The Revolution Was Televised: Groundbreaking Early Marriages of Art and the Tube

The Revolution Was Televised: Groundbreaking Early Marriages of Art and the Tube

Goldie Hawn in “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” Image provided by The Kobal Collection at Art Resource, New York.

“Mad Men” may have come to an end, but armchair historians have a new opportunity to scrutinize the visual culture of mid-century—this time, from an art lover’s perspective rather than an ad man’s. “Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television,” which recently inaugurated a national tour at New York’s Jewish Museum, looks at the underexplored relationship between early TV and avant-garde art. Placing works by Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, and Robert Morris alongside snippets of popular broadcasts, it gamely ignores the high/low distinctions that were common in that era (and are still respected, for the most part, by scholars and curators).

The exhibition, with a Sterling Cooper-worthy design led by Pentagram parter J. Abbott Miller, is narrowly focused on the 1950s and ’60s; don’t expect to see slightly later classics of TV art such as Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People (1973) or Dara Birnbaum’s Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-9) or more recent attempts to televise the art world (e.g., Bravo’s “Work of Art.”). But the postwar years—the formative years of television, as we know it today—is a fascinating period, full of conflicts and neuroses about art as mass entertainment and the place of television in museums.

Victor D’Amico, who founded the Museum of Modern Art‘s education department in 1937 and led its programming through 1969, once expressed the ambivalence many purveyors of “high culture” felt about the new medium: “That vicious little box sits in everybody’s living room and has taken possession of the minds of America. But television can be used for good as it can bring aesthetic experiences into every classroom, art center, and home.”

During these years, MoMA was embarking on an experimental program called the “MoMA Television Project.” The “Ed Sullivan Show” was bringing Minimalism and Color Field Painting to the masses by way of its ever-changing stage sets. Rod Serling was updating Duchamp and Magritte in his Surrealist-influenced show “The Twilight Zone” and Madison Avenue was mining the Op and Pop movements to sell everything from ice cream to cameras. Artists including John Cage and Allan Kaprow, ignoring the critical hand-wringing about the impoverishment of mass culture by public intellectuals such as Dwight MacDonald and Clement Greenberg, were turning up on popular shows like “I’ve Got a Secret” and “What I Did On My Vacation.”

As the show’s curator, Maurice Berger, writes in the catalog, “the dynamic new medium, with its imperative to experiment and extend the limits of entertainment, paralleled the visual and conceptual dynamism of modern art.”

Below is a critical look at a few highlights from the exhibition (on view in New York through September 27).

ROD SERLING’S “THE TWILIGHT ZONE” (1959-64)

From the spiraling sequence of its most famous opening credits—a direct nod to Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs—Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” was as steeped in Dada and Surrealist art as it was in science fiction. As Berger writes, “The series reverberates… with themes recurrent in Surrealist art—the eyeball, the whirling vortex, the mannequin, the door, the clock.” Dada and Surrealism were already several decades old, of course, but the movements were enjoying a late resurgence in postwar America as younger artists such as Johns and Rauschenberg and film and television professionals discovered the work of Duchamp.

MOMA’S “TELEVISION PROJECT” 

MOMA TVInstallation view of “Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television,” May 1, 2015 –  September 27, 2015. © The Jewish Museum, NY.  Photo by: David Heald

One of the most important points of contact between modern art and television was “The Television Project,” MoMA’s short-lived and deeply conflicted experiment in art programming for TV (it was initiated in 1952 and disbanded three years later).  As part of the project, its codirector Sidney Peterson (an avant-garde filmmaker) came up with a charming children’s television special called The Invisible Moustache of Raoul Dufy (1955). It was co-produced by MoMA and NBC, and animated by the Hollywood studio UPA, but the Modern ultimately withdrew from the project because it did not “further the cause of modern art.” Also rejected was Peterson’s short film Architectural Millinery, which made bemused comparisons between Manhattan rooftops and the hats of passers-by; the museum fretted that it was insufficiently “intellectual.” MoMA would later suppress its anxieties about the marriage of modern art and popular entertainment enough to mount 1962’s “Television U.S.A.,” a survey of programs and commercials, and to establish a Television Archive of the Arts in 1967.

STAN VANDERBEEK, ACHOOO MR. KERROOSCHEV, 1960 

Before he became a pioneer of experimental film, Stan VanDerBeek worked as an animator of the children’s program “Winky Dink and You.” (The interactive show, which encouraged children to draw on plastic screens that could be superimposed on the television, was more progressive than its title may suggest.) VanDerBeek’s early film Achooo Mr. Kerrooschev, a spirited animated short spoofing the Cold War politician, strikes out in a slightly more grown-up direction.

KODAK INSTAMATIC COMMERCIAL, 1965

In the mid-1960s, Op Art was on the vanguard of art and design—and Madison Avenue was quick to coopt it. This commercial for the Kodak Instamatic, made the year of the now-infamous MoMA show “The Responsive Eye,” plunges the viewer into a dizzying dance party that could be seen as a more sanitized version of one of Yayoi Kusama’s orgiastic happenings. Fresh-faced men and women do the watusi in a disco with black-and-white patterned walls and floors á la Victor Vasarely as a suave photographer records the scene with glinting flashcubes.

“POP GOES THE JOKER,” 1967 

Long before Homer Simpson became an outsider artist, the creators of the 1960s “Batman” television series were skewering art-world characters and conventions. In the episode “Pop Goes the Joker,” the villain is a conceptual-art provocateur who spray-paints museum masterpieces and wins an “international art contest” with a nearly blank canvas. All the enfant-terrible clichés are here: paintings are made with feet, Gutai-style, and by monkeys hurling fruit. As one might expect from this high-camp series, there’s even a nod to Warhol: the Joker’s patron is named Baby Jane Towser, after collector and Factory star Baby Jane Holzer.

ANDY WARHOL’S THE UNDERGROUND SUNDAE, 1968

Warhol SundaeWarhol, still from The Underground Sundae, TV ad for Schrafft’s Ice Cream, 1968. Kramlich Collection, San Francisco

Warhol, not surprisingly, gets his own gallery in the exhibition. It contains a mix of TV appearances, the 1965 film Outer and Inner Space, and the artist’s early graphic designs for CBS and TV Guide, along with a liberal sprinkling of relevant quotes (“A whole day of life is like a whole day of television.”) Also exhibited is this trippy commercial he made for Schrafft’s Ice Cream, which layers a melting sundae with a massive maraschino cherry over a background of TV color bars. Warhol film stars Joe D’Allesandro and Viva were part of the shoot, but were edited out (presumably for decency, as both were reportedly shirtless). What’s left is a kind of edible lava lamp, a wholesome dessert with just a hint of countercultural flavor.

“THE MEDIUM IS THE MEDIUM,” WBGH-TV, 1969

As the exhibition approaches the 1970s, it acknowledges the blurring of art-for-television with the then-nascent medium of video art. The two categories merge in “The Medium Is the Medium,” a program that aired on the Boston public television station WGBH in 1969. Consisting of commissioned works by Allan Kaprow, Otto Piene, Nam June Paik, James Seawright, Thomas Tadlock, and Aldo Tambellini, it finds these artists fiddling with the TV’s inner workings (with some assistance from expert technicians). Paik’s Electronic Opera #1 [not included in the excerpts at the museum] plays with color saturation and distortion; Kaprow’s contribution, Hello, shows people communicating with each other across multiple monitors in various locations in a kind of primitive Skype.

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