Saturday, May 18, 2024

Television’s Subversive Artistic Past

In its blissfully noisy way, the NSU Art Museum’s exhibition “Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of Television” makes a statement that feels like a revelation: that rather than being diametrically opposed, mass-marketed television programming and highbrow modern art movements enjoyed a symbiotic relationship.

After walking this amusing, nostalgic and surreal exhibit, I would go one step further: the pioneers of TV’s Golden Age went so far as to democratize avant-garde art, which suddenly looked not so exotic and dangerous when it filled the comforting squares in millions of living rooms. Conversely, knowing where the influences for everything from “The Ed Sullivan Show” to “Laugh-In” lay, it’s hard to marginalize early TV with pejoratives like “the idiot box” or “the boob tube.”

It was not always thus. The first pieces in “Revolution of the Eye” reveal a paranoid skepticism of television, from the New Yorker magazine covers of brainwashed Americans transfixed by scrambled screens to Lee Friedlander’s photos of TV actors staring creepily back into living rooms—as if to suggest that even after the rapture, cathode rays will still beam fantasies to vacant interiors.

But such negative views of television’s ascendency are limited to one wall. Mostly, “Revolution of the Eye” is a celebration of a cultural marriage between high and low, a trove of progressive YouTube miscellany divided into bite-sized chunks and presented on screen after screen after screen.

Divided into eight semi-chronological segments snaking through the first-floor gallery, “Revolution of the Eye” thrives on the connections linking its niche A to its populist B: From Dali and the Dadaists, we have “The Twilight Zone,” whose famous title credits showed clocks and doorways floating in space and a spinning vortex that paid incontrovertible homage to Duchamp’s “Retroreliefs.” From the experimental art cinema of Luis Bunuel and Fernand Leger we have the prime-time mania of Ernie Kovacs, a television pioneer in techniques such as rear-screen projection.

From Roy Lichtenstein’s motley Pop Art compositions, we have the cartoon camp of the “Batman” series, with its similar deployment of onomatopoeia. Man Ray’s avant-garde close-ups of eyes spawned CBS’s iconic ocular logo, a hypnotic brand that has woven itself into our collective consciousness. A showcase of “The Ed Sullivan Show” is especially revealing. In most clips of the variety show, we’re so accustomed to staring at the stars in front of the microphones that we don’t notice the sets, which borrowed from avant-gardists and were constructed anew for every program—from a series of staircases leading nowhere to a backdrop of colorful Seussian squiggles to a canvas of open umbrellas.

The exhibition’s narrative arc suggests that television executives, producers and entertainers gradually evolved from absorbing modern artists’ ideas and aesthetics—futurism, expressionism, surrealism and semi-abstraction regularly sold the medium’s visuals, from its commercials to its graphics—to providing a platform for the artists themselves. John Cage, Dali, Duchamp, Ray Eames, Willem de Kooning—all of them appeared on television programs in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, as compiled in a video montage late in the exhibition. This is fairly astonishing, considering televisions only broadcast a handful of stations. In 2015, good luck finding one of the nation’s most respected modern artists on any of Comcast’s hundreds of channels.

The exhibit concludes, aptly enough, with Andy Warhol, who cemented modern art’s invasion of television—which became, in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, no longer an insidious subtext of TV but its very subject. We see a handful of clips of Warhol’s television ubiquity, from commercials to local news interviews to “Saturday Night Live”—recalling the old Gore Vidal maxim that one should “never pass up the opportunity to have sex or appear on television.”

Television’s heyday has passed. More and more viewers are unplugging from cable packages and migrating to the Internet, consuming their entertainment free from the shackles of networks and airtimes. Television shows are shot like movies now, and while commercials have increased their snark, they’ve abandoned the weirdness of the early days. We may have more channels to surf, but they’re all part of the same tepid wave. “Revolution of the Eye” reminds us that even with six networks, and before the advent of Technicolor, primitive television overflowed with subversive artistry. That was truly Must-See TV.

“Revolution of the Eye” runs through Jan. 10 at NSU Art Museum, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Admission costs $5 to $12. Call 954/525-5500 or visit nsuartmuseum.org.

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