Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 3, 2016
Maurice Berger Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television Exh. cat. New York and New Haven: Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, 2015. 172 pp.; 66 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Paper $45.00 (9780300207934)
Exhibition schedule: Jewish Museum, New York, May 1–September 27, 2015; Nova Southeastern University Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale, October 24, 2015–January 10, 2016; Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, April 9–July 31, 2016; Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore, October 20, 2016–January 8, 2017; Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, Chicago, February 16–June 11, 2017
Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television. Installation view. © The Jewish Museum, NY. Photo: David Heald.

The exhibition Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television offered objects and images meant to rise above the proverbial ambient static of TV—here figured literally as a wallpaper background—in an effort to argue for the formative influence of avant-garde art on the medium’s look and content in its early years. To be sure, the selections of television clips, furniture, artwork, and ephemera beguile and entertain, introducing young visitors to a bygone age of television and sending older visitors on a journey back to a Sunday night gathered with family around the modern hearth to watch Diana Ross on the Ed Sullivan Show. But visitors familiar with the television of yesteryear were likewise awakened from their nostalgic slumber. Before the full impact of the 1961 declaration by Federal Communications Commission head Newton Minow took hold, television actually seemed less a vast wasteland than a site of experimentation with legitimate artistic bona fides. Selections followed a vague artistic chronology (from Surrealism and Bauhaus to Pop), refined in thematic groupings: artistic influence on TV program content; corporate design and TV advertising; artists who appeared on television and television reporting about modern art; early interrogations about the aesthetic value of television in museums; and artists who commented on the influence of television or integrated it into their work, leading finally to a room dedicated to its apotheosis in Andy Warhol’s many television obsessions and experiments.

We learn about Rod Serling’s popular Surrealism, as seen in the Twilight Zone series, and about Ernie Kovacs’s Dadaist antics, the latter presented as a sort of proto-postmodernism. The exhibition likewise draws visual connections between Pop art on Laugh-In and Batman. But in the context of the installation, these are decontextualized examples whose status among other television programs as either typical or exceptional is largely ignored. Despite the exhibition’s links between television and modern art, the nature of their relation remains unclear. Does the curator, Maurice Berger, want to argue for a sort of “trickling down” of Surrealism and Dada “for the masses” or that network television reinterpreted and repurposed these aesthetic movements? One of the missed opportunities of the exhibition is to consider the real differences in the 1960s between such art movements as Minimalism, on the one hand, and Pop, on the other, both of which seem to have made it “onto” TV but whose respective relation to the chaos and din of popular culture could not have been more different and whose specific relation to television might have been used to help untangle claims about televisual aesthetics. The exhibition’s focus on the connections between avant-garde art and television could have been made more meaningful through a more intensive survey of the mass medium under investigation, specifically the unique visual culture that it created. Berger misses the opportunity to ask whether television aesthetics actually shaped the development of fine art (although one can glean such influence in the Warhol room, for example). Instead, we see that artists such as Lee Friedlander who photographed television screens in domestic spaces were attuned to the medium’s existence, mostly as an intrusive and detrimental social phenomenon.

Today we take for granted that TV augured a new form of domestic culture that could create an intimacy between viewers and programs because the programs came into the home on a weekly basis; it also offered a new means of connecting citizens through live broadcasting, exemplified by the national mourning that transpired on and through television after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. These particular qualities have long been central to television studies, notably in the pathbreaking work of Lynn Spigel in Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) as well as in Anna McCarthy’s revisionist study devoted to the reconfiguration of TV’s domestic orientation toward a more ubiquitous, public, little-screen culture in Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001).

In TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), on which this exhibition is largely based, Spigel further identified the development of what she called television’s “everyday Modernism” within a broader cultural romance with the arts. Spigel argues that television disseminated information about modern art, but, perhaps more importantly, she notes that many of the nation’s leading graphic artists and designers—including Warhol—participated in creating television programming as well as in establishing the corporate imagery of the networks, permanently scrambling the boundaries between art and entertainment. Yet the very phenomenon that Spigel studies, how television became entirely separated from its early close association with modern art, was redoubled in her book’s reception history, which remained outside the purview of mainstream art history—a blind spot at the very least.

