Robert Rauschenberg

Artwork created by Robert Rauschenberg
Signs / Robert Rauschenberg / 1970 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / © Robert Rauschenberg/Visual Artists and Galleries Association.

The focal point of Robert Rauschenberg’s Signs is singer Janis Joplin, known for her frenzied stage performances and raspy vocals. Joplin and Rauschenberg shared the hometown of Port Arthur, Texas. Her death on October 4, 1970, from a drug overdose inspired this work.

Joplin’s microphone provides a visual link to Robert Kennedy, candidly photographed mid-sentence, his left arm cradling two soldiers. Kennedy promoted desegregation as attorney general. He was assassinated while campaigning for the presidency on June 5, 1968.

In contrast to Robert’s snapshot, John F. Kennedy appears as a “profile in courage,” stoically overlooking his own November 22, 1963, assassination in Dallas. His idealism and youthfulness created great expectations during his presidency which was a time of national and international conflict.

Linked to the series of deceased figures by a prostrated protestor lies Martin Luther King Jr.  A Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of many nonviolent social actions, King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. 

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin Jr. appears on the left, emblematic of John F. Kennedy’s plan to place an American on the moon by 1970.

Rauschenberg is best known for his “combines,” artworks composed of discarded, everyday materials that merge painting and sculpture. Signs gathers pieces of everyday life of the 1960s and combines them in ways that develop new relationships between people and events.

Some would say that Signs offers multiple perspectives at once, refusing to be reduced to a single message. Rauschenberg’s combines, paintings, and collages have been called “visual noise” and compared to the experience of rapidly flipping through television channels. One reviewer wrote that Rauschenberg created art for “a generation of multi-taskers.”[1]

  • Why do you think Rauschenberg gave this work the title Signs?
  • Human hands are repeating symbols in this work. Why do you think Rauschenberg decided to include so many hands? What meanings could this motif have?
  • Created in 1970, this work is a snapshot of the era. What images would you include if you wanted to represent the current era?

[1] Kimmelman, Michael. “Art Out of Anything: Rauschenberg in Retrospect.” The New York Times, December 23, 2005, (Accessed July 9, 2018).