Robert Rauschenberg was born Milton Rauschenberg on October 22, 1925, in Port Arthur, Texas. He served as a neuropsychiatric technician in the U.S. Navy Hospital Corps in San Diego before enrolling at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1947, travelling to Paris to study at the Académie Julian the following year.
In fall 1948, Rauschenberg returned to the United States to study under Joseph Albers at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. While taking classes at the Art Students League, New York, from 1949 to 1951, Rauschenberg was offered his first solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery and met fellow artists including Cy Twombly, with whom he later traveled across Europe and North Africa. During his travels, Rauschenberg worked on a series of small collages, hanging assemblages, and small boxes filled with found elements, which he exhibited in Rome and Florence.
When he returned to New York in 1953, Rauschenberg completed his series of black paintings and began work on sculptures created from wood, stones, and other materials found on the street; paintings made with tissue paper, dirt, or gold leaf; and more conceptually oriented works such as Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953). By the end of 1953, he had begun his Red Painting series (1953–54) on canvases, incorporating newspapers, fabric, and found objects, which eventually evolved into the Combines, a term Rauschenberg coined in 1954 for his well-known works that integrated aspects of painting and sculpture.
In late 1953, he met Jasper Johns and, together, Johns and Rauschenberg are now considered the most influential artists who reacted against Abstract Expressionism.
Rauschenberg began to silkscreen paintings in 1962. He had his first retrospective, organized by the Jewish Museum, New York, in 1963 and was awarded the Grand Prize for painting at the 1964 Venice Biennale.
By the end of 1970, Rauschenberg had established a permanent residence and studio in Captiva Island, Florida. He eventually acquired 20 acres of the island to use a workspace and serve as a nature preserve, which he utilized until his death there in 2008. The property now hosts the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, a residency for artists and philanthropic organization for the promotion of art, culture and progressive social/political initiatives.