Rauschenberg was born as Milton Ernst Rauschenberg (he changed his first name as an adult) in Port Arthur. In 1948 Rauschenberg's painting instructor was the renowned Bauhaus figure Josef Albers, whose strict discipline and sense of method inspired Rauschenberg, as he once said, to do "exactly the reverse" of what Albers taught him.
In 1951 Rauschenberg had his first one-man show at the Betty Parsons Gallery and in 1954 Rauschenberg had a second one-man show at the Charles Egan Gallery.
Rauschenberg's "White Paintings", created in 1951, were exhibited at Eleanor Ward's Stable Gallery in New York during October of 1953; while they contain no images at all, are said to be so exceptionally blank and reflective that their surfaces respond and change in sympathy with the ambient conditions in which they are shown, "so you could almost," as Rauschenberg once commented.
In 1952 Rauschenberg began his series of "Black Paintings" and "Red Paintings," in which large, expressionistically brushed areas of color were combined with collage and found objects attached to the canvas. These so-called "Combine Paintings" ultimately came to include such heretofore un-painterly objects as a stuffed goat ("Monogram", 1959) and a quilt ("Bed", 1955), breaking down traditional boundaries between painting and sculpture, reportedly prompting one Abstract Expressionist painter to remark, "If this is Modern Art, then I quit!" Rauschenberg's Combines provided inspiration for a generation of artists seeking alternatives to traditional artistic media.
Rauschenberg's approach was sometimes called "Neo-Dada," a label he shared with the painter, close friend, and sometime lover Jasper Johns.
By 1962, Rauschenberg's paintings were beginning to incorporate not only found objects but found images as well - photographs transferred to the canvas by means of the silkscreen process. Previously used only in commercial applications, silkscreen allowed Rauschenberg to address the multiple reproducibility of images, and the consequent flattening of experience that implies. In this respect, his work is contemporaneous with that of Andy Warhol, and both Rauschenberg and Johns are frequently cited as important forerunners of American Pop Art.
In 1966, Billy Kl�ver and Rauschenberg officially launched Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) a non-profit organization established to promote collaborations between artists and engineers.
In addition to painting and sculpture, Rauschenberg's long career has also included significant contributions to printmaking and Performance Art. He also won a Grammy Award for his album design of Talking Heads' album Speaking in Tongues.