Robert Rauschenberg review – the combine master, uncut

By Laura Cumming

This thrilling retrospective gives us Rauschenberg whole, from his collages to his ballets to his own wild performances

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) is America's Leonardo – ceaselessly inventive, a mind in perpetual revolution. That is the revelation of this exhilarating show. If all you knew of him was the famous goat girdled in a tyre, or the collages of JFK raising a warning finger, then think again. Rauschenberg changed artists' ideas of what painting, sculpture and even drawing might be. He turns out to be the fons et origo of 60 years and more of art, Warhol to Hirst.

The first gallery at Tate Modern covers only two years – 1950-2 – and yet it feels like the big bang. How to make everything new? Use newspapers instead of pigment, create paintings out of latex, dirt and clay, make sculpture out of scrap metal and self-portraits by lying on light-sensitive paper. Work with what you've got; work with your friends. Rauschenberg invites John Cage to drive a car across yards of white paper, making the elegant black print that surely sends up Barnett Newman's zips. Cage is credited as both the printer and the press: typical of Rauschenberg's collaborative heart.

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