Object Lesson: Robert Rauschenberg’s thrift store pile at the Huntington

A detail of a 1981 photograph snapped by Robert Rauschenberg in Los Angeles. The Huntington is displaying a series of the artist's images, which capture the city's odd corners.

A detail of a 1981 photograph snapped by Robert Rauschenberg in Los Angeles. The Huntington is displaying a series of the artist’s images, which capture the city’s odd corners.

(Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / VAGA)

Over the course of his career, artist Robert Rauschenberg had many points of contact with Southern California. As a young man, born and raised in Texas, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton near San Diego during World War II, when he served in the Navy. Later, in the 1960s, he arrived in Los Angeles to work on the first of several print series with the master printers at Gemini G.E.L.

In the early 1980s, he found himself once again in Los Angeles — and on that occasion, he picked up his camera. The result: 89 pictures that capture the mood of L.A. in 1981.

So that you have a little context: It was three years before the Olympics, toward the end of Jerry Brown’s first term as California’s governor, and the year in which Tom Bradley, the city’s first — and so far, only — African American mayor was re-elected.




May 13, 1:30 p.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Tom Bradley was first elected Los Angeles mayor in 1981. He was re-elected in that year.


Fifteen of Rauschenberg’s L.A. photos, part of his “Photos In + Out City Limits” series, are now on view at the Huntington in San Marino (where they share a gallery with one of Rauschenberg’s signature combines from the late 1970s, part of the museum’s collection). Together, the photos tell an unusual story about the city.

“He was looking for slices of life and culture in the city that amused him and that were visually engaging and a little bit quirky,” says Jessica Todd Smith, who serves as the Huntington’s chief curator of American art. “He played with these juxtapositions. He liked to look where the margins of the man-made environment met the [natural] environment. Others reflect his interest in surrealist play.”

Interestingly, the photos are prescient because they reflect, by and large, a pedestrian’s view of Los Angeles — images that can only be captured on foot: a high falutin’ car parked before a crashing Hokusai-style mural, racks of tourist T-shirts, and a van with a Marlboro Man mural, standing nonchalantly before the Queen Mary. There is no Hollywood sign. No panoramic views of downtown. No monumental freeway overpasses. Instead, it’s 100% odd bits of Los Angeles weirdness through and through.

The image that really caught my eye is the one above: a pile-up of thrift store paintings for sale on a sidewalk — a collage-like arrangement (hearkening to the artist’s collaged wall hangings), which features tigers, kitsch landscapes and more than one painting of the space shuttle, which conducted its first orbital tests in 1981, when Rauschenberg was taking his Los Angeles pictures.

“He embraced this idea of the mash-up, taking a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” Smith says. “The playfulness of those juxtapositions was something he seemed to embrace.”

Overall, a refreshing, often humorous view of this crazy place we call L.A.

Smith has more about the photos on Verso, the Huntington’s blog.

Rauschenberg’s “Photos in + Out City Limits Los Angeles” photos are on view at the Huntington through June 2. 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino,

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