Revolution of the Eye, The Jewish Museum, New York — review

A study of the avant-garde’s influence on network TV features works from Warhol to ‘The Twilight Zone’
Fight scenes in the TV series ‘Batman’ were inspired by Roy Lichtenstein

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You could argue that nothing has had a more decisive impact on the stylistic preferences of millennials than Mad Men. An ideal once cultivated by design fetishists and curators now bedevils ordinary consumers. No one seems immune to the pared-down ethos. Property brokers deck out every glass-walled condo with the obligatory Eames chair, Noguchi table and Arco floor lamp. This passion for a small slice of history has come full circle: the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston just opened a show inspired by a show: Mad Style: Midcentury Modern Design. The invitation to one event suggested that guests channel their inner Don and Joan, and “dress in your 1950s chic”.

So it feels fitting — yet also ironic and refreshing — to go back to the source at the Jewish Museum, whose probing Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television demonstrates how, even back in the 1960s, TV fed on and nurtured the craze for modern design.

Revolution of the Eye, cleverly curated by veteran Maurice Berger, adds the twist that the look of much of mid-century television was shaped by the European avant-garde. Perhaps most influential of all were the Surrealists, whose sensibility permeated the imagery and politics of TV’s pioneers. The opening of the third season of The Twilight Zone plays in a loop on a large screen: a painted white door zooms towards us as if fleeing a painting by Magritte, morphs into a window, and shatters. An eyeball straight out of Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou blinks mockingly, and a Hans Bellmer-like puppet floats enigmatically in space.

French composer Marius Constant’s hair-raising guitar and bongo theme plays in the background as the show’s creator Rod Serling intones his intention to plumb the imagination, a no-man’s land “as vast as space and as timeless as infinity”. The “Twilight Zone,” he says, is a place and a non-place, a “middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition; it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” In episode after episode, Serling channels his leftist, anti-McCarthy-ite sentiments into dreamlike parables, taking oblique aim at racism, xenophobia, materialism, greed and the threat of nuclear war. His rhetoric echoes the words of the master surrealist André Breton: “Everything leads us to believe that there exists a spot in the mind in which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the high and the low . . . cease to appear contradictory.”

That meeting of high and low took place in almost every American living room, during the brief interval when art and entertainment enjoyed a reciprocal relationship. Berger traces these creative exchanges, lingering especially on CBS, known as the “Tiffany network” for its high quality programming. William Paley, the network’s founder and president, was also a trustee at the Museum of Modern Art, and his sophisticated taste permeated the organisation in its logos and ads. When he wanted a new office building in midtown Manhattan, Paley turned to the expressive modernist Eero Saarinen, who planned to top it with a huge upward-staring version of the CBS logo — the all-seeing eye, another favourite surrealist motif. In his 1928 painting “The False Mirror”, Magritte surrounded a disembodied pupil with wispy clouds; Man Ray attached a woman’s staring orb to a ticking metronome.

By the 1960s, the mutual exploitation of artists and advertisers reached a perfect symbiosis. In 1968, Andy Warhol filmed an ad for the national restaurant chain Schrafft’s, turning a dessert into a psychedelic concoction. A wobbly fluorescent blob gradually resolves into an ice cream sundae, prompting the company’s president to quip: “We haven’t got just a commercial. We’ve acquired a work of art.”

Pop artists riffed off commercial images and bounced between critique and affirmation of mass culture. TV returned the favour, toying with Pop. The tongue-in-cheek ABC series Batman, which premiered in 1966, inherited the heavy lines, bold colours and campy attitude of comic books via Roy Lichtenstein. In the staged fight scenes that punctuated each episode, a word bubble would pop up each time a punch landed. An exploding “Pow!” in red all-caps, quoted Lichtenstein’s “Sweet Dreams Baby” directly. Sillier animated exclamations followed, including “Zzonk!,” “Glurpp!” “Vronk!” and the ever-Delphic “!ox?-eth!!”

Even primetime family programmes took their cues from the avant-garde. Berger has assembled a montage from the Ed Sullivan Show, in which performers bob and swing atop sets that mimic the latest museum fashions. The simple geometric structures could practically have been designed by Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, or almost any other member in good standing of the minimalist and Op Art crowds.

The faster the art world came up with new forms, the less time it took for television to digest and commodify them. That race more or less ended in the 1970s, when artists outran TV by buying their own handheld video cameras, with which they made such ugly, boring and eye-unfriendly pieces that the entertainment industry finally turned away. It was a self-defeating sort of victory. The video artists of that era successfully resisted attempts to merchandise their ideas, but they also lost a vital connection with the mainstream.

All these decades later, Mad Men has partially restored that broken link by reviving an antique fantasy of the glamorous life and conducting a meticulously detailed tour of the modern past. But if the show’s creator Matthew Weiner wanted to do for his era what the TV wizards of the 1960s did for theirs, he’d bring that visual hyper-alertness to the present, and steep himself — and us — in the art of now.

To September 27, thejewishmuseum.org

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