The Rauschenberg exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing (Photos/GT)
In 1985, when U.S. artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) held a grand exhibition at the National Art Gallery (now the National Art Museum of China) in Beijing, it not only attracted a huge wave of visitors, but also inspired Chinese art lovers and artists to rethink what could be thought of as art.
More than 30 years later, during which time contemporary Chinese art has developed greatly, Rauschenberg's work has returned to China.
His masterpiece work, The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, made its Asian debut at The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing as part of the Rauschenberg exhibition on Sunday. The exhibition is scheduled to run until August 21.
About 305 meters in length and consisting of nearly 190 sections, this masterpiece, which took him 17 years to complete, represents a milestone in Rauschenberg's career and is considered by many as a self-contained retrospective of the artist's career.
The exhibition also includes documents and memorabilia related to his 1985 exhibition ROCI China, and two portfolios for his Studies for Chinese Summerhall.
A quarter mile
"Only an artist such as Rauschenberg, who had an expansive vision of the world could have created a painting like The 1/4 Mile," said Susan Davidson, one of exhibit's two curators, at a press conference at UCCA on Saturday. Davidson worked with Rauschenberg from the 1990s until his death.
Rauschenberg worked on The 1/4 Mile from 1981 to 1998. The work reflects the major themes seen throughout his career, including his White Paintings, Combines, collages and photographs.
The work is a great example of the Rauschenberg-style, which challenged the limitations of painting and sculpture.
"It is a very journalist record of Rauschenberg's involvement with the world and all kinds of material," said David White, the other curator for the exhibition, who had worked with Rauschenberg since the 1980s.
When reflecting on their time working with Rauschenberg, both curators shared how inspiring and generous the artist was to his colleagues.
"He was also a terrific cook… He cooked like he painted , he kept adding more material," said Davidson.
Working on The 1/4 Mile over the years, Rauschenberg kept adding more material and revising the work to better allow it to echo the place where it was on display.
The first half of The 1/4 Mile was exhibited at the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1987. It then toured to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1997 and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1998.
It was last seen at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts in 1999.
Connection with China
Looking for sources of inspiration, Rauschenberg came to China in 1982. He later held exhibitions in Beijing and Lhasa in 1985.
His creations greatly inspired emerging Chinese artists who were part of the "85 New Wave," a hit movement that led to the modernization of art in China.
"We can say that he greatly stimulated China's contemporary art scene, especially among those who were not artists," renowned Chinese artist Li Xianting said as part of an oral history project made for the UCCA exhibition.
He went on to say that Rauschenberg's work was something of a test for Chinese audiences, a subversive strike that led them to redefine art.
"Re-examine Rauscheberg's works is to re-examine the developing history of contemporary Chinese art," Li said.
While Rauschenberg inspired China, China also inspired the artist.
During his first visit to China, he cooperated with artists from the Anhui Jingxian Xuan Paper Mill to create his 7 Characters, a series of 491 collages in seven suites that incorporated handmade paper and paper pulp.
While in China, he took photos recording the everyday lives of Chinese during the country's reform and opening-up period. These photos were crucial references for his 30-meter long photograph Chinese Summerhall, which was also exhibited at the ROCI China exhibition.
Davidson said that Rauschenberg's experiences in China were what inspired him to found his Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) project. A series of international exhibitions that ran from 1984 to 1991, it covered countries including Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Japan, Cuba, Germany and Malaysia.