Whatever the quality of the art on offer at the fairs in Los Angeles this week, grand pleasures await at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There is, for one thing, “Outliers and American Vanguard Art,” the absolutely essential, masterpiece-rich touring exhibition that handily rewrites the history of this country’s art. And then there is Robert Rauschenberg’s The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (1981–98), which is being shown for the first time in its full 190-panel glory, stretching about the length of its title. Viewing it yesterday, I had more fun than I can remember having in an art museum in quite some time.
The product of nearly two decades of work, The 1/4 Mile shrugs off easy summation. There is metal, fabric, paint (splashed, deliberately brushed, cooly applied), prints on every surface (of quotidian images, like people cooking, but also historical figures and newspaper pages), a wheelbarrow planted with succulents, stoplights, outlines of people’s bodies, cardboard boxes, glass jugs, empty bags of flour, piles of books, and more, and more, and more. What’s remarkable is that the work never feels overwhelming or slapdash or self-indulgent. It has the effect of a controlled burn, a life lived very well, with wit and invention and grace.
Superlatives seem acceptable when discussing such a monumental work, so I will add one more. To accompany the show, LACMA has printed one of the most exciting museums handouts I’ve ever seen: a pamphlet that details some of the piece’s components and folds out to reveal a photo of the complete work. Of course, seen in miniature, only the broadest thrusts of the piece are legible—the joyous waves of color that flow across it, the few large objects that ornament it—so a long visit to the museum is essential.
Art fairs come and go, and they are brief. The 1/4 Mile is long—something for the ages. But it will not be at LACMA forever. Its last day is June 9. Those in L.A. who do not see it before then cannot really understand what they are missing, but they should be filled with deep and abiding regret.