Dear Family, Friends, and Diary,
A road trip. A bus ride. An art experience. This diary is the story of our first road-bus-art excursion of 2019 - or of ever, now that I think of it. On June 1, we will pile into a bus with other members of the Fresno Art Museum on a 15-hour trip to Los Angeles. We will visit the Los Angeles County Art Museum (LACMA), specifically to see the exhibition by Robert Rauschenberg titled "The Quarter Mile". It promises to be a long day, but an interesting test if buses and groups are in our future travel modes. Seems like a step in aging, but that's reality.
A couple of days before the trip, the Fresno museum director Michele Pracy provided a short lecture on Rauschenberg and on the work we would see at LACMA. Marianne and I have enjoyed Rauschenberg work in several other museums and galleries, as he is one of the most prolific and successful American artists of the last half-century. However, Michele's lecture was a great overview of an artist who went from collecting and displaying garbage ("found objects" in art-speak) to assembling material from around the world.
Rauschenberg entered the US Navy at the end of WWII but objected to killing, so he opted to serve as a psychological nurse and used insights from that environment and the GI-bill to develop his art at Black Mountain College. From there, he moved to New York City and confidently embarked on a career of art largely unlike anything that was being done at the time.
He quickly went beyond the starving-artist stage and could afford a series of NYC homes and workshops before relocating to Captiva Island in Florida, where he spent his last decades and where the Rauschenberg Foundation remains. From 1981 to 1998 he developed "The 1/4 Mile", the massive work that is indeed almost 1,000 feet long and would be the focus of our Saturday excursion. Stay tuned!
Our bus ride started at the Veteran's Administration hospital parking lot, a safe place to leave our cars for almost 18 hours.
By 6:45, thirty-some eager (mostly) elders showed up in plenty of time for the 7:00 departure, definitely senior punctuality.
Everyone seemed as happy as little school kids on a day trip. Most riders had done these Fresno Art Museum (FAM) trips before and I found their eagerness a good sign. We all settled in, introduced ourselves to our neighbors, and started rummaging through the "snack bag" FAM provided. At least as good as airplane food!
Just before leaving the San Joaquin Valley on the Grapevine, our driver Anita pulled into a giant travelers stop, mostly for the rest rooms. It was a senior group after all. After completing the requirements, Marianne shopped in the kitsch shops and I wandered around trying to find something to photograph. The most scenic spot was a hilly green doggy rest area. Photo practice anyway. When I returned to the parking lot, the Fun bus had disappeared from sight, hidden by a giant blue container truck. In the few seconds before I realized what had happened, I considered how spending my whole day at the travel stop might proceed. Not positive.
The Los Angeles County Art Museum (LACMA) is a sprawling collection of seven or eight buildings, housing far more art than we could see in our alloted four hours. Despite the gray and cool morning, we were all eager to get started.
In fact, the whole LACMA crowd seemed eager and happy. Just outside the ticket booth, Chris Burden's "Urban Lights" serves as a stage for all sorts of laughter and fancy-dress pictures. For me, this gave the feeling of LACMA as a family-friendly experience, welcoming to visitors of all ages.
The Rauschenberg showing occupied the top floor in the Broad Contemporary Art Museum (always referred to as "BCAM"). From the top of the three-story escalator, we could see the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The $400 million (plus?) building is set to open in about a year, another reason to come back.
Robert Rauschenberg, "The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece" (1981-1998)
How should I describe our approach to Robert Rauschenberg's self-described "life work"? We had done some homework, including the overview provided back at FAM (see earlier). We knew from other exhibitions that his work almost defies categorization: found material; collage; silk-screen and ink transfer photo collages; large scale; small details; variety, mostly variety.
The LACMA presentation was the first time The 1/4 Mile had ever been displayed in its entirety and the LA run would end in just a few days (June 9). We spent about 90 minutes wandering through the work, taking a few hundred pictures, but mostly just trying to absorb the imagination and craft with which Rauschenberg worked. My description below includes a couple dozen of those photos, but even so can not give a full measure of what we saw. It's the best I can do.
My overall impression was one of space, not the outer space type, but spacious rooms that drew visitors left and right, forward and back, up close and backed away. Examples:
Rauschenberg incorporated photos in his work from his earliest days, when he would paste bits and pieces of newspapers or other printed material. Later on, he would use ink-transfer, silk-screen, and even direct ink-jet printing to include his own photos among other art. I have been looking for another use of my own photos. Maybe I should try to learn?
Rauschenberg's essential early contribution to art were his "combines" where he would mix ordinary and found objects, created material such as paintings and photos, and, it seems, whatever he had laying around. In these pieces, he found a use for mail order boxes. Better than recycle. (I know YOU or I could have thought of this too, but the point is we didn't.)
Combines could be anything. On the left is a painting along the wall combined with a perpendicular "clothes line" hanging flour bags and pillow cases.
Or, in the foreground on the right, street signs and neon, while on the wall in back is an old bamboo lounge chair, found on a Florida beach
This wheelbarrow planter was required to hold a plant indigenous to the location, making it different in every exhibition. OK, maybe you could have thought of this too, but done it so well?
This large orange container was filled almost to overflowing with an opaque white liquid, hence the two guards keeping curious fingers away. At one level, this was a simple box of milk. But at another, it combined colors, textures, and light in ways worthy of ... Rauschenberg.
