In a rare venture into contemporary art, the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardenshas just finalized the paperwork to acquire "Global Loft," a Robert Rauschenberg Spread painting from 1979.

Though not considered as important as his "Combine" assemblages from the 1950s and '60s, which radically introduced the detritus of everyday life into art, the later Spread series has some classic Rauschenberg touches: the incorporation of found objects (in this case, smashed glue brushes) along with painted surfaces (here, acrylic), the use of photo-transfer techniques, and the inclusion of newsprint to signal or simulate the texture of daily life.

The seller of this work was Gagosian Gallery, representing the artist's estate. The money for the purchase came from a $1.75-million acquisition fund for post-1945 American art, established last year at the Huntington by unidentified patrons in honor of the late Robert Shapazian, the founding director of Gagosian's Beverly Hills gallery. The first purchase from the fund, the Rauschenberg will go on display July 5 in the Huntington's American art galleries.

Though the Huntington has very little post-war art, it has a well-documented place in Rauschenberg's biography. While stationed in the Navy at Camp Pendleton and working at a nearby psychiatric hospital in San Diego, he traveled to San Marino to see the Huntington art collection. He later spoke of his experience seeing some of its most celebrated and widely reproduced 18th-century portraits in the flesh, including Thomas Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy" and Thomas Lawrence's "Pinkie," as a turning point in his life: "This was my first encounter with art as art," he said, describing his astonishment that people actually made these works. It was, he said, "the first time I realized you could be an artist."

That connection is one reason why Rauschenberg made the top of the Huntington's wish list after it received the Shapazian-tribute donation. According to collections director John Murdoch, a painting or sculpture, as opposed to a work on paper, felt the most meaningful. "Although the donors repeatedly showed interest in drawings,  we frankly wanted something that would make a major public statement and be useful for teaching purposes," he said.

Does this purchase, which follows a donation of Warhol's 1962 painting "Small Crushed Campbell’s Soup Can (Beef Noodle)" made by the Shapazian estate two years ago, signal a growing commitment to contemporary art?

"We definitely don't want to get into MOCA territory, being an institution focusing on recent art. We don't want to find ourselves where LACMA is heading at the moment, with an increasing emphasis on contemporary art," Murdoch said, calling the field "too crowded and too expensive."  He added: "We always want to be a place that enables the historical study of American art and culture."

Murdoch, who announced his retirement last year, will remain at the institution through the end of June. His successor, Kevin Salatino, who is now completing his stint as the head of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, will officially start on Aug. 1.

-- Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times

Twitter: @jorifinkel