Robert Rauschenberg, brown as a walnut, cool as the ice cream man in his white linen suit, standing stock-still in the middle of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art:

"Three inches," commands the enfant terrible turned art world eminence. His sweet Texas twang curls like rococo chrome. Museum people bristling with pencils, levels and ladders hop to it. "Altar Peace," a meditation on Mexico, rises into place. Its shiny aluminum snake sculpture -- glinting with images of jalapeno peppers and peanuts and machines -- hangs the requisite number of inches above an eerie expanse of canvas decorated with a green skull, fuchsia lava, a rooster and whatever else caught his mind's eye.

"Altar Peace" is the first fruit of a projected 22-country, five-year odyssey that Rauschenberg began in Mexico in April. With the e'lan of a man who has pranced at the head of the avant-garde parade for more than two decades, he calls the project the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange.

For the next five years, if all goes according to plan, Rauschenberg and a crew of nine will be on the road in Chile, Venezuela, China, Spain, Thailand, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, collaborating with native artists and artisans to produce what he expects to be more than 200 works of art. Local poets and writers will contribute their work for the catalogue and there will be videotapes made to record each stop.

"We tend to favor sensitive spots as opposed to the historical safety zones -- France . . . you know, the normal European art centers," he says.

At least one work from each country will remain in that country on permanent loan. A second work will be shipped back to the National Gallery for inclusion in an exhibit of all the works and videotapes in 1988.

If it sounds like a circus, it is a circus infused with Rauschenberg's optimism, omnivorousness and undiminished faith in the power of art. "It's a way for people to find out more about each other, and maybe lead to a truer form of understanding than governments seem to be able to do," he says.

It is a gargantuan venture. The budget for the project is more than $10 million, which Rauschenberg hopes to raise from private sources.

The logistics are punishing. To get the exhibit from Chile to Venezuela, for example, a private museum in Caracas has recruited the Venezuelan Air Force for transport. Jet fuel for that leg of the trip will cost $5,800. There are mammoth insurance bills, and ever-changing itineraries.

Does he ever wake up in the middle of the Florida night, look around at his Captiva Island retreat and wish he could cancel the whole thing?

"No," he says. "But I wouldn't want to have started this a minute later because the traveling takes an enormous amount of energy." At 59, he is at an age where many artists turn inward. Their work becomes introspective. Think of the aging Rembrandt's pensive self-portraits.

But Rauschenberg has never been known for introspection. After boyhood in Port Arthur, Tex., he joined the Navy (where he first picked up a paintbrush, locking himself in the latrine for privacy), studied at Black Mountain College in North Carolina with pioneer abstractionist Josef Albers (who hated his work) and began his collaborations with the young composer John Cage. From the moment he splashed down into the New York art world in 1949, he began stretching the esthetic boundaries, incorporating everyday objects and puns into his work, and devouring the world around him. Critics have described his work as a rendezvous for the common images of the day.

"Monogram," made in 1959, a stuffed Angora goat with a rubber tire around its middle, is one of his best-known images. Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes called it the supreme example of the ironic lechery in Rauschenberg's work, and noted William Blake's line that the lust of the goat is the bounty of God.

In "Bed," made in 1955, Rauschenberg stretched a bed quilt over an improvised frame, added a pillow and covered all of it with drips and streaks of red paint. After that there were collages, and photography, prints and sculpture.

"I don't work with a prescribed notion or a specific message," he says. "I have tended to use images or objects that don't have any particular respect built into them as symbols or icons. The message is to reflect your own life into it and possibly make a few changes.

"In my most naive state, in my first New York loft, I was always annoyed by the artists who thought that the studio was some kind of special place, that they were protected from the outside world. I always wanted my work to look more like what was going on outside than what was going on inside. The door was always open, the television was always on, the windows were always open."

Standing in front of "Altar Peace" at the National Gallery, patiently posing for photographers, Rauschenberg preens and turns. He is compact, with dark eyes that glow in a burnished, inquisitive face. Hands in his pockets, hands at his side, he rocks back and forth in his perfectly polished black boots.

The idea for the cultural exchange came out of his working trip to China and Japan in 1982, a trip that silenced critics who by the '70s were sniping that Rauschenberg's best was behind him. He surprised and delighted the art world by returning with almost 500 collages and a 100-foot photograph. They called the work Rauschenberg's renaissance. He saw possibilities.

He has made preliminary trips to several of the countries already and, as could have been expected, has found treasures in unexpected places.

"Mud flaps," he says. "I'm making mud flaps for Thailand. You know those flaps on trucks? They have fantastic mud flaps. They advertise movies and movie stars on them, and the trucks are all so beautifully decorated anyway."

In Sri Lanka he wants to make batiks, with patterns taken from his old photographs. "We'll sew those together to make elephant outfits and the exhibition there will begin with a parade of elephants and local dancers."

On Tibet: "It's going to be the most difficult country for me to paint for, or do any kind of collaboration, because I've always sort of secretly felt that my work was quite Tibetan already. Seeing some spiritual life in the most common object is very close to what they are all about and they also are not shy about colors. And they have a rich sense of extremes."

Age and the Florida sun have left a magnificent map on Rauschenberg's face; when he smiles, his face is wreathed in exclamatory lines. He smiles a lot when he talks about the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange and looks happy as a cat on a warm sidewalk. "This is not a selfless trip, you know. I love this. I'm growing from it. The experience I'm getting will certainly add to my own creative possibilities.

"I don't understand artists who . . . I have some colleagues that treat making art as just what they do professionally. I know some very outstanding artists who confess in private that it's such a bore, but it's their job or something. I'm never happier than when I'm working and it's getting worse. I had thought it must calm down but it seems the more I do, the more it looks like there is to do."