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Robert RauschenbergThe 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece

  • Exhibition

  • May 1999 - April 2000
  • Building 5

Robert Rauschenberg’s art was one of thoughtful inclusion. Working with a wide range of subjects, styles, materials, and techniques, Rauschenberg has been called a forerunner of nearly every postwar movement since Abstract Expressionism. He, however, remained independent of any particular affiliation. When he began making art in the late 1940s, his belief that “painting relates to both art and life” presented a direct challenge to the prevalent Modernist aesthetic. His Combines, first made in the mid-1950s, brought real-world images and objects into the realm of abstract painting and countered the traditional divisions between painting and sculpture. These works initiated a continuing dialogue between painting and sculpture, between the handmade and the readymade, and between the gestural brushstroke and the mechanically reproduced image.

Beginning in 1948, Rauschenberg studied with the former Bauhaus master Josef Albers at Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina. It was there that he solidified friendships with composer John Cage and dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham. The next year, he settled in New York, was introduced to the work of the Abstract Expressionists, and began to incorporate free brushwork into his own paintings. His works from this period, however, already reflected his longstanding commitment to extracting materials and images from his immediate environment.

The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece is a monumental work-in-progress that Rauschenberg began nearly two decades before its exhibition at MASS MoCA and continued to work on intermittently over the following decades. Although the number of pieces shown and the exact sequence may vary from one installation of the work to the next, in its entirety the work consisted of 195 parts and measured nearly 1,000 feet long, at the time of its exhibition at MASS MoCA. By its sheer size and through both visual and aural elements, this multi-part work creates an encompassing environment.

A self-contained retrospective, The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece presents significant developments in Rauschenberg’s career, referring to past motifs and techniques as well as to current trends in his art. Seen together, the components in this piece reveal the broad range of Rauschenberg’s artistic practices. The everyday objects in the work are widely diverse and are imbued with the history of their former use. For example, a patchwork quilt, colorful shirts, and tablecloths — all recurrent Rauschenberg subjects — are integrated and juxtaposed in unexpected ways much as they were in the early Combines. Unembellished cardboard boxes form wall reliefs and refer to the artist’s Cardboards series begun following his move to Captiva, Florida in 1970. Resembling one of the scrap-metal sculptures from his Gluts series, a bench — which viewers are invited to use — was made from oil barrels, a wheelbarrow, and a neon tube.

Like his materials, Rauschenberg’s images are taken from many sources, in particular from the media and the artist’s own photographs. The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece is at once a visual diary of contemporary history and the artist’s extensive travels. Further, it reveals Rauschenberg’s method of combining disparate subjects and contains many of the motifs that have remained central to his work: athletes, politicians, animals, umbrellas, planets, modes of transportation, fine-art reproductions, street signs, lettering, and geometric patterns. A consummate experimenter with new materials and techniques, Rauschenberg used a multitude of methods, including collage, solvent transfer, and silkscreen to transfer images to supports that range from lustrous fabrics to metals, such as aluminum and copper.

photo by Nicholas Whitman

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