UMBC's 'Revolution' reminds us that small screen had big visual ideas

Think TV is just the "boob tube"? UMBC's "Revolution of the Eye" shows why that's a fallacy.

Art is not the first word that comes to most people's minds at the mention of television.

From the earliest days, there has been a body of so-called intellectual thought that dismissed the medium as a "vast wasteland" or the "boob tube."

That myopia, which persists to this day in some quarters, is one of the elements that makes the new exhibit "Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television," such a welcome cultural corrective.

Covering the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, the exhibit at the University of Maryland Baltimore County's Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture maps the way avant-garde art influenced the look of television during its first three decades in American homes. It also explores the rich dialogue between artists like Salvador Dali, Georgia O'Keeffe, Andy Warhol and the young producers, executives and stars of the burgeoning medium.

That story of high artistic aspiration ultimately turns out to be one mostly of roads not taken by the television industry as commercial considerations increasingly came to rule. But one of the joys of walking through this exhibit is to feel some of the excitement, energy and possibilities of those early years when antennas were reshaping America's skyline and generating utopian visions of where this new technology might lead.

Starting with video of Barbra Steisand in a joyously colored Op Art dress singing and soaring through the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a 1966 CBS special titled "Color Me Barbra," visitors will encounter 260 artifacts, art objects and video clips. They range from the fine art and graphic design of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Saul Bass, Roy Lichtenstein and others, to the memorabilia and clips from such programs as "The Twilight Zone," "The Ernie Kovacs Show," "Batman," "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," Edward R. Murrow's "See It Now," "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Hullabaloo."

Yes, baby boomers, "Hullabaloo" — the NBC variety show that aired in 1965 and '66 featuring such rock acts as James Brown, the Rolling Stones and the Supremes. And who could forget the Hullabaloo Dancers?

One of my favorite bits of memorabilia in the exhibit is a pair of Hullabaloo go-go dancer boots featuring the red, white, blue and black design of a Piet Mondrian composition — the perfect boots to wear with an Yves Saint Laurent Modrian day dress.

As trivial as the boots might seem, they perfectly capture the mash-up of pop music, hip fashion and modern art that defined a large slice of the look and feel of 1960s network TV. Pose the dancers in their Modrian-inspired designs against an existential black background and you have an instant sense of how modern art influenced the look of TV in that era.

And just a few yards from those kicky boots, you will see a print advertisement from legendary CBS graphic designer Lou Dorfsman for the 1968 seven-part CBS News series "Of Black America." It features a black man staring into the camera — with one-half of his face painted in white stars and stripes of the American flag.

You want serious, startling and socially conscious? Here it is, both in the fact that CBS was doing a seven-part series in prime time on race and the image itself, which demands and holds your attention. The imagery is every bit as powerful as the subject of the series.

This exhibition is groundbreaking work by Maurice Berger, chief curator at UMBC's center and a consulting curator at the Jewish Museum in New York, where the exhibit first opened last year.

"A lot of people still harken back to Minnow's notion of television as a 'vast wasteland,'" Berger said in an interview at the center last week as the exhibition was being mounted on the museum's walls and platforms. He was referring to former Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minnow's characterization of the medium in a 1961 speech.

"When you think about television through these cliches, we forget that it was born in a very dynamic moment in the middle of the 20th century," he said. "And at its birth, there were a lot of young, powerful, adventurous thinkers, producers, directors, even actors and actresses who were trying to figure out, 'What are we going to do with this new medium?' And in that extraordinary moment, modern art became the most profound influence for American television."

Berger described these TV pioneers as seeking the "most dynamic stuff going on visually and intellectually" in the zeitgeist of the 1950s and trying to find ways to make it work on television in hopes of creating a "public minded" and perhaps, even "non-elite" medium.

Among those featured in the exhibition, he pointed to Rod Serling, the creator of "The Twilight Zone," whom he described as "looking at surrealism for a show that was basically about a twilight state, about a nation in between many possibilities, including a space between fear and optimism."

He also highlighted the designers of "The Ed Sullivan Show" on CBS "going to places like the Jewish Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum to look at the latest and brashest modern art and making sets that reflected that beautifully, sensationally."

You can see The Supremes, The Temptations, Sammy Davis, Jr. and The Beatles in videos on some of those sets in the exhibit.

"And, of course, there's Ernie Kovacs," Berger said of the most daring comedian to ever work in television.

"When you look at the Ernie Kovacs video in the show, you realize this was our Dadaist," he continued, referring to the movement that prized the irrational and accidental while challenging traditional canons of art and morality.

"Not only was he a Dadaist in his formal aesthetics, pushing the boundaries of the medium, breaking all the rules of television," Berger added. "But he was even a Dadaist in his politics. This is a man who could make art, put it on television and defy society's expectations, questioning everything from his sponsors and capitalism to the way men and women live their lives every day."

As a critic who has spent decades fighting the "wasteland" critique and arguing that by 1960 TV had become the principal storyteller of American life and must be taken seriously, I found that talking to Berger and walking through "Revolution of the Eye" was like walking on clouds. I left the exhibition on an intellectual and emotional high.

Maybe it was the rain that greeted me outside the door of the center. Or, perhaps, it was the image I couldn't get out of my mind from that 1968 CBS series on race. But the high instantly evaporated.

"Who's doing seven-part prime-time series on race today?" I thought as I walked through the leaf-sopped campus.

Just as there were urban riots in 1968, so are there riots today, and network TV almost never interrupts the endless prime-time stream of reality shows, sitcoms and sporting events to deal with social unrest in any kind of serious and thoughtful way. And what network would buy a full-page ad in The New York Times and pay for the kind of innovative and expressive design that CBS did with "Of Black America" in the first place?

And it wasn't just that one series. The exhibition is filled with brilliant and striking designs for socially conscious CBS productions: a newspaper ad steeped in the social realism of designer Ben Shahn for a Murrow report on the atomic bomb, a magazine ad designed by CBS art director William Golden for a Murrow "See It Now" interview with contralto Marian Anderson, and a silkscreen of Frederick Douglass.

Every communications medium in American history, from the telegraph on, has started out with great promise for making us a better-informed and -connected nation — only to fall far short of those early predictions once the corporate interests started squeezing for higher and higher profits.

Think of how the radio was going to bring Carnegie Hall into every home, or how cable TV was going to do all the arts and culture programming the networks had abandoned. You need only look at what the The Learning Channel has become to understand that downward arc.

I get it. But I kept thinking as I drove back downtown through the rain how different Baltimore might look and this country might be today if those early aspirations toward art and social consciousness embodied in the print ad for "Of Black America" had gotten a little better shake in the inevitable balancing act between commerce and art in the development of TV.

The moment is long gone. There is nothing we can do to bring it back.

But "Revolution of the Eye" recaptures enough of it that maybe we will learn to recognize the cycle with the next medium that comes along — and make wiser use of that new technology.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

If you go

"Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television" runs through Dec. 10 at UMBC's Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture. Free. 410-455-3188.

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