Tate revives the reputation of the first US artist to win a Golden Lion at Venice.

Robert Rauschenberg was not yet 30 when he badgered the well established Willem de Kooning to donate a drawing to him. The older artist wasn’t keen to do so, but the outcome was to go down in the annals. Mark by mark, over several weeks, Rauschenberg carefully erased the master’s figurative study.

The result, a near blank sheet of paper in a gilded frame, can be seen at Tate Modern during the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective. It is the first survey of the artist’s work since his death in 2008. In fact, the first show of its kind for 20 years. The American painter, who doesn’t really fit with either the Ab Ex or the Pop movements of the last century, is very much an artist for our times.

Just take his 1955 work, Bed. Long before Tracey Emin installed the ruins of her bedroom at Tate in 1999, Rauschenberg incorporated his worn bedsheets and pillow case into a Pollock-esque action painting. Yet given his love of quotation and, as we’ve seen, appropriation, one imagines he might have enjoyed this later incarnation of one of his many ideas.

In putting together this show, Tate and MoMA can have had few problems connecting their artist to the work of his contemporaries, and ours. From his ‘combines’ to his ‘cardboards’, Rauschenberg works in innovative seriies after innovative series. But he remains difficult to categorise.

He paints, he sculpts, he takes photos, he makes prints, and he has designed performances. You will hear him referred to as a neo Dada-ist. But, like Jasper Johns, he made work with an aesthetic pull that belies the critical intention of Dada or indeed neo Dada.

Rauschenberg’s career lasted six decades and his innovations lasted into the present century. So it makes as little sense to put him into a convenient box as, say, Picasso. One expects this comprehensive show could give the impression that America’s first artist to win the Golden Lion at Venice (in 1963) was one of his nation’s most substantial.

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