No artist invented more than Robert Rauschenberg. This remark, attributed to his friend Jasper Johns, is probably true (his exception was Picasso)—at least as long as you understand “invention” in its etymological sense, where it doesn’t mean making things up, creating things that didn’t exist before, but literally to “come into” things, in the sense of finding them. In the art of rhetoric, inventio is the systematic gathering of materials out of which a persuasive discourse can be constructed. Looking back over Rauschenberg’s career from its beginnings around the middle of the last century through his death in 2008, as the current retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (on view through September 17) invites us to do, it becomes clear that Rauschenberg was above all a restless and resourceful gatherer of materials, cultural as well as physical.

The show has been curated by MoMA’s Leah Dickerman and Achim Borchardt-Hume of the Tate Modern in London, where the exhibition was first mounted. (After New York, it will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it will be on view from November 18 to March 25, 2018.) Oddly, while the exhibition in London was simply titled “Robert Rauschenberg,” in New York it’s called “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends.” Here, his works are interspersed with those of associates like Johns, Rauschenberg’s life partner from the mid-1950s through 1961; Susan Weil, to whom he was married in the early 1950s; Cy Twombly, Niki de Saint Phalle, Andy Warhol, Öyvind Fahlström, and others; as well as copious documentation of his work with the nonprofit Experiments in Art and Technology. The MoMA show also includes videos of dances by choreographers like Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Steve Paxton, and Trisha Brown, with whom Rauschenberg worked closely.

“Among Friends” is another example of how curators these days are trying to shift their emphasis away from the mythology of individual genius by showing the artist’s immersion in and dependence on his or her context. But the danger is that this approach can make art look like some kind of insiders’ club. “Being geniuses together” (to borrow the title of Robert McAlmon’s 1938 memoir of American-expat literary life in 1920s Paris) seems just as misleading as depicting genius as a solo act.

Still, the exhibition succeeds in showing that Rauschenberg had a tremendous zest for collaboration, as well as a talent for influencing and being influenced by others. Rauschenberg’s “Combine” paintings (canvases with objects attached) and his three-dimensional “Combines” (free-standing assemblages) of the 1950s are still his best-known works. They are all about taking things as found and putting them together in unexpected ways while leaving them still recognizable. His method was hardly new, having been modeled on that of Kurt Schwitters, the Dada-influenced German artist who, in the period following World War I, dubbed his collage-based art “Merz.” As Dickerman points out in her catalog essay, Rauschenberg was hooked on Schwitters’s work from the time he first saw it in 1953. For Rauschenberg, Schwitters’s method was itself material to be gathered; it opened a way for him to collaborate even while working alone. And yet Rauschenberg later tended to play up the differences, claiming that he’d tried to operate by using “devices that would let the work compose itself, or stepping back enough to let the accidents take over.” Schwitters, on the other hand, “was using the same kind of collage materials, but from the opposite ideology (i.e., Cubist order, imposed from without).”

The truth is that, at least as far as his paintings and prints went, Rauschenberg never really succeeded in escaping from Cubist order. As wide-ranging as his source materials could be, he always put them together in a carefully balanced way, governed by an underlying grid. Forget about critic Leo Steinberg’s idea that Rauschenberg had invented a new kind of “flat-bed picture plane” that ignores natural visual experience and the viewer’s sense of orientation. It’s noticeable, and telling, that in all of Rauschenberg’s work, from the 1950s right through to the last painting on view here, dated 2005, he almost never uses his source materials sideways, or upside down, or diagonally; he always respects the given orientation of found images. The only exception I noticed: He likes to mess with the directionality of street signs. In other words, when he’s told which way to go, he likes to contradict the instructions, but otherwise he’s happy to follow the existing alignment.

Rauschenberg’s style derived from his ability to marry Schwitters’s magpie sensibility with a sense of scale, and of the grand gesture, that he’d learned from the Abstract Expressionist painters whose work he had gotten to know after arriving in New York in 1949: artists like Jack Tworkov (a fervent early supporter), Franz Kline, and, of course, Willem de Kooning, whose own art would become raw material for Rauschenberg’s famous Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953). A month’s hard work on the younger artist’s part did not completely succeed in effacing the traces of the elder’s efforts. That inexpugnability—the persistence of some elusive residue of de Kooning’s art despite all the labor that Rauschenberg invested in negating it—is presumably the work’s point, even if it’s not the one he thought he had in mind when he started it.

Wanting to feel that one’s work cohered, if at all, then by accident, was a sentiment hardly unknown to the Abstract Expressionists. Wasn’t it Jackson Pollock who said, “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through”? The difference between Rauschenberg and his immediate predecessors was that, whereas they were certain that the source of the painting’s independent life was somehow within themselves, he was interested in making art out of the disparate and impersonal matter of everyday life, the castoffs of commodity culture. He wanted his work to express, not himself, but the strange new world around him. Collage, collaboration, using found materials—these were what enabled Rauschenberg to invent.

