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Wear Comfortable Shoes: This Art Exhibition Covers '1/4 Mile'

Robert Rauschenberg's <em>The 1/4 Mile</em> or<em> 2 Furlong Piece</em> roughly spanned the length of his commute. It is <a href="https://www.lacma.org/art/exhibition/rauschenberg-14-mile">now on view</a> at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — exhibited in its entirety for the first time.
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Museum Associates/LACMA
Robert Rauschenberg's The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece roughly spanned the length of his commute. It is now on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — exhibited in its entirety for the first time.

Painter Robert Rauschenberg really loved his job. "My greatest joy is in working," he told PBS in 1998. "That's when I feel a wholeness and a celebration of a unity with everything about me."

So when Rauschenberg walked the quarter mile from his house to his studio in Captiva, Fla., that short commute was a journey toward joy.

"He talked a lot about working in that fertile, creative space between art and life," says Katia Zavistovski, an assistant curator at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

On view at LACMA now — exhibited for the first time in its entirety — is a massive Rauschenberg work which approximately spans the length of his commute. The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece is comprised of 190 mixed media panels, sounds and sculptures. Rauschenberg worked on it on-and-off for 17 years, from 1981 to 1998.

It's a memoir, says LACMA director Michael Govan — a walk through the artist's life. The panels are painted and collaged with photographs and fabrics. There are checkered tablecloths and flattened T-shirts — all things that meant something to Rauschenberg.

Panel 1 is full of familiar objects: magazine and newspaper images of rocket ships, flowers, money, and — of course, the start to any good work day — a cup of coffee.

He used lots of found objects — a rusted wheelbarrow, a beat-up chair, cardboard boxes.

Cardboard boxes spring off the wall in Rauschenberg's <em>The 1/4 Mile.</em>
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / Museum Associates/LACMA
Museum Associates/LACMA
Cardboard boxes spring off the wall in Rauschenberg's The 1/4 Mile.

"The bric-a-brac of the leftover is the magic of his art," Govan says. "Because you have to think of art — it's always the transformation of nothing to something."

By the time he died in 2008, Rauschenberg had traveled around the world, tape recorder in tow. Sounds he recorded are incorporated into this artwork — a baby crying, elevator doors, a band saw.

Panels 69 through 73 are quiet though. There, you will find five tall stacks of books, discarded from the public library. Towering above the heads of the museum visitors, they stand "like totems," Govan says. (You can see a photo of them at the top of this page.)

The panels are fun, though Rauschenberg shows his worries, too — there are references to environmental damage, repression and war. But you can see that it's joy that drives him. His self-portrait is collaged with images of things he loved — you'll find baby shoes, avocados, a newborn duck and a piece of bread.

As a young man in the 1950s Rauschenberg was bothered by the prevailing idea — the hotshot abstract expressionist idea — that it took suffering and pain to produce important art.

"He is prolific in a joyful way," Govan says. "Looking at everything in the world — a piece of trash, an odd juxtaposition of objects — and in it he finds life."

With a quarter mile of panels occupying nearly an entire floor of LACMA through early June, visitors will have the opportunity to go for a walk and enjoy life through Rauschenberg's eyes.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Stamberg
Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.
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