Robert Rauschenberg and the subversive language of junk

By Olivia Laing

With their lightbulbs, chairs and signs from the street, Rauschenberg's sculptures reshaped art in the 20th century

Towards the end of his relentlessly inventive life, Robert Rauschenberg confided an anxiety. He was worried that his mission to introduce the world to itself by way of the spectacular mirror of his art could fail, not because he lacked energy or talent, but because he might “run out of world”.

No one had bolder ambitions than Rauschenberg, and no one did more to breach the walls between art and life, hauling the grubby, gleaming world into the hallowed chamber of the gallery and dragging art out to the furthest corners of the planet. A lanky Texan with a penchant for Jack Daniel's, he was still finding ways to innovate in his ninth decade, despite being semi-paralysed by a stroke.

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