Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines, created between 1954 and 1964, were revolutionary in the history of art. Leo Steinberg called them a “shift from nature to culture,” and his characterization is still the most successful critical description. Others have discussed the works as collages, grids, “definitive incongruity,” and “relaxed symmetry.” But critics have not fully addressed the degree to which these works freed painting, sculpture, and design from their genre classifications, the degree to which Rauschenberg integrated into his work what some consider postmodern notions: references to earlier art, found and invented three-dimensional objects, and signs of language. It seems agreed that he firmly rejected the art notions of his day: Abstract Expressionism, the pre-eminence of two-dimensional pictures over other art forms, and the plastic sequences of formalism. Above all, Rauschenberg created a new vision of American culture—one rife with social and political conflict, changing gender and identity roles, and self-deprecating humor. Instead of taking the macho road followed by many of his generation, Rauschenberg took a magnifying glass approach, loading his work with odd, fascinating bits of Americana that seemed, to some, incongruous. Art impresario and friend Marvin Ross Friedman observed, “Robert Rauschenberg clearly articulated a new and concise language all his own. He speaks in a vernacular that is original and at the same time universal. He’s heroic yet uses materials of humble origin. His was a new kind of vision.”
Rauschenberg, raised with the given name Milton in the Texas Bible belt, has said that the name “Combine” refers both to farming and to the “shortening of the word combinations.” This phrase implies shortcuts and easy juxtapositions across media. Rauschenberg’s work variously combined color swatches in fabric, paint, and other materials; images from Western art and from popular culture, including an FBI poster whose wanted man resembled the artist; and found materials, from stuffed animals to light bulbs, mirrors, fans, wood furniture, wire, boxes, and tires. The use of sculptural elements and found objects changed the focus by combining art elements that literally interacted with each other. Rauschenberg was wryly conscious that changing how art is created also changes how it is viewed. He encouraged viewers to bring their own readings and perceptions to each work.