For the first time in nearly 40 years, Denverites have access to the original artwork one of the world’s most beloved masters of the field—the late Robert Rauschenberg—at the Museum of Outdoor Arts’ latest exhibition, Rauschenberg: Reflections and Ruminations, which opened Monday. Known for his prominent position in the neo-dada movement of the 1950s and for paving the way for the subsequent Pop Art movement, Rauschenberg notoriously experimented with the merging of mediums like painting, printing, photography, and sculpture, particularly in some of his more famous “Combine” pieces. The exhibition, which will run through June 13, is the largest exhibition of the artist’s work to ever be shown in the Centennial State.

Born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1925, Rauschenberg was one of the country’s early celebrity environmentalists, collaborating with a slew of equally noteworthy peers, like avant-garde composer John Cage and modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham, some of whom were either creatively involved or depicted in some of the works shown in Reflections and Ruminations.

With more than 50 loaned pieces spanning the artist’s career—including several from the acclaimed Universal Limited Art Editions print studio in New York—the exhibition highlights the artist’s favored mediums while examining the experiences of his life. And though the title is quite literal—with featured pieces from his Ruminations series and other large-scale pieces made with reflective mirror metals—it also captures the ability of Rauschenberg’s work to force the viewer to reflect upon themselves and wrestle with tough questions about their own identity.

“He was always gathering stuff up,” exhibition curator Dan Jacobs says, pointing to Rauschenberg’s frequent play on topics like gluttony, pulling unexpected objects into his art such as scrap metal, or even a wooden chair from his favorite restaurant in Captiva Island, Florida, that closed down. “It was so he could present it back to us like, ‘You threw this away … you don’t need to think of this as trash. It’s actually beautiful.’”

Rauschenberg’s work often focused on political and environmental issues—long before he designed the first-ever Earth Day poster in 1970—and his nods to problematic consumerism captured in some of the featured works secured his legacy as an influential force on the forefront of the early Pop Art movement. “He really wanted us to be more respectful of the environment, more thoughtful about how we interact with consumer goods, more thoughtful about our acquisitiveness and trying to curb it, and slow that cycle of consumption down,” Jacobs says. “I think that’s one of the things that is still extremely relevant.”

Robert Rauschenberg, Pegasits. acrylic, fire wax and chair on stainless steel, 1990. Photo by William O’Connor, courtesy of the Madden Collection at the University of Denver

Viewers can also explore a more intimate side of the artist’s life at the exhibition, with several works from later in Rauschenberg’s life (he died in 2008), such as the Ruminations series of photolithograph collages that highlight scenes from his personal past, family photos, and memories with other friends and influences on his career—such as fellow neo-dada artist Jasper Johns and aforementioned Cage. Collaboration was a mainstay of Rauschenberg’s artistic approach, but even more so, the artist was overwhelmingly regarded by peers as a generous and infectious personality. “Robert was so open,” Jacobs says, recalling conversations with the artist’s peers and collectors. “And it wasn’t just a personality thing, it was his whole method.”

The late creative is considered a master of American art who pioneered new techniques that can be spotted throughout the exhibition, such as “fire waxing”—a bold take on the tedious silk screening process that involves printing with molten wax and caustic pigment instead of traditional ink. He was also recognized for some of the earliest uses of interactive technology in his art. Rolling with the punches became an essential element of Rauschenberg’s m.o., as he also frequently took classic mediums like lithography (using a flat stone to carve an image into for reprinting) and defied tradition. For example in his featured lithograph piece Accident, the stone used for the print broke in half during the printing process (a setback that would normally mean starting from scratch for an artist), and Rauschenberg decided to simply “go with it” and play off of the large chasm ripping across the print. “There are stories about him working in a print studio, saying, ‘so this looks great. Now I’m going to go have lunch, and I want someone to mess it up while I’m gone,’” Jacobs says.

Reflections and Ruminations will mark the first solo exhibition of Rauschenberg’s work in Colorado since 1981, and in celebration of the artist’s broad scope and experimental methods, the Museum of Outdoor Arts will also be hosting several events in the coming months, including panel discussions and workshops on screen-printing, lithography, and other mixed media.

“[His art] is very much an attitude about being open, and receptive to the beauty that surrounds us,” Jacobs says. “Not just natural beauty, but even the beauty of human culture.”

If you go: Museum of OutdoorArts—Indoor Galleries, 1000 Englewood Parkway, Englewood; February 24–June 13; Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; $10; Find more information and purchase tickets online.

Madi Skahill
Madi Skahill
Madi Skahill is 5280’s former associate digital editor.