LOS ANGELES — Between 1981 and 1998, Robert Rauschenberg created a self-portrait a quarter of a mile long.
Over 17 years, this Texas-born artist — by then established as a major figure who had reshaped 20th-century art — painted, drew, silk-screened, photographed, glued and combined objects on 190 panels, adding free-standing objects, including ambient sound from recordings he made over time. Lined up, the panels measure the distance between Rauschenberg’s home and his studio on Captiva Island in Florida, where he spent his last decades living and working, when he wasn’t traveling with ambitious artistic projects. Rauschenberg saw art as a catalyst for powerful social change, and the panels reflect his travel to countries with repressive regimes in the 1970s and early 1980s, where he spoke out for artistic freedom of expression.
“The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece” is being shown in its entirety for the first time at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it tells the fragmented, layered story of the artist’s life and his changing creative preoccupations. It also encompasses the many phases of his career: the early Combines, those found-object hybrids in the 1950s and 1960s; the assemblages of boxes that he called Cardboards in the 1970s; the scrap-metal Gluts of the 1980s. Here too are the brightly patterned shirts and cloths and the motifs — animals, umbrellas, street signs, images of athletes and sporting equipment — that pervade his work, as well as his ongoing experimentation with techniques and materials.
“The thing that is marvelous is that it’s personal, like a memoir, but also mapped upon the whole world,” said Michael Govan, Lacma’s chief executive and director, who is also the exhibition’s co-curator, with Katia Zavistovski. “You see the emergence of globalism through the work, his interest in media, in transportation and space travel. From today’s perspective, it’s like the internet, with information flying off it. It all seems to point to the world getting smaller and access to images greater.”
Mr. Govan said he had known about the work “probably since the 1980s when Rauschenberg was making it” and had long wanted to present it. Although Rauschenberg showed portions of the work, and several museums, including the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, have mounted near-complete versions, this is the first time all 190 panels are on view, as part of the exhibition “Rauschenberg: The ¼ Mile” at Lacma. (In Beijing, censors withdrew two panels after objecting to an image of Mao and what they interpreted as a swastika.)
Rauschenberg, who died in 2008 at 82, began making art in the late 1940s, while studying with Josef Albers at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. There, he met the composer John Cage and the choreographer Merce Cunningham, with whom he would have long collaborative friendships. Their influence pushed Rauschenberg beyond the traditional idea of working in a single medium. From the start, he was an iconoclast, committed to using everyday materials and found artifacts, blurring the lines between sculpture and painting, between reproduction and individual creation, between objects and artworks.
All of these impulses, interests and expressions can be found in the mural, which Ms. Zavistovski described as “ extraordinarily expansive and extraordinarily detailed.”
In a wide-ranging discussion, Mr. Govan and she picked the panels they were particularly drawn to and described their relevance to Rauschenberg’s work and life. These are edited versions of their comments.
Panels 44-60, known as ‘Bob’s Army’
This section was completed in 1983, and was inspired by the terra-cotta warriors that had been excavated in the 1970s from the mausoleum of the first emperor of China. But what Rauschenberg shows in these panels are the outlined figures of his friends, family members, lovers, studio employees — all the people who filled his world. He includes images as clues to identify each person. The photographer Emile Frey has a camera; in panels showing his friends David Case and David Bradshaw, he painted Michelangelo’s David.
The panels are extremely rich in content, but also in their use of materials. What appears as paint is actually saffron-dyed cloth from Southeast Asia, and there is an incredible layering of fabric, paint and solvent-transferred print images from all sorts of mass media sources, as well as actual objects, like a ruler and an umbrella.
In Panel 59, we see Rauschenberg himself. The outline of his body, traced on fabric, references his early blueprint works from 1949 to ’51, a series of bodily impressions impressed on exposed blueprint paper. These are essentially cyanotypes, or photograms, but Rauschenberg referred to them as “blueprints.” There are also images that help to identify him: his Siberian husky; mangos and avocado pears, which grew on Captiva Island; birds; cars; and references to astronomy. He also included reproductions of the Great Sphinx of Giza and of a painting by Rubens, linking himself to art history.
These panels relate to a project Rauschenberg founded called the Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange, known as ROCI. [Announced at the United Nations, it was named for his pet turtle, Rocky]. From 1984 to ’91, he traveled to 10 countries that either had authoritarian regimes or restricted freedom of expression. He would engage in dialogue with communities and artists and stage exhibitions. He was working on ROCI concurrently with “1/4 Mile,” and incorporated a lot of what he saw and experienced as an activist into this work.
The use of copper as the surface material is directly related to his time in Chile, where he visited a number of copper mines. He liked copper for its formal qualities — its reflectivity and ability to tarnish — but also saw using it as a form of solidarity with miners and against Augusto Pinochet [the country’s dictator].
The towering woman in the center panel is a detail from the exterior of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santiago, where he had an exhibition. There is a wide range of images: a pediment, a rooster, a watermelon, a house and palm tree, the image of Christ on the cross overlaid with a telephone pole. It’s difficult to create a distinct narrative, but I think it’s both a travelogue and social commentary, perhaps about infrastructure. I love this section because formally and visually it is beautiful, but also because the panels speak to a conviction about the importance of dialogue and exchange.
This triangular plexiglass box, protruding off the wall, was made in 1981. It contains a world map and a junk rattan chair, and it reminds me of the capsule of a rocket, which you see many times in Rauschenberg’s work. In fact, there are many images of flying in general: planes, birds, arcs of motion. The chair here feels like a stand-in for the artist, flying around the earth in this broken rattan seat. The box seems to literally and metaphorically point the way, like an arrow. He was soon going to be traveling the world with the ROCI project, and it seems to declare that intention. It also makes me think of the internet now, and the way we are often armchair travelers with it.
The use of trash and broken-down items was something Rauschenberg started early in his career. The idea that he would use a thrown-away cardboard box or a broken chair is so beautiful, because it shows art for what it is: the transformation of nothing into something.
This is a fantastic construction completed in the summer of 1997, and it comes near the end of the exhibition. It’s made of transparent glass that has been silk-screened. The way he constructed it, with the images on the clear glass, the zigzag angles of the panels and a mirror at the back, makes it a combination of sculpture and painting. The images are being rearranged all the time in an incredibly active, kinetic way, depending on where you are looking. For Rauschenberg, things are always variable and changing. There is always a place for chance in the John Cagean sense.
I think in the art world, there has always been a certain lack of interest in Rauschenberg’s later work, from the 1980s and ’90s. The big Rauschenberg retrospectives at the Guggenheim and the Tate have certainly privileged the early work. But I always felt he came into his own in the ’80s; he had command of his mediums, the space in which to create huge projects and was traveling extensively. I think this project shows the way he made the personal reach to the edges of the world.
Rauschenberg: The 1/4 Mile
Through June 9 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; lacma.org.