Decoding Robert Rauschenberg

His quarter-mile-long mural is a self-portrait of a man who reshaped 20th-century art. Now, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, curators decipher the work’s meaning.

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.


Robert Rauschenberg’s “The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece,” currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, includes street signs among its freestanding sculptures .Credit Robert Rauschenberg Foundation; Rozette Rago for The New York Times

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 45-59 and 61 in the foreground. CreditRobert Rauschenberg Foundation; Photographs by Rozette Rago for The New York Times

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 Emil Fray has a camera; panels showing his friends David Case and David Bradshaw included printed reproductions of Michelangelo’s “David.”

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