If the adoption of one’s name
as an adjective is any indicator
of cultural influence, Robert
Rauschenberg was clearly one
of the top American artists of his
generation. While the names of
his contemporaries evoke specific
connotations – 'Warholian'
conjures soup cans; 'Cagean'
means a specific kind of silence –
'Rauschenbergian' remains a hard
word to define.
This year will see two major
reevaluations of the artist’s legacy.
A thorough retrospective – the first
since his death in 2008 – will open at
London’s Tate Modern in November,
later travelling to New York and San
Francisco. The other exhibition,
Rauschenberg in China, opened
last month at Beijing’s UCCA, and
arguably gives a better idea of what
'Rauschenbergian' might mean.
Rauschenberg in China centres
around a piece made up of sculptures
and canvases called The 1/4 Mile
or 2 Furlong Piece, which the artist
created between 1981 and 1998.
The first half of 'the quarter mile', as
co-curators Susan Davidson and
David White call it, was unveiled
at the 1987 inauguration of the
Metropolitan Museum’s Wallace
Wing for 20th-century art. It was
included in a Rauschenberg
retrospective organised by New
York’s Guggenheim Museum in 1997,
which travelled to Houston, Cologne
and Bilbao, and was last shown at
the Massachusetts Museum of
Contemporary Art in 1999.
Rauschenberg in China is the first
time The 1/4 Mile has been exhibited
in the 21st century – partly due to
the immense logistical challenges
inherent in mounting it. Described
by the curators as a 'masterwork'
and a 'self-contained retrospective',
The 1/4 Mile is incredibly large: 305 metres from end-to-end,
composed of 191 individual parts
incorporating signature elements
of Rauschenberg’s work such as
junkyard scrap, newspaper clippings
and textiles. Assistant curator Helen
Hsu calls it a 'retrospective crasher':
'In 1997, it necessitated a makeshift
Guggenheim space in an off-site
location. In Houston, it spread the
retrospective into multiple venues,
and it actually was left out in Cologne
because there was no space for it.'
For the current show, The 1/4 Mile
was relayed between warehouses
in the US, before being packed onto
a boat bound for Tianjin.
Once it cleared customs
– two panels that threw
up red flags during the
process had already been
omitted – it was shipped
to a warehouse in Beijing,
unpacked, then loaded
into smaller trucks to get it
If we use The 1/4 Mile as a stand-in
for the artist, this is the third time
Rauschenberg has come to China.
In 1982, he was commissioned to
create a piece based on a visit to the
oldest paper mill in Anhui Province.
Rauschenberg came armed with his
Hasselblad camera, and shot 50 rolls
of film during his stay. Two years later,
he announced the Rauschenberg
Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI),
a self-funded initiative to use his art
as a channel for communication in
countries where he perceived a lack
of free expression, including Cuba,
Venezuela and the Soviet Union. ROCI was a manifestation of his
belief that 'one-to-one contact
through art contains potent peaceful
powers, and is the most non-elitist
way to share exotic and common
information, seducing us into a
creative mutual understanding for
the benefit of all.'
The first stop on his ROCI tour,
which would cover ten countries
over seven years, was Beijing.
opened at what is now
the National Art Museum of China
in November 1985, centred on a
30-metre-long horizontal photograph
called Chinese Summerhall
up and reassembled
individual negatives of
photos taken in ’82 and
printed out the resulting
collage. 'It remains the
largest photograph on a
single sheet of paper ever
printed,' Hsu says.
ROCI China drew
over 300,000 visitors
in the three weeks it was shown.
It influenced an entire generation of
artists emboldened by China’s recent
economic and ideological opening,
but starved of direct contact with
artists of Rauschenberg’s stature.
From Beijing, Rauschenberg
travelled west to Lhasa for a second
ROCI exhibit. He was received by
artist Li Xinjian, who still vividly
remembers their first encounter:
'He was standing with his back to
the sun, at the crossroads between
the Tibetan Autonomous Region
government office and the museum
hosting his exhibit. He looked burly,
wearing jeans, a pair of heavy boots
and a glamorous lynx fur coat'.
Li collaborated with Rauschenberg
on the ROCI exhibit, which in Lhasa
included more than 70 works flown
in on decommissioned military
aircraft. Rauschenberg’s goal of
using art as a 'non-elitist' form of
universal communication was not
entirely successful. The exhibit
included ten video works, some of
which featured snippets of Disney
cartoons. 'There were not many
TVs in Tibet back then,' Li explains,
saying that some local viewers
were entertained to the point of
distraction by the novelty. 'Some of
it was cryptic, incomprehensible to
the average person. How could they
ever understand those paintings?
When Rauschenberg saw the
Tibetans happily watching Mickey
Mouse and Donald Duck, he got
angry and told us to turn off the TVs.'
Rauschenberg’s visit was a
revelation to Li. 'He wanted to take
the world by storm, to lead a cultural
charge into a new geographic
territory,' Li says. 'He felt he was an
archaeologist of the times, gathering
new information to build up an ideal
empire in his own artistic vision.'
Li recalls a baijiu-soaked feast
that Rauschenberg threw after the
exhibit opened, a major event at a
time when Lhasa’s single five-star
hotel barely had enough hot water for
its guests. 'We were giving toasts,
he danced with everyone. He was
shaking his glass around, saying, "I
use military aircraft to carry my works
around the world, there will never be
any more wars!" In any culture, to gain advantage,
towards the outside. It’s the same
for artists. He knew this well, and
wherever he went he planted an
American flag.' A few years after his visit to Lhasa,
Rauschenberg publicly debuted The
1/4 Mile, which includes material
from his time in China.
Walking through The 1/4 Mile as
it unfurls through UCCA’s Great Hall,
supplemented by smaller exhibits
of photographs and ephemera from
Rauschenberg’s China trips, one
feels as if a diary is being read aloud.
While Rauschenberg’s influence on
China has been well documented,
this show is as much about China’s
influence on him.
'Rauschenberg was a very gutsy
man, one of the few world-class
artists of his time,' Li says. 'Although
Tibet is far from the world’s art
centre, New York, and I was like
a soldier standing on the border
of Chinese contemporary art,
I always found his work familiar.
Its sophistication is that in its
familiarity lies a kind of uncertainty.'
Rauschenberg in China aptly
communicates the artist’s uncanny
representation of the familiar.
Its monumental centrepiece is huge
but unassuming, its subject matter
broad and diplomatic yet at the same
time thoroughly self-absorbed,
daring yet stable, comfortably
cryptic. In a word: Rauschenbergian.