The museum space, of course, offers what a book cannot—the opportunity to watch television clips, to ponder exactly how children might have affixed a plastic sheet onto the front of a TV screen, to appreciate the lunar texture of the graphic design of Lou Dorfsman’s commemorative book of CBS’s coverage of the moon landing of 1969. Only in person can one fully grasp the optical effects of Yaacov Agam’s kinetic Op art tableau, although it is not clear that it has anything but the vaguest of connections to the sets of the musical acts on the Ed Sullivan Show, which is the section in which one can find it hanging. That Minimalist sculpture’s aspiration to be activated by those around it (as Berger notes in the catalogue, p. 73) could also lend depth to the televisual performance space and create interesting sets that moved variety shows beyond their initial vaudeville staging was surely a bonus for their use on Sullivan, but it is not clear that this is anything but a happy coincidence. The reel of Sullivan musical numbers, like most of the “TV” examples in the exhibition, is frustratingly short. On the other hand, anything the show lauds as “artistic,” such as Warhol’s Schrafft’s ad or Saul Bass’s Mennen Baby Oil ad, is shown in its entirety.

The other “TV” examples are otherwise mercilessly short (perhaps this had to do with copyright), but they also end up feeling cherry-picked. Take for example the exhibition’s inaugural panel from the 1966 CBS Primetime special, Color Me Barbra, directed by Dwight Hemion, who went on to become one of television’s most celebrated variety and musical special directors and who the year before had been nominated for Emmys for specials he had made for both Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra. (Hemion is never mentioned in the exhibition.) As visitors entered the exhibition, they came upon Streisand wandering around the Philadelphia Museum of Art in an Op art dress and large geometric earrings singing “Gotta Move,” i.e., imagined as a woman turned into a moving work of modern art. In the catalogue, Berger expresses hope that the scene can exemplify the exhibition’s ambition to demonstrate “how the best of the new dynamic medium . . . paralleled the visual and conceptual dynamism of modern art” (5). The network, however, intended this particular show to be part of its announcement of a technological transition, albeit with major aesthetic force: the arrival of CBS’s first all-color primetime lineup. Of course the network set the special in colorful places such as an art museum. (And if viewers at the Jewish Museum exhibition had been treated to selections from the show’s second act, they would have been with Barbra at that lowest, most popular, and colorful of entertainment venues—the circus—where she sang, with a Yiddish accent, “Sam you made the pants too long” to a penguin in a tuxedo.)

To view such clips, the visitor confronted large-format screens of blown-up, back-lit programming and eye-level videos. At times, one was invited to listen in with headphones; at others, clips bled into the next, amplified through speakers. There are always challenges to working with still images, three-dimensional objects, and film and video in one exhibition. It is even harder to ask the viewer to move between these forms, despite generous amounts of wall and label text. Although we now are familiar with consuming screen content on the move, it is nonetheless curious that the exhibition never invited visitors into the early medium’s viewing position of simply sitting down and watching TV. Ironically, in this way, the show—so keen to consider television through the terms and values of modern art—made its most forceful argument at the level of structure in implicitly regarding its materials as equally at home in the art museum. But, as if to reiterate the point, so too did it validate television programming as experimental and dynamic, whether in print ads by William Golden (CBS’s creative director of advertising) or in Bass’s new wave, filmed commercials.

Still, would it not be more productive to ask instead, what kind of “art” is television anyway? Television can and should find its place in an art museum because the medium offered new ways of looking at and seeing the world—about which visitors to this show do not learn. Although the exhibition does not focus enough on the emergent set of visual habits created by TV, they are certainly there for the taking in the materials presented. For example, we see how television codified the “attention in a state of distraction” that theorists such as Walter Benjamin had already identified in film, exemplified in the quick and disconnected cuts of a show such as Laugh-In. We also see here television’s deep connection to other mass media such as newspapers and magazines that had earlier begun seamlessly moving between editorial content and advertising, taken to new heights in a web of connections between programs and ads that are often not visually distinct.

Television’s “revolution of the eye” included the celebratory embrace of the breakdown between art, commerce, and entertainment, and it inaugurated a media environment in which even intelligent and creative people abandoned such distinctions as retrograde. The creative forces here were “adopting” the avant-garde as a source of inspiration (5). Their work on television constituted its own avant-garde. What was also revolutionary about early network television may well have been the remarkable aesthetic range it seemed to offer in one concentrated place, a place that the viewer could control with the turn of the dial. If now we have so many channels that we have to choose to filter them out in advance because it takes so much time simply to scroll through them, Apple TV has arrived with SIRI in time to bring us TV that we literally just ask for. Somewhere out there is what I want to see. That, indeed, is a revolution of the eye.

Vanessa R. Schwartz
Director, Visual Studies Research Institute, Professor, Art History and History, University of Southern California