This smush of metal siding, with steering wheel, was set in the huge plastic wall shown at the top of this section. It is what the wall is not: rough, colorless, disordered, discarded junk.
There were several panels of rumpled clothing. Seen from the front, they were flimsy discards, but pictured from the side the cloth was backed by rugged mounting boards and frames. Nothing is as simple as it seems.
On any number of pieces, it was almost impossible to recognize what was a painting, collaged material, silk screen, or ink-jet. Every section of every part was both haphazard and precise.
This set of polilaminate panels were one of Marianne's favorites. The ability to see through one panel to another made the art change for every viewer, sometimes even incorporating the viewer in the vision.
I suppose we will never again see a range of Rauschenberg like The Quarter Mile. It was a privilege.
We spent almost an hour-and-a-half wandering through The Quarter-Mile, one floor of one building, in the seven-building LACMA complex. What next? We really had no plan, but before we could even leave the BCAM building, we discovered more surprises.
The nosiest display was Chris Burden's "Metropolis II". This has to be the most elaborate Hot Wheels track ever conceived, a dream for all little boys, such as grandson Sam. We need to bring him down here.
Neighboring the complex and animated Metropolis II, the BCAM ground floor holds Richard Serra's "Band", massive and still. At 200 tons, this has to be the heaviest pieces of museum art we've ever seen. I can not even imagine how the twelve-foot high, 70-foot long piece was envisioned, built, transported, or erected. It seemed seamless.
Across from BCAM, in the Resnick Pavilion, we wandered into "The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka". In our travels, we have never considered a trip there, but one exposure to the delicate and colorful art makes us question that decision. Another place on our bucket list?
Also in the Resnick Pavilion, we stopped at "Power of Pattern: Central Asia Ikats". I admit I did not even know what an Ikat is, but Marianne did and considered our lost opportunity to visit "the Stans" during our time in Ukraine where travel to the former Soviet states was relatively easy. Now, it's harder. Too bad, but there are plenty of places on our travel list already.
Next to the colorful Ikats, we passed by the massive "Wave of Materials" by Zhu Jinshi. Thousands of hand-made sheets of art paper formed a towering wave, held up by string and anchored by small stones. This was another case of amazement at just the imagination needed to conceive of such a piece, not to mention the craft of construction and erection.
By now, we were two-and-a-half hours into our four-hour stay and I was starting to glaze over, but it was too soon to give up. The Ahmanson Building houses LACMA's modern art galleries, a favorite genre, and, so, a required stop. We wandered past several good-sized galleries, filled with Picasso's and other main players in the modern art scene. I have forgotten who all was there, and I find I am grateful that photography was not allowed in these privately-funded spaces.
The last of the galleries in this wing was photography-friendly, but I could manage little more than a single shot of the large room. Of course it was a most impressive room, with works by Joan Mitchell, Picasso (again), Willem De Kooning, Rauschenberg, and Robert Motherwell. Each could have formed the highlight of a smaller museum.
Somewhere along the line, we ran across these two pieces by Frank Stella: "Saint Michael's Counterguard" (left) and "Inaccessible Rail". These three-dimensional works attracted both Marianne and me, and we both took pictures. Often, we see a museum differently and it shows in the photos we take, but not this time.
I liked this small Marc Chegall painting, "Violinist on Bench", showing a Russian peasant in front of a winter cabin. Not sure why.
This Rene Magritte painting of a pipe, titled (in French) "This is not a pipe", is a famous discussion-piece concerning just what a painting is and is not. I think this appeals to the engineer in me.
We walked out via a garden with a half-dozen Rodin sculptures keeping guard. In our tours, particularly in France, we have seen a whole lot of Rodin and I have always wondered just how he could have produced so much. Reportedly, his work was not well-received until decades after his 1917 death, so maybe he kept busy producing, undistracted by shows and adulation. Something to ponder for artists not (currently) appreciated. One just has to be skilled, imaginative, productive - and dead.
Whew, four hours in a museum, well beyond our normal stamina. We noticed that others in our group were also glad to have finished. The enthusiasm that started our day had not exactly gone away, just become subdued, except for these two guys. Congratulations for them, and all the rest of us who made the effort.
As a final test, can anyone identify this building, just across the street from LACMA? It seems very LA.
Dinner was slated for the (famous) Farmer's Market, just around the corner from LACMA. When we got there, the old Gilmore Gas station was hidden by mostly mid-century auto masterpieces. Interesting, enough, but I think Fresno actually has some better summer street car shows. Really.
The rest of the Farmers Market stop was not a trip highlight. The place was hugely crowded with tourists and trinket shoppers. Food stalls abounded, and I suppose we should have opted for that more-traditional market fare, but we chose a French fish restaurant. It will remain nameless in accordance with the diary rule: If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. As a side note, there are not many farmers at the Farmers Market.
At 6:00 we all piled on Anita's bus and she drove into the evening traffic. I think it took over a half-hour to go the few miles to the north-bound freeways and I was glad we had a good and patient driver! As the highways headed up into the mountains, rain arrived to make the trip just a little slower and our required pit stop a bit wet.
We arrived back at the VA Hospital parking lot at 10:20, tired and not wanting to think about another bus ride for quite some time. Maybe by the time of the next FAM tour in October, we will change our minds. Maybe. Maybe not.
Meanwhile, Marianne and I need to get home and off to sleep, because we had another early morning adventure: A helicopter ride. Another story.
John and Marianne