Rauschenberg and His Amazing Friends

June 26, 2017 - 6 minute read -
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Today’s topic is collaboration. The artist I am going to write about is Robert Rauschenberg and the papers I am going to link to are all on crowdsourcing. I am going to show you two very different ways of collaboration, one is with a few close friends, throughout years even decades; the other is with total strangers, within days or minutes.

Collaboration is the one of the most important topics in the social networks era. One of the most important conferences in HCI, CSCW, has a strong focus on technology-medicated collaboration. As Helen Keller said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends

Every once in a while, there comes someone who thinks so radically new and changes the course of history. In modern art history, there was Monet for Impressionism, Seurat for Pointillism, Picasso for Cubism, Duchamp for Dada, Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko for Abstract Expressionism.

And then, in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism around 1950s, there came Rauschenberg (1925 - 2008), the enfant terrible whose work anticipated Pop Art, Conceptualism, and Minimalism. This summer, MoMA is presenting a giant retrospective “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends”, presenting over 250 works across mediums from his six-decade career.

Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends

The exhibit focused on the collaborative nature of Rauschenberg’s life’s work. He has worked with many people across different disciplines, most notably, Susan Weil, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, and engineers from the Bell Labs.

I mean, the dude must have been a huge introvert. This picture says it all:

Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends


The first thing I noticed in the exhibit is his whimsy. Every now and then visitors to the museum would giggle out aloud after reading a description of the artwork. Here are some of my favorites:

In 1953, Rauschenberg created Erased de Kooning Drawing. Yes the name says it. He audaciously asked Willem de Kooning, the prominent Abstract Expressionist painter, for a drawing to erase. In 1955, the erased painting went on view at a gallery with a gold frame and inscription (a). De Kooning wasn’t the only famous artist he played almost tricks on. In 1960, he bought a bottle rack for three dollars and asked Marcel Duchamp to sign it (b). He played tricks on friends too. I think the quilt in (c) was stolen from his college laundry room.

He also wouldn’t let the animals alone. In 1963 when the artist was making the oil and silkscreen-ink print on canvas named Scanning, his pet, a kinkajou named Sweetie, strolled across the canvas, leaving small paw prints at the lower left of the painting. He embraced the accident and left as is (d). And yes, the he did pushed a stuffed goat through a tire to make Monogram (g).

But my favorites are the ones he made for John Cage (e, f), by which you can’t really tell if he was making fun of or giving the highest compliment to his composer friend’s music style. John Cage famously composed 4’33’’ (1952), in which the score instructs the performer(s) not to play the instrument(s) for the entire duration of the piece. Cage’s compositions were hugely experimental, or in other words, sounded more like noise than music by traditional standards.

Most people would find 4’33’’ absurd. But the idea behind it was hugely modern, in that it challenged the very definition of music, and by that, opened the space for noise music to develop. Then we can have the musicians that we love so much today, La Monte Young, Lou Reed, Sigur Rós, just to name a few.

Rauschenberg made a painter’s equivalent of the 4’33 – the White Painting (e), shown in 1953 with a statement from John Cage. Yes, it is a painting, with no image on it. Rauschenberg liked Cage so much that he made “trophy” for him – a sculpture (f) where the suspended boot can be dropped to kick a piece of scrap metal, making a single clanging note – so John Cage.

Funny. “He was a performance artist, first and last.” – New Yorker


The second thing about Rauschenberg was that he worked incredibly across disciplines, from painting, sculpture, to combines, to dance, music, and technology. He was constantly experimenting new technologies to make art. From inventing new ways of printing using X-rays (Untitled, Double Rauschenberg, 1950), to using chemical solvent to transfer print images (Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferono, 1958-60), all the way to asking a friend (the aforementioned John Cage) to drive his car over house paint then paper to make a long automobile tire print.

He further worked with engineers from the Bell Labs, and used sonar, circuit boards, transistors, to create a series of installations, including, a bubbling pond of mud. Yes, mud. See Mud Muse (1968-71).


Up to this point, it is very clear that Rauschenberg worked very collaboratively with other people, including engineers. In addition, he also made it easier for other artists to do the same.

In 1967, E.A.T. was launched, by engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer and the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman. E.A.T. stands for, experiments in art and technology, and it aimed at connecting on personal level artists with engineers whose skills are compatible to collaborate on projects. To showcase what can be done through such collaborations, E.A.T. hosted 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering that featured works from 10 artists with 30 engineers and scientists. This resulted in many “firsts” that technology was used in theater, including video projection, wireless sound transimission, and Doppler sonar.

Membership forms for E.A.T. for artists

That was the first time I cried at an exhibit. For someone who was at just the dawn of technology era, has foreseen the generation of digital and multimedia artists, algorithmic art, and perhaps even various of artists in residence programs like that one of Tilt Brush. Not only so, many people believed in the combination too, and they rallied together and achieved so much.

For a great artist, he made remarkably little good art. But the example of his nimble intelligence and zestful audacity affected the sense of vocation—thoughts and motives, doubts and dreams—of subsequent generations, to this day.

– The Audacity of Robert Rauschenberg, The New Yorker

Research: Crowdsourcing

Now let me show you another kind of collaboration.

What if you can summon thousands of workers on-demand to assemble into teams and finish complex task within a day? Flash Teams accomplish just that. Not only that, research has figured out how to power people through web technology to collaboratively write satires, novels and other types of complex writings that require a lot of context.

Side by side with Rauschenberg and his collaboration over the years, some spanning decades, the differences are clear. We can collaborate at scale that was never available before, but our collaborators are faceless. And the collaborations are short. One way to address this problem is to create stable crowd teams over time, which has been shown to increase performance compared to unfamiliar teams. But I don’t think it would be the same. It also shouldn’t be. For we can do so much more together, even with strangers.


  1. The Audacity of Robert Rauschenberg
  2. Robert Rauschenberg: It Takes a Village to Raise a Genius
  3. For Robert Rauschenberg, No Artist Is an Island