ONE OF THE GREATEST ARTISTS of the 20th century, Robert Rauschenberg, died on May 12, 2008, at the age of 82. Protean and prolific, Rauschenberg was arguably the most significant artist-inventor in the history of American art, celebrated not only for his combines (artworks midway between painting and sculpture), but also for some of the avant-garde’s earliest attempts to meld art and technology, for his invention of conceptual art, his pioneering set and costume designs, his wholesale use of photographic, printed and junk materials, and especially for an attitude of welcoming acceptance of the stuff of the world that would, in time, point towards Pop Art and its successors. No less an icon than Andy Warhol paid tribute to Rauschenberg as far back as 1963 with a series of silkscreen paintings using photographs of his handsome face playfully entitled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
But as fresh accolades now pour in, few newspapers have noted that he is survived by his partner Darryl Pottorf, and until very recently even that fact would have been met with the same silence that continues to suppress acknowledgment of the other key romantic partnerships in his life, most importantly with artists Cy Twombly (1951 to 1953), Jasper Johns (1954 to 1962), and the dancer/choreographer Steve Paxton (1962 to 1966). Tellingly, Rauschenberg’s relationship and eventual marriage to Susan Weil (1948 to 1951) was the sole romantic liaison referenced in the recent touring exhibition of his seminal combines at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art, yet this marriage was dissolved so quickly that citing only this marriage was tantamount to disinformation. Such deliberate distortions of the historical record are common in Rauschenberg scholarship.