While there is no scientific proof of a direct relationship between learning disabilities and creativity, Robert Rauschenberg's life and work provide several examples of the positive effect having a learning disability like dyslexia can have on an individual's ability to develop and implement novel ideas. This article examines Rauschenberg's education, work, and the relationship between his dyslexia and creativity. It also poses questions that may help to reframe this learning disability in a more positive way.
Robert Rauschenberg will likely be remembered as one of the most influential and prolific artists of the twentieth century. The man who described what he did as working in the "gap between art and life" would use the day to day images and objects that surrounded him to create what would become the bridge between abstract expressionism and pop art during the 1950s and 60s. That bridge was only the start to a path he continued to blaze into the twenty first century.
Beginning with his work as a student at Black Mountain College in the late 1940's and early 50's, Rauschenberg continually worked at pushing the limits of a variety of media. He constantly looked for new combinations that would keep him on the cutting edge of the art world for several years. One of his innovations, "the combine", resulted from piecing found objects together, or extending paintings by adding found objects, thereby pushing the effect beyond collage. Or he would paint on three dimensional assemblies. These "combines" were only one example of his willingness to extend the limits of art. He explored art, technology, dance, printmaking, and photography, without regard for the usual boundaries between these media. During his lifetime he worked with dancers, engineers, musicians, politicians, and teachers to extend the limits of expression. Because of his willingness and enthusiasm for crossing boundaries both literally and figuratively, his place in art history will be a significant one.
There were certainly many external forces — including the politics of the sixties and seventies and the rapid advancement of technology — that shaped Rauschenberg's art. Internal forces, including his sexual orientation and his struggle with alcohol, also came to bear on his daily life and work. This article focuses on the role dyslexia may have played in his development as an artist. A look at his life, thought, and creative processes points to the influence that the learning disability had on this artist's body of work.
The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as, "a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/ or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experiences that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge (Lyon, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2003, p. 2 ). Dyslexia appears in a variety of ways and is a heterogeneous learning disability. A variety of neurological differences underlie the disorder (Ramus, 2006, p.90-91) that can result in a range of difficulties. Although the literature emphasizes phonological processing differences, the disorder can include differences related to visual spatial attention and peripheral visual processing (Facoetti, 2004, p. 61 ).
Rauschenberg describes his own dyslexia as a difficulty with language, both reading and writing, as well as reversals (Mattison, 2003, p. 34.) Since dyslexia and its overall effect on an individual impacts more than the ability to use language, it likely contributed to the shape of Rauschenberg's personality and his life as a creative individual. His neurological make up and the differences in his visual processing system perhaps caused him to see and value objects in the world around him in unique ways. These differences may have allowed him to see the possibilities of incorporating the objects of his every day life into his art.
Seeing and Thinking Differently
Much of Rauschenberg's work is an example of what Robert Sternberg (1988, 1999) calls synthetic thinking, the ability to think divergently and to combine disparate elements in insightful ways. Rauschenberg once described his own focus as being peculiar because he tended to "see everything in sight" (Tomkins, 2005, p 70). His ability, desire, and enthusiasm for almost all creative mediums fueled the likelihood of making connections. From the onset of his career in the visual arts, Rauschenberg worked in a variety of mediums, often literally at once, includingpainting, photography, sculpture, printmaking, costume and set design. His work directly influenced the course of music, dance, and performance art. He even worked briefly as a window designer to make financial ends meet. He moved from medium to medium with relative ease and before having gained recognition for work in the previous medium. He generally stuck to his own path regardless of critics, and undoubtedly had a number of things going at once. Traditional teachers might have seen such an approach as scattered unfocused or disorganized, but Rauschenberg's ability to cross over from one medium to another is what eventually allowed him to break down the barriers between mediums.
