Rauschenberg at LACMA

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If you want to know how it feels to walk a quarter mile in the shoes of a great artist, you can have your wish fulfilled in the Robert Rauschenberg show at LACMA. Rauschenberg: The 1/4 Mile is spectacular in the literal sense of being bigger, better, wilder than anything you can imagine.

The artist (1925-2008) is a central figure to the evolution of contemporary art after 1950, recognized mostly for the ways in which he incorporated objects from every day life, photographic images, swathes of fabric into what were accurately called Combines, melding the three-dimensionality of sculpture with the two-dimensional aspects of painting. Today, he is seen as the most forward looking and influential artists of his generation.

Robert Rauschenberg, The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, 1981–98, installation view, Robert Rauschenberg: A Retrospective, Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, 1998–99, © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, photo © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, by Erika Barahona Ede 

He was well-established by 1981, with a retrospective on view in Europe, when he started The 1/4 Mile, which is based on the distance that he walked from his home to his studio on Captiva Island, Florida. The goal was to make a work of art of that length, which took him 17 years. Organized by LACMA director Michael Govan and curator Katia Zavistovski, it is indisputably a masterpiece yet it has never been exhibited in its entirety until now.

One hundred and ninety massive panels are arranged chronologically at BCAM (The Broad Contemporary Art Museum at LACMA) so you will be living Rauschenberg’s own experience of creating as time passes. You can see recurring and newly discovered themes including the ways he first starts using his own photographs in his work, rather than taking them from mass media sources. The artist said, “As I change, as my interests change, it changes.”

Robert Rauschenberg with The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (1981–98) in progress in his Laika Lane studio, Captiva, Florida, c. 1983, photo by Terry Van Brunt, courtesy Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

One of Rauschenberg’s many, many discoveries is the use of photo-transfer. By rubbing the back of a newspaper or magazine photo with acetone, the image bleeds through to the canvas or other surface. With The 1/4 Mile, it enabled Rauschenberg to embed an incalculable variety of pictures with a seemingly infinite number of symbolic, personal and universal meanings. His accompanying audio collage, which plays in the gallery, includes pop tunes, traffic sounds and other sonic riffs that caught his attention.

Unlike a retrospective with defined works, you are looking at his process, which was integral to how he worked. Panels completed in 1983 include outlines of figures who were friends or family as well as his own body. (The artist’s own nether regions are decorated with humorous potency in the images of big horned rams. )

Robert Rauschenberg, The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (detail), 1981–98, mixed media, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

At intervals, the project includes freestanding assemblages including a wheelbarrow full of dirt and plants that are always native to the locale, in this case, agaves.

Some panels refer to the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange devised by the artist to support freedom of expression. Between 1984 and 1991, he traveled to ten countries including Mexico, China and the Soviet Union. Images and impressions from those trips made their way onto more panels of his 1/4 Mile project. That he considered the endeavor to be a personal pilgrimmage is evident in a number of ways including a reflective white panel with splashes of white paint that turn out to be his bare footprints walking along the top of his own art.

Robert Rauschenberg, The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (detail), 1981–98, mixed media, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

As viewers, we walk along with him, reminded of the range and depth of global cultural possibility. To quote Rauschenberg again, “There is no reason not to consider the world as one gigantic painting.”

Rauschenberg spent considerable time in L.A. from the 1960s onward, when he began making prints at Gemini G.E.L. A parallel exhibition in the Resnick Pavilion, Rauschenberg: In and About L.A. includes Booster (1967), a life-size self-portrait made with x-ray films as well as Currents (1970), which is 54 feet long and features an audio as well. Photographs taken by the artist as well as his screenprints of L.A. make clear his long- standing affection for the city.

Robert Rauschenberg, The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (detail), 1981–98, mixed media, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Last week’s LACMA gala, sponsored by Gucci, hosted by Leonardo DiCaprio and Eva Chow, honoring Cathy Opie and Guillermo del Toro, was the hottest ticket in the ongoing battle to raise funds for LA museums. The Rauschenberg show is a major, unprecedented accomplishment. LACMA director Michael Govan wants everyone to know that LACMA may be building a new structure and tearing down the old ones but it is continuing to operate at a seriously high level.

Those shows are on view through June 9, 2019.

Rauschenberg was creatively involved with choreographer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage and designed sets and costumes for performances. Another exhibition at LACMA, Merce Cunningham, Clouds and Screen, presents large videos of those dances in an installation by Charles Atlas, who was with the company for many years. The entrance to the show is marked by Andy Warhol’s silver helium balloons, which he thought of as floating paintings. That show is organized by Jose Luis Blondet. It is on view through March 31, 2019.

More on Rauschenberg and his early years, the 1950s? There is an unconventional new biography, the first, by poet Joshua Rivkin that traces their initial romance and then their friendship: Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly published by Melville House.