Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American TelevisionPosted: May 8, 2015
A new exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York looks at modern art’s influence on the early days of TV
Margaret Rhodes writes: As far as song-and-dance TV shows go, American Bandstand and Soul Train could hardly have been more different. Bandstand, which originally aired in 1952, showcased poodle skirt–wearing teenagers singing along to Top 40 radio hits, while Soul Train, which debuted two decades later, had a funkier repertoire of R&B, jazz, soul, and gospel acts.
“The pioneers of early television understood the medium’s innate power, and they mined the aesthetic, stylistic, and conceptual possibilities of a new and powerful technology.”
— Curator Maurice Berger
But the shows did have one surprising thing in common: set designs heavily influenced by modern art. The abstracted platforms, stepped risers, and colored spotlights were lifted straight from the world of minimalist art, according to Abbott Miller, a Pentagram partner and one of the designers of a new exhibition up in New York titled Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television.
The advent of premium cable channels may have ushered in a golden age of TV, but the experimentalism of TV’s early days shouldn’t be underestimated. Today we praise shows that meticulously and authentically re-create a look or moment, like the 1960s-era New York we watch on Mad Men, or the meth labs and Albuquerque homes of Breaking Bad.
But when TV was just getting started, executives and creatives saw it differently, as a place where the art world and mass media could intersect. “The pioneers of early television understood the medium’s innate power, and they mined the aesthetic, stylistic, and conceptual possibilities of a new and powerful technology,” writes curator Maurice Berger. Television executives of the time, Berger says, were fascinated by avant-garde artists and saw television as not just a way to entertain the masses but as a vehicle for ideas about modern art.
If you ever thought TV pre-HBO was the fast food of entertainment, Revolution of the Eye, now open at the Jewish Museum in New York City, has more than 250 artifacts to prove otherwise. The exhibit is all about the early days of network programming—from the 1940s to the 1970s—and spotlights the ways networks were influenced by the aesthetics of high art and clever design in a way they haven’t been since….(read more)
Take the titles from Laugh-In, for example: “It was trafficking in this Pop, almost psychedelic, language that is pretty concurrent with the psychedelic poster explosion on the West Coast, but they were using it to signify that this was a different kind of media,” Miller says. Consider also that this was being broadcast to everyone, not just hippies in California. Likewise, Miller says, “The Twilight Zone used surrealism and the graphics of op-art in the same way, but to signify not something silly, but something scary and sinister.”
CBS: A Business, a School, a Museum
Television networks even behaved like incubators for design talent, especially CBS. The network had a full-fledged design campaign, and its talent roster included credits-master Saul Bass and Andy Warhol…(read more)
Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television will be open until September 27, 2015.