenced Rauschenberg to manipulate the repetition of his imagery to a higher degree than Warhol, by scattering imagery throughout the series as well as within a single canvas. Unlike many other works from the series, this one has little paint applied to it, as it swims in the hues of black, white and gray. In fact, the artist’s earliest Silkscreen Paintings were primarily monochromatic like this – it was from 1963 on that vibrant colors like red and yellow entered his palette. This artwork is also particular for the fact it features a rare image of a female figure – Diego Velàsquez’s The Rokeby Venus.

Exile went for $8,034,500 with buyer’s premium at Sotheby’s New York in 2010. Click here for more auction data!

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Photograph, 1959

It is entitled Photograph, yet it is just another Combine Painting. It is described as “urban poetry”, an artwork made of torn paper, a sweatshirt, photographs, a necktie, metal, fabric and wood, another restless experimentation by someone who was always on a lookout for new, exciting ways to turn the everyday into something much less banal. “I like the history of objects. I like human reportage,” Rauschenberg had once said, and in this work, we witness just that, random objects that have now found a brand new purpose and are interacting among each other on a canvas, guided by the central image of industrialised towers, an enigmatic and haunting photograph of a raised hand, the bold black stars collaged on the bottom rim…

Photograph achieved a whopping $10,680,000 with buyer’s premium at Sotheby’s New York in 2007! More information here!

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Studio Painting, 1961

If you remember me talking about the International Gran Premio at the Venice Biennale, pay attention, because this is the very artwork that got the prestigious prize. It is the ultimate Robert Rauschenberg artwork, a dynamic and vivid exploration and exposure of the intuitive mechanics and material construction of what it is that constitutes a picture – all presented and investigated as if from the analytical viewpoint of an engineer. Studio Painting consists of two equal canvas panels, separated by a small gap, which are connected by a rope sandbag and pulley adjoining them. While the left-handed panel is predominantly black and white and uses mixed media imagery including street poster and photographs, the right-hand one is more vibrant, as it features the textural strip of fabric from a workman’s overall. Bizarre and surprising, it gives a proper object lesson in the aesthetic language of painting itself.

Studio Painting achieved $11,058,500 with buyer’s premium at Christie’s New York in 2010. Full information on this auction item is available here!

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Overdrive, 1963

Finally, one of the most famous Silkscreen Paintings, Overdrive is a myriad of collaged images of city life which faithfully reflect on the visual information overload we encounter on a daily basis by living our urban lives. Street signs, stop signs, the Statue of Liberty, office buildings, iron railings and birds that flock the cityscape paint a perfect picture and let us almost hear the background noise and bustle of any given metropolis, not just New York City. Going beyond mere assemblage of imagery, this work, like many others from the fantastic oeuvre by Rauschenberg, come as a result of a sort of a performance, in which the artist makes gestures, re-observes the image, makes changes as he goes, constructs and deconstructs almost randomly. And so, every time we look at it, this artwork will always have a brand new story to tell…

Overdrive, the most expensive Robert Rauschenberg artwork, sold for $14,601,000 with buyer’s premium at Sotheby’s New York in 2008. Click here for more auction information.

Featured image: Robert Rauschenberg working on a metal painting in his Laika Lane studio, Captiva, Florida, 1989. Photo © Gianfranco Gorgoni. All images used for illustrative purposes only.