Rauschenberg’s tropism away from the Abstract Expressionists’ subjectivism was at first a subtle one. Yes, in the early ’50s, he had indulged in some pretty extreme gestures: making paintings of perfectly uninflected white, whose only formal content is the square or rectangular shapes of the abutted panels on which they were painted, or making a print some 24 feet long by inking one of the tires on his friend John Cage’s Model A Ford and having him drive across the paper. But in the larger perspective of Rauschenberg’s activities at the time, those were isolated cases. The white paintings inspired Cage to push the aesthetic of silence he’d long deliberated to its logical extreme in his notorious 1952 musical composition 4’33”, but Rauschenberg didn’t care to devote himself to a systematic exploration of the works’ implications in what would presumably have been a before-the-fact minimalism. And around this time, on a 1952 journey to Italy, he was also making works of a very different kind: intimate, almost fetishistic little assemblages, “decorated in a rich false history,” which he dubbed, in Italian, scatole personali—personal boxes.

In the later ’50s “Combines,” this personal note is muted, but it is not entirely effaced—not unlike de Kooning’s marks in the 1953 erased drawing. Rauschenberg would subsequently explain his detachment from what he called “a whole language used in discussions of abstract expressionism that I could never make function for myself; it revolved around words like ‘tortured,’ ‘struggle,’ ‘pain’”; whereas he himself “could never see those qualities in paint.” And yet it’s much easier to perceive those qualities in the heavily worked and worried surfaces of Rauschenberg’s art of the 1950s than it is in most of the Abstract Expressionists’ paintings. “It is a bright doom that hangs over these paintings,” remarked the Living Theatre’s Judith Malina. The volatile energy that animates Rauschenberg’s work from this period seems fueled by his frustration with paint itself—too heavy, too resistant.

It was in 1962 that he found a way past that resistance. It happened when he visited Andy Warhol’s studio and learned from him how to silk-screen photographic images onto canvas. He then had a quantity of screens made from images of all sorts—current events and daily life, science and art, photos he’d taken himself as well as ones lifted from sources such as Life and Sports Illustrated—and began combining and recombining them over the next two years into an extraordinary series of paintings in which the lightness and near-bodilessness of the silk-screen ink, with which he never had to struggle, gave the compacted iconography a persistent flash of instantaneity. At first he worked mostly in grisaille, but as he went on, he used color with exuberance. The occasional swipe of oil paint that Rauschenberg would throw into the mix serves either to create a smoother transition between juxtaposed images or to lend emphasis to certain passages. In Retroactive II (1963)—a painting illustrated in the catalog but not on the wall at MoMA—some white paint outlines a pointing-hand gesture in a picture of the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy, separating it from the rest of his body and turning it into an emblematic indication of the painting’s power to interpellate its viewer.

Actually, the spectral realities glimpsed in the 1962–64 silk-screen paintings feel less like images than afterimages—traces left in the eye or mind when the original source is no longer there. They are emblems of the present, but it’s a present that comes in recurrent flashes rather than a stable reality. When Rauschenberg won the international Grand Prize in Painting for these works at the 1964 Venice Biennale, his response was to have the screens he’d been using destroyed. Apparently, he was afraid of being seduced into repeating himself. But these paintings are all about seeing the same images recur in slightly different ways.

Rauschenberg was, by this time, more into performance and technology than painting anyway, but the prints and posters he continued to produce throughout the ’60s maintained a similar collagist approach. And he was still trying to reflect the times rather than himself. In fact, to the extent that I can find a kind of indirect self-portrait anywhere in Rauschenberg’s mature work, it’s in the bottom-left corner of the 1970 print Signs, made from a collage originally commissioned (but then rejected) as a cover for Time magazine. It’s full of images of lives lost in the tumultuous years gone by—among others, there are John and Robert F. Kennedy; Martin Luther King Jr., resting in his open coffin; and Janis Joplin, who hailed, like Rauschenberg, from Port Arthur, Texas. In the foreground is the space-suited figure of Buzz Aldrin. The moon he’s walking on for the first time is visible only as a reflection in the visor that covers his face. I think this is how Rauschenberg would like to have appeared, assuming he had to appear at all: as someone obscured, his identity secured by the little American-flag patch on his shoulder, with a reflection of his environment shielding his face from all eyes. It may or may not be significant that the world thus mirrored is alien, airless, and gravitationally weak.

Rauschenberg had a surer way of disappearing: In 1970, after a couple of decades in New York, he decamped for remote Captiva Island, Florida, which would be his main base from then on. It gave him what the city no longer could: the “empty space where ideas emerge.” That empty space immediately found its way into his art. Suddenly, the imagery that had crowded his paintings disappeared. Instead, he was making sculptural reliefs out of old cardboard boxes, “a material of waste and softness,” as he called it. As Mark Godfrey points out in the exhibition catalog, this probably reflects the fact that the move to Florida required a lot of packing: Cardboard boxes would have become very noticeable to the artist just then. But I’d add that Captiva is a place where—Rauschenberg’s studio aside—things aren’t made; they have to be shipped in. In any distribution chain, it’s an end point, not an intermediate link, let alone a point of production. No wonder so many cartons accumulated there. Rauschenberg was giving these cast-off packing materials an independent afterlife by seeing the structures and patterns implicit in them. He was still more beholden to Cubist order than he imagined, and all the better for it.

