Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
The simplest way to explain what Rauschenberg did is to say that he made the canvas three-dimensional and worldly. Or to put it another way, he thought of the canvas as something you could walk inside and inhabit. There’s a famous quote that has come to define Rauschenberg’s practice. It goes, “I operate in the gap between art and life.”
There’s a piece by Robert Rauschenberg that now lives at the MoMA. It’s called “Bed” (1955). It isn’t exactly a painting and it isn’t exactly a bed. There are bed elements — an actual sheet, a pillow, a quilt. Rumor has it that these bed elements were once the very things that Rauschenberg slept on. But there are painting elements as well. First of all, it is framed and up on the wall. Secondly, there’s the paint, smeared and splattered mostly around the top half of the work.
Arthur Danto, the art critic for The Nation, makes an insightful point about these early works (Rauschenberg called them Combines). He notes that Rauschenberg felt a need to arrange a bunch of objects and then to throw paint over them. It is as if he is still under the thrall of paint, convinced that it is the paint itself that is making the difference between art and not-art. But he’s also trying to cure himself, and by extension the art world dominated by painterly Modernism, of this addiction. Slowly he realized that he didn’t need the paint at all. He became indifferent to its authority. Even when he came back to paint and painting throughout his career, he did so as a free man.