National Spinning / Red / Spring (Cardboard), 1971

 Mid-Career, 1970s–1980s

With his move in 1970 from New York to Captiva Island, off the Gulf Coast of Florida, Rauschenberg cleared his palette. Retreating from urban imagery, he now favored a more abstract idiom and the use of natural fibers, such as fabric and paper. The Cardboards (1971–72) and the Venetians (1972–73) reveal his fascination with the inherent color, texture, and history of found materials. The beautiful and disparate effects of fabrics, ranging from cotton to satin, are explored in the Hoarfrosts (1974–76) and Jammers (1975–76). Collaborations at paper mills in France and India resulted in works where paper pulp was elevated to an art form. 

A mid-career retrospective was mounted in 1976 by the National Collection of Fine Arts [now the Smithsonia Museum of American Art], Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., when Rauschenberg was selected to honor the American Bicentennial. Having the opportunity to reexamine his early work, Rauschenberg returned to past concerns. His Spreads (1975–83) and Scales (1977–81) incorporate transferred and screened images as well as assemblage, sometimes in room-scale installations.

During the 1980s, Rauschenberg undertook two long-term projects. The first, The ¼ Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, was begun in 1981, and completed in 1998. This multi-part work consists of 191 components and spans more than a quarter mile. Retrospective in character, this piece is replete with references to his life and art.  

The second project—Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI)—was the most tangible expression of Rauschenberg’s belief in the power of art and artistic collaboration to bring about social change on an international level. Traveling around the world for ROCI, Rauschenberg’s exploration of diverse cultures and local art-making practices gave rise to an extraordinarily diverse body of work. The catalyst for the metal painting and sculpture series was ROCI CHILE, where he painted and screened on copper in 1985. Over the next decade, Rauschenberg explored the use of metal as a support for paint, tarnishes, enamel, and screenprinted images in several subsequent series, such as Urban Bourbons (1988–96) and Night Shades (1991). The Gluts, begun in 1986, are made from scrap metal objects, including gas-station signs and automobile parts, which often mask the original identities when transformed into wall and freestanding sculptures.

Rauschenberg’s dogs Kid and Laika in his beach house in front of Tropicana Channel (Cardboard) (1971), Captiva, Florida, 1971

Sor Aqua (Venetian), 1973

Untitled (Hoarfrost), 1975

Mirage (Jammer), 1975

Rodeo Palace (Spread), 1975–76

Mango Ice Cave (Scale), 1977

Rauschenberg working on his portrayal of the Discovery space shuttle, near the Cape Canaveral launchpad, Florida, August 1984. Photo: Theo Westenberger Archives, 1974-2008, Autry National Center, Los Angeles; MSA.25.58

The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (1981–98) at the inaugural exhibition of MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), North Adams, Massachusetts, 1999. Photo: Nicholas Whitman, Courtesy MASS MoCA

Copperhead—Bite VI / ROCI CHILE, 1985

Courtyard (Urban Bourbon), 1989                 

Intersection (Night Shade), 1991

Greek Toy Glut (Neapolitan), 1987

Rauschenberg in a junkyard looking for source material for his Gluts series, Naples, Italy, December 1986. Photo: Peppe Avallone