Eye Opening: Modern Art and the Early Days of American Television
By the 1960s, the two most criticized art forms in America were modern art and television. Some critics called modern art mystifying junk, while others targeted TV as anything from trash to a threat to democracy. Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television at The Jewish Museum, New York, hopes to redeem both media by exploring how modern art provided an ethos and aesthetic for early television — a debt repaid later as television, in turn, inspired a new generation of modern artists, including Andy Warhol, who began as a modernist-influenced graphic designer for, among other clients, television networks. By looking back at modern art and television’s mutual love affair from the 1940s to the 1970s, Revolution of the Eye challenges us to reflect on the artistic aspirations of TV’s latest golden age.
In his catalog essay, curator Maurice Berger points to the opening montage of Barbra Streisand’s 1966 CBS television special Color Me Barbra as a quintessential moment in modern art colliding with American television. Strolling through the modern art galleries of The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Streisand “belts out a rousing song,” Berger writes, “in which she yearns for a ‘brand-new place,’ where no one will tell her ‘what to be or how to be it, someplace where I can just be me.’ Her exuberance suggests that she has found what she was looking for, her place of self-expression, in the realm of modern art.” Color Me Barbra thus continues “the two decades leading up to Color Me Barbra, [in which] the pioneers of American television — many, like Streisand, young, Jewish, and aesthetically adventurous — had adopted modernism as a source of inspiration,” Berger contends.
Gathering together more than 260 artworks, historical artifacts, and television clips, Revolution of the Eye builds a compelling and eye-opening case for modern art’s influence on television, and vice versa. By placing Surrealists and Dadaists such as Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Rene Magritte beside television pioneers such as Rod Serling and Ernie Kovacs, the connections quickly leap out at you. Serling’s The Twilight Zonebrought Surrealism into American living rooms with the weekly opening sequence promising “a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man … as vast as space and as timeless as infinity … the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Watching The Twilight Zone approximated the effect of walking into the wonderfully weird worlds of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory or Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (aka, The Large Glass). Likewise, Kovacs’ comedic performances on The Ernie Kovacs Showand other shows become Surrealist performance art pushing at the boundaries of the medium itself while figuratively pulling down its pants.
As Surrealism and Dada gave way to Pop Art and Minimalism in the 1960s, television followed suit. The 1960s Batman TV show brought campy fun (a la Warhol) and the comic book aesthetic (a la Roy Lichtenstein) to television. In an episode titled “Pop Goes the Joker,”Cesar Romero’s Joker poses as an artist to pull off a crime and spoofs Pop Art, Minimalism, and Abstract Expressionism in due order. Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In’s countercultural anarchy was part of the era in which the more baroque elements of Psychedelic art refreshed not just the look, but also the guiding spirit of American television hoping to keep in step with the times. Even stodgy, old Ed Sullivan saw his The Ed Sullivan Show feature “stage sets inspired by these [art] movements [that] provided visually intriguing backdrops; vivid but abstract, they were designed to keep performers in the limelight.”
Modern art influenced not just the content of the shows, but also the identity of the networks, with CBS especially adopting a modern “brand” in the form of the “CBS eye” (shown above) designed by art director William Golden. Revolution of the Eye traces a direct line between Golden’s “CBS eye” and Man Ray’s Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed). Even more importantly, as the exhibition points out, “While modern art was sometimes the target of humor or derision — playing off its presumed inscrutability — it was often treated seriously by network and, later, public-television news programs.” Major network appearances by avant-garde artists Dali on What’s My Line? in 1957; by Duchamp on The Art Show that Shocked America in 1963 (to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1913 Armory Show; note that nothing similar appeared on TV for the centennial); and by Willem de Kooning, John Cage, George Segal, and others seem almost unimaginable today. Even more unimaginable today is the memory of Aline Bernstein Saarinen’s many appearances as an art critic on NBC’s Today and Sunday shows starting in 1963. Whereas serious art today’s banished to culture cable channels, as late as the early 1970s you could see contemporary art and hear it discussed on your major network morning news show.
Berger places Warhol at the apex of this intersection of art and television: “Warhol viewed television as an extension of his creative and political practice as an award-winning designer for CBS and NBC in the 1950s, as a performer on network television programs and commercials, and as a cable-television producer.” Berger goes on to point out that “Warhol’s embrace of popular culture was motivated not just by fascination and grudging respect, but by an imperative to question its limitations and push it to its limits. As he challenged television’s conventions and taboos — introducing overt and confident gay sexuality into a commercial sphere virtually devoid of it, for example — he did so in front of a vast national audience.” At a time when homosexuality was virtually banished from television, Warhol made people see it, ushering in our own post-“Ellen” period of (still too often slow and grudging) acceptance in entertainment and social-marital equity.
Since the 1950s, if you want to know what America thinks, just look at the television they watch. By pointing out the avant-garde heritage woven into television’s DNA, Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television reminds us that previous “golden ages” of television unashamedly borrowed from cutting-edge sister arts and still can (and do) in today’s cable-driven “golden age.” Ironically, if you want people to appreciate serious art again, the best way might not be sending them to a museum, but rather telling them to turn on their favorite TV shows and to look with fresh eyes for the fresh ideas “borrowed” from fine art.
[Image:William Golden (art director), CBS corporate advertisement, 1951, Fortune magazine.]
[Many thanks to The Jewish Museum, New York, for providing me with the image above from, a review copy of the catalog to, and other press materials related to the exhibition Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television, which runs through September 20, 2015.]
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