Although he was probably well aware that he thought differently than others, and had a great deal of difficulty in school early in his life, he was not diagnosed with dyslexia until he was well into his adulthood (Young and Davidson, 1998, p.559). Rauschenberg, in fact was awarded the Outstanding Learning Disabled Achiever Award by Nancy Reagan at the Lab School in Washington DC in 1985. As a boy he was "something of a social misfit" and a puzzle to others although he seemed to cope quite well as a child and adolescent. He had a hard time in school "learning to read and having to concentrate was a problem" (Tomkins, 1980, p. 14 — 15). Later, as an adult, he reported that friends criticized his grammar and that he just did not have the patience to read certain things (Tomkins, 2005, p. 76).
It is unlikely that there would have been any services to help him to remediate his difficulties available when he was a child enrolled in public school in Port Arthur , Texas in the 1930's . As is the case with many who struggle with learning disabilities, Rauschenberg leaned on his strengths. He developed an interest in designing and building sets for school plays. He managed to graduate from high school and enrolled briefly at the University of Texas. Though he was a loner and tended to be shy, by the time he was a young man in the Navy his ability as a portrait artist had gained him many friends.
Structure, Support, and Freedom to Create Using a Broad Focus
Rauschenberg's decision to enroll at Black Mountain College in 1948, was the start of his commitment to being a modern artist. He had studied briefly at the Kansas City Art Institute and spent a short period of time in Paris but quickly realized that "the time to be a young artist in Paris had long past" (Kotz, 2004, p.61). He could not have arrived at Black Mountain College at a better time. He found himself at an experimental school in North Carolina that placed art at the center of the curriculum. It attracted people who would later become influential in twentieth century art, music, dance, and literature. His relationships with his teachers and peers are well documented. While at Black Mountain Rauschenberg was profoundly influenced by two very different teachers, Joseph Albers and Hazel-Frieda Larsen, who he related to in very different ways.
Of the two, Albers is better known. A member of the Bauhaus design group, he fled the growing Nazi influence and found himself at Black Mountain College. Even before he joined the Bauhaus, he was well known as a teacher and designer. He was an organized and disciplined professional. When Gropius invited him to teach at the Bauhaus, Albers was known as one who encouraged his students to find solutions to real design problems. He pushed his students to think and to see for themselves rather than accept theory. Meeting Albers was pivotal in Rauschenberg's development as a young artist. Today the field of education has developed specialized techniques that increase the chances of teachers working successfully with students who have dyslexia. Many of these practices involve explicit, multisensory, hands-on experiences for students. Fortunately for the young artist, Albers was a master teacher. He intuitively used the kind of exercises that would many years later be described as helpful to people who learn differently (Lerner, 2006; Mortimore, 2003; Shea & Strothman, 2002).
Rauschenberg was very receptive to Werklehre, Alber's teaching method in design. Alber used various materials (paper, wire, rocks, wood, etc.) to demonstrate the possibilities and limits of those various materials (Kotz, 2004, p. 91). He would have his students fold paper into sculptures so that they might understand the three dimensional properties of what is ordinarily seen as two dimensional. He had them solve color problems by devising situations in which colors are perceived differently in different environments. He helped them to see. As Albers said when hired, "I want to open eyes" (Duberman, 1972).
By the time Rauschenberg arrived at Black Mountain College in1948, Albers had become the head of the school. At that point in his life, perhaps Rauschenberg represented what Albers hated the most (Tomkins, 1980). He was the young opposite to Albers' disciplined qualities. Still, the young artist submitted to the difficult critiques and technical lectures because he felt he needed the discipline and rigor that Albers offered. Albers and Rauschenberg were opposites, yet Rauschenberg drew a great deal from Albers' instruction about the nature of materials. Rauschenberg always spoke highly of Albers. Although he felt he could not please him, Rauschenberg believed Albers made him try harder (Baro,1976).
Rauschenberg's photographic work was also influenced by Hazel-Frieda Larsen, who was a rigorous but nurturing teacher (Hopps1991, p24). Rauschenberg certainly learned from Larsen's emphasis on technical quality, but this was not his primary interest. He seemed more interested in content. He would later talk about wanting to photograph the country inch by inch and actually began to do so in the project called In + Out City Limits (1981), which chronicles his photographic experiences of Boston, Charleston, New York, and Los Angeles. Black Mountain was an important environment for Rauschenberg as it served as the place where he would be able to later work with other open minded creative artists who regularly pushed out the envelope of aesthetics.
