DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Painter Robert Rauschenberg once measured the distance from his house to his studio in Captiva, Fla., and then he made an artwork that is as long as his measurements. He called it "The 1/4 Mile" or "2 Furlong Piece," 1981 to 1998. It is an enormous series of panels. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg just walked through the work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She wore some comfy shoes.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Here's something nice Robert Rauschenberg once said on PBS.
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ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG: My greatest joy is in working. That's when I feel a wholeness and a celebration of a unity with everything around me.
STAMBERG: So that quarter-mile walk from house to studio was a commute toward joy.
KATIA ZAVISTOVSKI: He talked a lot about working in that fertile, creative space between art and life.
STAMBERG: Katia Zavistovski co-curated the exhibit with LACMA director Michael Govan. It was Govan's dream to show all 190 panels. The dream's come true for the first time ever.
MICHAEL GOVAN: You can't remember it, and you can't see it in reproduction.
STAMBERG: It's a memoir, Govan says, a walk through the artist's life. Panels painted and collaged with photos, fabrics, checkered tablecloths you'd see at some red-sauce Italian restaurant, even T-shirts flattened for paint - stuff that meant something to Rauschenberg.
It's very personal. But how does it mean anything to the rest of us?
GOVAN: It means everything to the rest of us.
STAMBERG: Panel 1 is full of things we know - magazine and newspaper images of rocket ships, flowers, money, a cup of coffee.
GOVAN: You start your day with a cup of coffee. And here, this beautiful 17 (laughter) years of work starts with a cup of coffee.
STAMBERG: He used lots of found objects - a rusted wheelbarrow, a beat-up chair, cardboard boxes.
GOVAN: The bric-a-brac of the leftover is the magic of his art because you have to think of art always of - it's always a transformation of nothing to something.
STAMBERG: By the time he died in 2008, Rauschenberg had traveled around the world and took a tape recorder with him. Sounds he recorded are part of this artwork - a baby crying, elevator doors, a band saw. It's pretty quiet, though, at Panels 69 through 73 - a sculpture, sort of. Five high stacks of books, Florida Public Library discards, piled one on top of the other.
ZAVISTOVSKI: I love those books - fiction and science and math books.
GOVAN: They have a pole inside them, so they look like a huge, tall stack, taller than we are - much taller, like totems.
STAMBERG: Must have been fun piling up books. There's fun on lots of the panels, although Rauschenberg does show his worries, too - environmental damage, repression, war. But you can see that it's joy that drives him. His self-portrait here is collaged with images of things he loved - baby shoes, avocados, a newborn duck, a piece of bread.
So you look at it. He says it's a self-portrait. You think, who is this guy? Who is this guy?
GOVAN: He's prolific in a joyful way, looking at everything in the world - a piece of trash, an odd juxtaposition of objects - and in it, he finds life.
STAMBERG: As a young man in the 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg was bothered by the prevailing idea, the hotshot abstract expressionist idea, that it took suffering and pain to produce important art. Rauschenberg disagreed. And with his life-affirming work, LACMA director Michael Govan says he made his mark.
GOVAN: For me, Rauschenberg is one of the most important artists of the century.
STAMBERG: The last century. And with his quarter-mile panels occupying nearly an entire floor of LACMA through early June, he strides into this century too. In Los Angeles, I'm Susan Stamberg.
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