In response to a massive oil spill off the coast of Southern California in 1969, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson initiated the idea of the first annual Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Soliciting support from Democratic and Republican leaders, Earth Day was conceived as a “national teach-in” to bring public awareness to the threat of global air and water pollution. What began as a grass-roots movement, with twenty million Americans participating, is now recognized as the launch of the environmental movement and observed in nearly 200 countries around the world.
Robert Rauschenberg designed the first Earth Day poster to benefit the American Environment Foundation in Washington, D.C., and it was published in an edition of 10,300 by Castelli Graphics, New York. Using the bald eagle as the dominant image, the artist symbolically placed the United States at the center of a global problem. Muted and muddy tones depicting environmental decay surround the national bird: polluted cities, contaminated waters, junkyards littered with debris, landscapes scarred by highways and deforestation, and the gorilla, another endangered animal. The safekeeping of the environment and the notion of individual responsibility for the welfare of life on earth was a longstanding concern of Rauschenberg, and this notion would inform his art and activism throughout his life. The poster designed for the inaugural Earth Day was one of many he would create to raise funds for the myriad social causes that were important to him.
A larger format lithograph, based on the original poster design and created as an edition of 50, was published by the American Environment Foundation and produced by Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles.
Rauschenberg’s largest dirt painting, Growing Painting (1953), survives only in a photograph taken by the artist when it was exhibited in the 3rd Annual Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture at the Stable Gallery, New York, in early 1954. What began as a dirt painting—earth contained within a vertical wooden box frame—evolved into a painting made of growing grass when birdseed accidently fell onto the painting’s surface. Rauschenberg regularly watered the painting throughout the three-week installation at the gallery, allowing Growing Painting to thrive for a time before perishing. Mary Lynn Kotz, the artist’s biographer, interpreted this act of nurturing his live painting as an early manifestation of Rauschenberg’s belief that each individual is responsible for life on earth. The artist described the painting as “about looking and caring. . . . Those pieces would literally die if you didn’t water them.” (Rauschenberg: Art and Life, p. 176).
Lithopinion 26, the current affairs and graphic arts journal, dedicated its summer 1972 edition to the subject of “Our Transportation Mess.” Among the contributors were Theodore Kheel, who was a lawyer, leading labor mediator and arbitrator, as well as an environmentalist, and Senator Edward Kennedy. Kheel commissioned artists such as Romare Bearden, Christo, and Rauschenberg, his friend and client, to address the transportation system in the United States.
Rauschenberg’s contribution was inspired by a dream that William Burroughs, the Beat writer, had described to him, and which resulted in the lithograph Dream of William Burroughs (1972) published by Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.). Surrounded by images of various modes of transportation, the lithograph includes the words: “They did not fully understand the technique / in a very short time they nearly wrecked the planet.” As an E.A.T. board member, Kheel understood, like Rauschenberg, that environmentalism and technology were not conflicting views but symbiotic relationships. In Lithopinion 26, E.A.T. stated that it “supports technology when it tries to help people achieve their human potentiality [and] criticizes it when it doesn’t.”
At the core of his Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) project is Rauschenberg’s belief that art can be a catalyst for positive social change. The ROCI project was announced during a United Nations session in December 1984, and the seven-year project, funded almost entirely by the artist, enabled Rauschenberg to travel to countries around the world where artistic dialogue had been suppressed. Through an exchange of ideas with fellow artists and artisans around the world and via the creative process, Rauschenberg hoped to achieve mutual understanding. The focus of the ROCI project was on the protection of human rights, especially the freedom of artistic expression, however, the preservation of the environment proved to be integral to the protection of human rights.
Evident not only through his environmental activism, Rauschenberg’s sense of personal responsibility was at the core of his art-making during the ROCI project period.
In preparation for a ROCI project in 1987, Rauschenberg told a New York Times reporter: “I try to use my art to communicate that you, yourself, must take responsibility for life on earth.” While collecting source material for the ROCI MALAYSIA paintings, Rauschenberg took photographs during his travels and visited local tribes. His artwork Hutan Belantara (Virgin Forest) (1990) addresses the conflict between urban and indigenous cultures in Malaysia, while specifically confronting the plight of hunters whose livelihood was affected by the destruction of the rain forests.
Rauschenberg commemorated Earth Day on its twentieth anniversary, April 22, 1990, with a print produced in an edition of 75 by Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles. Observed by 200 million people around the globe, Earth Day 1990 definitively brought the environmental movement to international attention.
On December 6, 1991, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) launched the Earth Pledge, described as “an urgent call to action to save Planet Earth.” To raise funds for and generate awareness of UNCED, the Earth Pledge, and the Earth Summit to be held in Rio de Janeiro the following June, Rauschenberg donated the lithograph Last Turn—Your Turn (1991), published as an edition of 200 by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Appearing above the images of an infant and the figure of Atlas supporting the weight of the world are the words from the Earth Pledge, inscribed in the artist’s handwriting: “I pledge to make the earth a secure and hospitable home for present and future generations.”
Last Turn—Your Turn was produced not only as a lithograph but also as an offset poster and a bus billboard. It is one of three lithographs that Rauschenberg designed in 1991. In collaboration with an outdoor advertising company, Transportation Displays Inc., the billboards, Last Turn—Your Turn, Ozone, and Pledge (all 1991) were displayed on buses in cities throughout the United States. As with the artist’s poster campaigns, the bus billboards brought environmental concerns to the attention of a national audience.
At the encouragement of Theodore Kheel, who headed the Earth Summit Committee to Promote the Pledge, Rauschenberg attended the Rio de Janeiro summit from June 3 to June 12, 1992. Rauschenberg’s statement on the summit appeared next to a reproduction of his Last Turn—Your Turn in the brochure Visions of America, published on the occasion of the 1992 Democratic National Convention:
Upon his return from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Rauschenberg was scheduled to work on a new project with Donald Saff, Director of Saff Tech Arts in Oxford, Maryland. Saff had collaborated with Rauschenberg on editioned works since the 1970s, had been artistic director of the ROCI project, and shared the artist’s fascination with combining art and technology.
Celebrating Earth Day’s forty-fifth anniversary, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation continues to extend the artist’s legacy as a champion of the environment:
Southwest Florida, where Robert Rauschenberg lived and worked for forty years, remains a place of ongoing investment for the foundation. Grants are given to advance social innovation and to support the preservation of Florida’s fragile wetlands and other ecosystems.
The Rauschenberg Residency, located in the artist’s former home and studio on a twenty-acre tract of undeveloped waterfront, will host a monthlong gathering of artists, scientists, engineers, and activists. Entitled, Rising Waters Confab, the meeting aims to spark new thinking and to influence civic will toward finding and spreading solutions for the rising waters of climate change.
Included in the foundation's efforts to support a healthy, sustainable planet, the Climate Change Solutions Fund, a new initiative that spurs the use of culture and civic engagement to advance solutions to global warming.
To read more about Rauschenberg’s involvement with the environmental movement, see Robert S. Mattison’s essay, “Robert Rauschenberg’s Environmental Activism,” in the exhibition catalogue Last Turn–Your Turn: Robert Rauschenberg and the Environmental Crisis, Jacobson Howard Gallery, New York, March 6–April 12, 2008.