One quarter mile was the exact distance between Robert Rauschenberg’s house on Captiva Island and his artist studio.
As a distance, it is neither long nor short; more like a healthy buffer or decompression zone to move between personal and professional spaces without bringing the frustrations of one into the other.
But I have to wonder, does this concept really work for Rauschenberg, an artist who famously declared acting in the “gap” between art and life?
I actually think this quarter mile distance is exactly where Rauschenberg must have been at his most essential – and he knew it.
So it is a big deal to have Rauschenberg’s 1/4 Mile exhibited in its entirety for the very first time at LACMA.
On view until June 9, 2019, don’t miss it!
When it comes to art, a quarter mile is a monumental size. Almost more performance art than anything else…which is what for Rauschenberg, by the way?? Pop Painterly? Neo-Dada Sculptural?
I‘d rather keep it vague on purpose here because Rauschenberg is hard to categorize: he never was one to stick to a formula or a technique for very long.
When he took the collage technique invented by Picasso and Braque in 1912, Rauschenberg literally pushed it to the edge, adding sculptural protrusions in his Combines.
The best known is Bed (1955) but here is a combine detail from The 1/4 Mile.
Dabbing into silkscreens (a technique Rauschenberg learnt from Andy Warhol), this new medium turned media into his hands, rearranged into his very own news columns and editorials (see Retroactive I and II, 1954).
Experimenting was the Rauschenberg’s way of life. This transpires from transcripts his fabricator Lawrence Voytek kindly pointed out to me.
My read on it: Bob Rauschenberg almost had a “burn after leaving” attitude. Whenever he got a little too comfortable with a particular technique, it was a sure sign to break the mould and move on.
Yet not before recording any “keepers” styles into his ¼ Mile, a project he kept adding to during the 17 years between 1981 and 1998.
The ¼ Mile is therefore as autobiographical as it gets, a sort of giant self-portrait spanning 190 panels made of collected “cultural fragments”.
Rauschenberg being Rauschenberg, forget figuration and self-identification. I don’t think he was as interested in intellectualizing liminal spaces as his alter-ego Jasper Johns was.
Rauschenberg “wanted to reach out to the whole world and welcome it into his world¹”: his outwardness fully counterbalancing Jasper Johns’ more cerebral approach popped the art world bubble so far dominated by Abstract Expressionism (more on this in my blog post Jasper Johns – Something Resembling Truth ).
Therefore if you go to LACMA, get ready for an expansive space, a quarter-mile ride spanning mixed media and countless techniques of sculptural and painterly appeal.
Go and explore a space where found objects, textiles and books are woven in with travel moments and threaded in amongst the outlines of Bob’s Army, his “people”.
The ¼ Mile is personal, life-like and yes, a little messy: you can choose to take all the vibrant colors and shapes from a distance or zoom in on photographs, silkscreens and collages to focus on specific moments of Rauschenberg’s timeline.
I have never seen anything like this. As if Rauschenberg left a turn-key, fully curated retrospective of his ever-changing career and constant reinvention. This is an artwork defying all categories – much like Rauschenberg himself.
At the crux of it is the concept of CHANGE and its shifting qualities, captured visually by Rauschenberg’s key series that have gone the distance, so to speak. The installation may not be moving but the wavelengths of Rauschenberg’s artistic mind are very much there: a visual flow of constant change.
These changes, Rauschenberg embraced them throughout his life and artistic career; changes in medium, techniques, focus, colors, opacity and transparency.
As he said:
“By the time you’ve gone a quarter of a mile, if you have any mind at all, you’ve certainly forgotten what you had in mind when you started” – Rauschenberg (1982)
There is flatness speaking volume (and volumes!) in his book totems but in them, Rauschenberg managed to build art into life and life into art.
Then he did it again. And again.
Always preferring information to entertainment, Rauschenberg must have sensed his ¼ Mile would end up being much more than the sum of its parts. And this value keeps influencing the art of now, as it influenced so many artists then.
© 2018 Ingrid Westlake
All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.
Robert Rauschenberg’s 1/4 Mile is on view at LACMA until June 9, 2019.
Companion post on Jasper Johns can be found here.
Thank you to Lawrence Voytek and The Rauschenberg Foundation for the Oral History transcripts about The 1/4 Mile.
¹ Russell, J. – Rauschenberg and Johns: Mr Outside and Mr. Inside, New York Times article, Feb 15th, 1987