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Television Review

Celebrating an Innovative Art 'Genius'

Robert Rauschenberg, profiled tonight on PBS, used his vision to blur the dividing line between art and life.


"If you are confused by much of modern art, blame it on Robert Rauschenberg," narrator actor Dennis Hopper tells us, tongue planted in cheek, at the onset of "Robert Rauschenberg: Inventive Genius."

Written, produced and directed by Karen Thomas, whose last project was the 1997 documentary "The GI Bill: The Law That Changed America," tonight's installment of PBS' "American Masters" series profiles an important and innovative postwar artist who led the break from Abstract Expressionism and dramatically changed the course of modern art.

Today, if an artist took a stuffed Angora goat, painted its muzzle, wedged a tire around its middle and then stuck the peculiar creature onto a base covered with a collage of scavenged junk, it probably wouldn't cause much of a stir. But as the documentary traces, when Rauschenberg made this piece (titled "Monogram") and others like it 40 years ago--and dared to call it art--critical and public reaction ranged from confusion, shock and derision to fury. Many assumed he was out to parody "high art" by making artworks out of trash.

Rauschenberg was crushed by the response. He saw fresh beauty in mundane cast-off materials and wanted others to recognize it too. He also wanted to stretch modern art's vocabulary as far as it could go. Most of all, he wanted to show that the dividing line between art and life wasn't as solid as people thought.

To this end, Rauschenberg drew on the rich vernacular of everyday urban life. He roamed the streets of New York City, searching for interesting objects to incorporate into his work: a shoe heel, a cardboard box, stuffed animals, newspaper cartoons.

Commentators scrambled for an appropriate way to describe Rauschenberg's works, which were both painterly and sculptural in nature. The artist himself came up with the term that stuck: "combines," which refers both to the act of forming and to the resulting combination of objects.

Particularly noteworthy is the program's inclusion of rare archival footage from Rauschenberg's decade-long involvement with the pioneering Judson Dance Theater beginning in the early 1960s. For one performance, Rauschenberg and a female partner danced a mesmerizing pas de deux on roller skates, each wearing a large circular contraption that looked like wings or a sail.

Along with extensive interviews with Rauschenberg, 73, this superb profile, which was eight years in the making and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, includes many wonderfully evocative anecdotes and insights offered by friends, fellow artists and collaborators. Lingering longest is dancer Tricia Brown's exquisite observation that Rauschenberg lives his life like a man who's in love. The artist as perennial lover: There's an idea everyone can embrace.

* The "American Masters" special "Robert Rauschenberg: Inventive Genius" airs tonight at 10 on KCET.

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