The silk-screened imagery that disappeared to make way for the cardboard pieces, as well as for a subsequent series of sculptures using more varied materials that Rauschenberg called “Venetians,” returned in 1974—and even then, only reticently. In the “Hoarfrost” series, for which he used solvent to transfer images onto unstretched fabric, the images become faint, even ghostly. And then, in 1975, out went the images again. Rauschenberg moved on to make his most perfectly abstract works since the white paintings more than 20 years before: the “Jammers,” bannerlike geometrical compositions—often supported by rattan poles—that used gorgeously dyed monochromatic silks and other fabrics he’d found while visiting India. These, rather than the more celebrated works of the ’50s and early ’60s, were the high point of the MoMA show for me—far from typical of the normally hyperactive Rauschenberg, but the works in which his love of pure surface feels most deeply meditated.

As far as paintings and sculptures go, the show seems to peter out after the last of the “Jammers” in 1976. The reasons for this are unclear, since Rauschenberg continued to be quite productive. According to the Rauschenberg Foundation’s website, for instance, in 1977 the artist “begins Scale series, on which he will work through 1981. Related to the Spreads (1975–83), Scales is a large-scale sculptural series that incorporates solvent transfer onto wood structures usually comprised of fabric, mirrored Plexiglas, and found objects.” Contemporaneous with these were plenty of other prints, works on paper, paintings, and sculptures.

In the 1980s, Rauschenberg created more works that remain unseen in this show, among them—again, according to the Rauschenberg Foundation website—the “Kabal American Zephyr series (1981–83/1985/1987–88). The sculptural series is inspired by nineteenth-century Japanese woodblock printmaker Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, whose work Rauschenberg had seen in the exhibition The Bizarre Imagery of Yoshitoshi: The Herbert R. Cole Collection (1980), Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Yoshitoshi’s prints depict violent events in beautiful settings, creating what Rauschenberg later calls a sense of ‘fantasy-macabre’ that he seeks to capture in his juxtapositions of found objects and transfer-printed imagery.”

Skipping over all this, MoMA picks up the story in 1986, with the “Glut” series of sculptures, made primarily from scrap metal—road signs in particular. The ’80s were also when Captiva must have started to seem a little too empty for Rauschenberg’s taste; he embarked on a kind of perpetual barnstorming road show that he called the “Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange,” whose overweening idea was “to introduce the world to itself through his art,” as Donald Saff, the artist’s close collaborator in print-making, put it. “He would therefore travel to Communist, totalitarian, or developing nations where people were unfamiliar with modern art or American culture,” Hiroko Ikegami explains in the exhibition catalog. “There he would create artworks based on local materials, hold a ROCI exhibition, present one work to the hosting institution as a gift, and then move on to the next country…. Constantly incorporating new works as his response to different cultures, the ROCI exhibition was envisioned as an ever evolving enterprise to promote mutual understanding among diverse peoples.”

I can’t help but think of the preacher that the 13-year-old Rauschenberg, child of Texas fundamentalists, aspired to become. But what was he preaching from the ROCI pulpit? Little more, it seems, than a belief in his own ability as an open-hearted American to act as the meeting point for all cultures, which would then supply the raw materials for him to synthesize in his art, now an essentially extractivist enterprise. The well-intentioned hubris of it is astonishing. No wonder critics like The Washington Post’s Paul Richard thought Rauschenberg had become an “art imperialist.” Maybe it would be fairer to say simply that, for better or worse, he still carried within him the crusading spirit of the Kennedy years, with its expansive (and expansionist) promise of a “New Frontier,” beyond which lay the “unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”

At MoMA, ROCI is represented mainly by a group of posters that Rauschenberg made for the exhibition’s stops in Chile, China, Cuba, and so on. Although they look terrific, they add nothing to the collage aesthetic that Rauschenberg had arrived at in the silk-screen paintings of 1962–64. Whereas his encounter with Indian fabrics had stopped him in his tracks and made him rethink his art, here he appears to have worked mainly with his facility at arranging things attractively; the images he used seem entirely fungible.

A project so grandiose would have stifled most artists. But Rauschenberg was irrepressible. A couple of paintings from 1991, in which the imagery has been chemically burned and tarnished onto metal surfaces, regain something of the mysteriously doomy atmosphere of the “Combines” from the ’50s. These late works show that, if nothing else, he still had new ways of dealing out the old cards. Indeed, the infectious congeniality of his art is both its strength and its limitation. Glexis Novoa, a Cuban artist who protested ROCI’s collaboration with his country’s “self-colonizing” cultural institutions, still had to admit: “You cannot avoid liking Rauschenberg as an artist.” His energetic enthusiasm covers a multitude of doubts.