For students with dyslexia, this combination of focus on problem solving and relevant content, structure and nurture from teachers, along with support from peers, is frequently what works. (Lerner, 2006, p.108; Price, 2002, p.138) The same combination is also discussed as catalyzing for those involved in creative acts. Rigor, expectations, and feedback, used together with caring, yield tremendous results. It worked for Rauschenberg. That combination, along with his likely different way of thinking allowed Rauschenberg to change the course of painting in Western art. This may explain why he shifted his approach to painting before others did. There is evidence that he saw art quite differently than did some of his teachers who had achieved greatness in their own right. He was, however, fortunate to find an environment which accepted his way of thinking and views on art and performance. He was an important part of the Black Mountain community at a key time in his own development as an artist. His colleagues, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and David Tudor, provided support and opportunity for him to realize his ideas in art, music, and dance while at Black Mountain. His associations with peers like Cy Twombly and later Jasper Johns and more experienced artists like Willem deKooning and Jack Tworkov in New York also served as support for his development as an artist. The synthesis of challenge, structure, and support all came together for Rauschenberg at a critical time in his life.
Much later in Rauschenberg's life, Robert S. Mattison, an art historian from Lafayette College, would write at length about the artist's studio process and the impact dyslexia had on it. Mattison observed the artist at work in the studio, and the discussions he had there with him about the Rauschenberg's creative process focused on his novel way of seeing things and the advantage he gained from some of the visual differences he experienced as an artist with dyslexia. These included his taking advantage of "seeing things in fragments" and selective attention. Also, Rauschenberg talked about the ability to focus on details while seeing everything. He talked with Mattison about a dyslexic advantage to being a print maker: "I already see things backwards! You see in printmaking everything comes out backwards so printmaking is an absolute natural for me" (Mattison, 2003, pp.34 — 37).
It is difficult to know whether to take Rauschenberg's comments about fragments and reversals literally or not, but both visual processing variations can result from neurological differences. There is research that indicates some individuals with dyslexia have neurological differences that result in difficulty with orienting of visual attention (Facoetti, 2004, pp.61-62). The idea of reversals mentioned by Rauschenberg reaches back to some very early stereotypical notions about dyslexia. It is now understood that a young child who experiences reversals early in the process of learning to read and write may not have dyslexia. While dyslexia is primarily a disability related to difficulties with sound symbol relationships as mentioned earlier, other difficulties can accompany and contribute to the resulting difficulties. There is a subset of individuals within the group of people diagnosed with dyslexia who experience reversals as a part of the syndrome (Lerner, 2006, p. 421, Shaywitz, 2003, p.100).
Mattison also discusses the freedom and courage that came with having dyslexia. Rauschenberg had already struggled throughout his education against the opinion of others that he was not a very intelligent person. This in a sense freed him to try new things, saying, "If you have nothing to lose you bring courage to your work naturally" (Mattison,2003, p.37). By choosing to be an artist he brought his unique vision and lack of fear with him. This allowed him to convert what might have been a disadvantage into an advantage as he entered an area that emphasized visual rather than linguistic expression.
Works & Dyslexia
Rauschenberg's first significant piece, "This Is the First Half of a Print Designed to Exist in Passing Time" (c.1949) depicts a series of wood cut operations on a field moving from black to white. This show of process and time is very similar to the way people with dyslexia understand chronology. They tend to prefer visual time lines rather than hearing about or reading an explanation of passing events. Rauschenberg used a similar approach again much later in his career when in 1997 he presented his 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, a multi paneled work with 200 components that runs about 1,000 feet long. Autobiographical in nature, it includes motifs and processes from his artistic life. He presents elements related to language such as letters and signs along with geometric patterns, print transfers, and art reproductions all accompanied by a "sound scape." A fascination with sound and many of the almost stereotypical reversals and mirrorings that are sometimes associated with dyslexia surface in Rauschenberg's work throughout his life (Young & Davidson, 1998).
