Friday, September 11, 2015

EXHIBITIONS: "Revolution of the Eye" -- through Sept. 27 at the Jewish Museum in NYC

While wandering around the Jewish Museum's absorbing exhibition "Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television", I began to realize how much of my fascination with Modernism was a natural outgrowth of the 1950s television shows I watched and loved as a kid. It was through these shows that I first was exposed to an avant-garde sensibility, conceptual art, surrealism and a trippy kind of humor. Some social commentators considered the nascent medium to be sinister -- even a vehicle for mind control -- while others took a more visionary view; they saw its potential for offering dynamic new ways of picturing the world, like modern art had done before it.

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Upon entering the exhibition, visitors are greeted with an exuberant excerpt from Barbra Streisand's 1966 Color Me Barbra special,  which was filmed  on location in the modern galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She dances forwards and backwards through sculptures and around paintings. Her song "Gotta Move" expresses yearning 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.” 

"This scene represents a meeting of two powerful cultural forces: television and modern art. 
In the two decades leading up to Color Me Barbra, the pioneers of American television—many, 
like Streisand, young, Jewish, and aesthetically adventurous—
had adopted modernism as a source of inspiration."
                                                                                                                          ... Maurice Berger
                                                                                                                                       Exhibition curator

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And now ... cue up the theme music ... to enter ...
"There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a
dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is 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.
This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone."
Opening narration, The Twilight Zone, Season One, 1959

Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, a particular favorite of mine, integrated Surrealism, Dadaism, disorienting camera angles, and other experimental techniques into its transfixingly creepy yet message-driven plot lines. Though I could never have defined any of these terms of art at the age of 8 or 9, I certainly knew that something strange and new was going on here! (When I eventually learned how much of Serling's sensibility came from his post-WWII PTSD, his enduring despair over the Holocaust, and his enlightened views on racial equality, it all started to make sense.)
"Uh ... stewardess ...?"
(Is there anyone who was't freaked out by 
"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"?)

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On a lighter note ...

"Winky Dink", the first truly interactive TV show, invited its young viewers to participate in the unfolding of the plot -- usually consisting of Winky getting himself into some kind of scrape -- by affixing a transparent green vinyl "Magic Screen" to their television sets, and drawing on it with special crayons. "Save Winky Dink by drawing in a bridge across a raging river, just in time!" I sent in my 50¢ (by mail, in quarters) and was the proud recipient of a Complete Magic Drawing Set. (At the height of the show's popularity, 1955, 25,000 letters and sets of quarters were coming in every week.)

The show inspired young Americans "to create and explore the possibilities of visual art, exemplifying, as well, the virtues of the new medium as an instrument of 
art making and instruction."
... Maurice Berger
                                                                                                                                       Exhibition curator

Random factoid: The voice of Winky was Mae Questel, who played the original Betty Boop!

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For its groundbreaking emphasis on visual aesthetic and top-notch programming, CBS became known as "The Tiffany Network". Frank Stanton, president of the network from 1946 to 1973 and himself a collector of avant-garde art, hired cutting-edge art directors and graphic designers, to create a consistent corporate image; the CBS eye logo is still in use today. It was during this era that graphic design rose in importance and gained equal status with copywriting.

Many of CBS's promotional materials 
were designed by noted lithographer Ben Shahn.
Lithuania-born and Brooklyn-raised, his family had suffered terribly
from anti-Semitism in Russia, and he became
one of the most politically outspoken artists of his time.

      "Thou shalt not stand idly by", Ben Shahn, 1965

"The Big Push", CBS marketing graphic
Ben Shahn, 1957

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The always rebellious Ernie Kovacs set a new standard for TV comedy. Bizarre, briliant, perplexing, hilarious, he never ceased to amaze viewers with his singular brand of comedy, which incorporated kaleidoscopic imagery, odd perspectives, dream sequences, self-propelled inanimate objects, distorted close-ups, dissolves, double exposures, superimposition, gorilla costumes and pointed asides to the home audience. To me, he was the MAD magazine of television.

"Ernie Kovacs was one of the first performers and producers to understand and employ television as a 'true medium', capable of being conceived and applied in a variety of ways,” wrote TV critic J. Hoberman. "He recognized the potential of live electronic visual technology and manipulated it in ways both dynamic and artful."

Above: The Nairobi Trio playing "Solfeggio"
(Ernie Kovacs is the gorilla being hit on the head.)
Video is here.
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I continue to be astonished by the number of Jewish executives, directors, writers, comics, musicians, artists and designers who were seminal figures in the mid-century Modernist world. As usual, Groucho has the last word ...

Visit the Jewish Museum's website for more information about
"Revolution of the Eye".


  1. Does anyone else remember Winky Dink?

  2. I loved Winky Dink! Never thought of that show as being the first "interactive" one on TV, but of course, that's right! Thanks for this fun & informative posting. Margaret, Boston MA