Produced in 1951, the White Paintings, which eventually appeared as a grid and mirrored themselves, became a series that predicted minimalism and served as a stage for shadows and light in their environment. Like John Cage's 4"33' , which the white paintings probably helped foster, they are works which allow the audience to experience an environment. The White Paintings allowed the audience to reflect the environment (the paintings were hypersensitive to light) as the Cage piece allowed the audience to hear the environment. Early in his career Rauschenberg is already, as he said, 'working in the space between art and life.' The White Paintings were followed by a series of red paintings, a series of black paintings and a series of gold paintings (c.1953) and a dirt and mould painting for John Cage (c.1953). Later red and black paintings began to incorporate fabric and newspaper. Perhaps these were early attempts to get his audience to adopt his broad view of the world.
At about the same time Rauschenberg began moving toward work with elemental and found objects such as stones, urban discards, and even the aforementioned dirt. The process of incorporating these things which were not ordinarily a part of art into his work perhaps represented another step into the space between life and art. Moving his art in this direction was also indicative of his seeing and valuing things at the edges and in the margins of his environment.
Rauschenberg always seemed to be willing to push out the boundaries of artistic genres. Painting collages known as combine paintings were next in his sequence for breaking new ground in painting. This was not a giant step from the red and black paintings. These works were mixed mediums in which Rauschenberg included pieces of newspaper, fabric, and urban discards like broken umbrellas into traditionally shaped paintings. He continued to build on recurring pictorial themes: Coca-Cola, tires, wheels, the Mona Lisa, chickens, and the Statue of Liberty. Calvin Tomkins (2005) later explained that he reinvented the collage by inviting the world into it.
Next, Rauschenberg continued to blur the boundaries between mediums by creating perhaps his most well known works, the combines. These three-dimensional painting/sculpture combinations were everyday things, found objects that had been painted. Bed, (1955) which shows a painted-on bed and pillow made up with a painted on quilt, and Monogram (1955 - 59) which features an angora goat wearing a tire were not Dada anti-culture but part of daily culture, regular things being acted on as art. Both pieces went on to become icons of modern art.
From time to time Rauschenberg also showed a tendency to play with language. These works serve as examples of difficulties and frustrations he likely experienced throughout his life being turned into the content of his creative work. In Wager (1957 -59) he introduces words in the form of a diagrammed sentence. Rebus (1955) uses complex visual images and plays on words to offer a phrase related to an art history lesson, "That which reproduces sundry cases of childish and comic coincidences to be read by eyes opened finally to a pattern of abstract problems" (Stuckey, 1977).
In his more recent work, a collection called Anagrams (1996), Rauschenberg combined what is perhaps his take on language (which can be read sideways, or it can be used to create something new) with his view on the artistic process. In this series he uses vegetable dyes, applying them directly to surfaces rather than less environmentally friendly emulsions and solvents usually used in such processes. Now the process for what happens between life and art becomes friendlier to life and changes this space he has filled again.
Questions and Concepts to Consider
A variety of elements must come together to allow one to achieve success in the arts. An individual's temperament, opportunities for education and training, social networks, and other factors all contribute to an artist's chances for success. For many years our society has viewed dyslexia and other learning disabilities as conditions that prevent or diminish an individual's ability to function in the world. For many, these differences become directly linked to difficulties and frustrations. The effect of a language processing disorder frequently spreads beyond the academic lives of those who experience them to forestall other professional opportunities. Rauschenberg's life exemplifies the possibility of taking the innate difficulties that come with dyslexia and turning them to advantages. His tendency to have a broad focus and to see things in a different way perhaps allowed him to incorporate new elements into his artistic work, accounting for his genius and success. His association with the teachers who guided him in a structured way in the process of acquiring the skills he needed, while supporting him and his new ideas during an inventive and imaginative period of his life as an artist, provided the framework necessary for his success in the art world.
Rather than working within the existing trends in the art world, Rauschenberg chose to break out of existing formats, probably because it felt right to him at the time. In part because he had always in a sense been 'living outside the box," it may have been easier for him to "think outside of the box" of the art world or even redefine it. Only an artist who would connect things and concepts that artists would not usually connect would find himself working as Rauschenberg did in the space between life and art.
Although there is no direct evidence of a link between dyslexia and creativity, there is anecdotal evidence that would encourage further exploration of a possible relationship between the two. If individuals with dyslexia are supported in the learning of appropriate technical and academic skills, the differences in their visual and auditory processing experience may serve to contribute to finding new and different kinds of solutions to problems and resolutions to creative challenges. Rauschenberg's courage and willingness to explore new artistic space along with his prolific production of creative work should encourage all of us to look at the things around us in the world in new ways. It is worth considering a second look at the differences that result from dyslexia, and other language processing disorders. Perhaps as a first important step they can be explored as catalysts to insight, imagination and innovation rather than only a means to dysfunction and disability.
Urls of Works
Many of Robert Rauschenberg's more well known works can be viewed on the internet. This list of web urls allows the reader to see many of the pieces mentioned in the article.
The ¼ mile or 2 Furlong Piece Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
White Painting MuseumLab
- Baro, G. (1976) Josef Albers: The pursuit of excellence in Yale University's Art Gallery. New Haven: Yale University Printing Service.
- Duberman, M. (1972) Black Mountain: An exploration in community. New York: E.P. Dutton.
- Facoetti,A. (2004) Reading and selective spatial attention; Evidence from behavioral studies in dyslexic children. In H. D. Tobias ( Ed.), Trends in dyslexia research. New York; Nova Biomedica Books.
- Hopps, W. (1991) Robert Rauschenberg: The early 1950's. The Menil Collection Houston: Fine Art Press.
- Hopps, W. (1998) Rauschenberg's art of fusion. In W. Hopps and S. Davidson, Robert Rauschenberg, A retrospective. New York: Guggenheim Museum.
- Kotz, M.L. (2004) Rauschenberg, Art and life. New York: Abrams.
- Lerner, J. (2006) Learning disabilities and related disorders: Characterisitcs and teaching strategies, and teaching strategies, Tenth Edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
- Lyon, G.R., Shaywitz, S.E., & Shaywitz, B.. (2003). Defining dyslexia, co morbidity, teachers' knowledge of language and reading: A definition of dyslexia. Annals of Dyslexia, 53, 1-14.
- Mattison, R.S.(2003) Robert Rauschenberg, Breaking boundaries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Mortimore, T. (2003) Dyslexia and learning style: A practitioner's handbook. Philadelphia: Whurr Publishers.
- Price, L. (2002) The connections among psychosocial issues, adult development, and self-determination. In L. C. Brinkerhoff, J.M. McGuire. & S.F.Shaw, (Eds.) Postsecondary education and transition of students with learning disabilities. Austin TX: Pro-Ed.
- Ramus, F. (2006) A neurological model of dyslexia and other domain specific developmental disorders with associated sensorimotor syndromes. In G. D. Rosen (Ed.) The dyslexic brain, new pathways in neuroscience discovery. Mahwah, NJ: Earlbaum Press.
- Shaywitz, S. (2003) Overcoming dyslexia, A new and complete science-based program for reading problems at any level. New York: Knopf.
- Shea,L.C. & Strothman, S.W. (Eds.) (2002) Teaching in the disciplines: Classroom instruction for students with learning disabilities. Putney, VT: Landmark College.
- Sternberg, R.J. (Ed.), (1999) The Nature of creativity: Contemporary psychological perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Sternberg, R.J. (1988) The triarchic mind: A theory of human intelligence. New York: Viking.
- Sternberg, R. J. & Lubart, T.I. (1995) Defying the crowd: Cultivating creativity in a culture of conformity. New York: The Free Press.
- Stuckey, C.F. (1977) Reading Rauschenberg , Art in America. 65 (2) 74 - 84.
- Tomkins, C. (2005, May 25) Everything in sight, The New Yorker. 68-77.
- Tomkins, C. (1980) Off the wall, Robert Rauschenberg and the art world of our time. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Young ,J. and Davidson, S. (1998) Chronology in W. Hopps, and S. Davidson, Robert Rauschenberg , A Retrospective. New York: Guggenheim Museum.