I am really excited about today’s review. I went to see Revolution of the Eye at the Jewish Museum a few weeks ago and absolutely fell in love with it. I think I spent an hour and a half just in that exhibition alone. It was so overwhelmingly interesting that I forgot to take notes on it, and since photographs aren’t allowed, I was unable to write a post about it later! And so, when Museum Mile came around last night (which is basically Christmas for someone like me), I took the opportunity to go back- for free- and do some artistic reporting.
Revolution of the Eye examines the relationship between modern art and early television. It charts the expansion of avant-garde genres like pop, op, psychedelic art, dada, surrealism, and more into the new medium of TV. The exhibit is split into different sections that highlight specific interactions between the two. The exhibit feels relevant to the Jewish Museum itself because so many modern artists and early TV creators were Jewish. The interplay between art and television involved so many Jewish figures that art and television have become engrained in American-Jewish culture.
When one enters the exhibit, he or she is faced with a TV special of Barbra Streisand strutting around a museum filled with modern art, wearing a psychedelic-print dress and Twiggy-esque winged eyeliner. She sings, “Gotta move, gotta get out/Gotta leave this place, gotta find some place/Some other place, some brand new place/Some place where each face that I see/Won’t be staring back at me/Telling me what to be and how to be it/Some place where I can just be me.” It is ironic that she sings this song in the middle of a museum, where faces indeed stare at her no matter where she goes. At the same time, museums are often seen as anonymous places where people go to relax and focus on something other than their lives. A modern art museum in particular does not follow the rules, perhaps mirroring Barbra’s desire to find a place where she doesn’t have to either. This TV special of Barbra serves as a wonderful starting-off point for this exhibit because it starts the flow of connections between art and TV both in the mind of the viewer, and the physical space of the museum.
The next section I encountered displayed several eerie photographs of televisions switched on while the living rooms they sat in were vacated. A giant eye filled the screen in one image, and an ominous face in another. This reflects the concern in TV’s early years that the new form of communication would take over people’s lives. It is even reminiscent of the irrational yet ever-present fear that our screens are not one-way. If we are looking into them and watching, perhaps they are looking out at us, watching our every move.
Continuing with the creepy theme is the section dedicated to the Twilight Zone and its artistic inspirations. The notion of a fifth dimension, one that cannot be propertied quantified or explained, comes from surrealist ideas. Picture Salvador Dali and René Magritte’s dreamscapes. They include recognizable elements of our world, and yet something about them defies all logic. It is the same with the Twilight Zone. One cannot properly define the show as fantasy, sci-fi, or horror. It is a combination of all three and also none of them at the same time since it is rooted in reality. This connection goes further when one examines the motifs present in the show. The door, the mannequin, the eye, the spiral… all of these are recurring motifs on the Twilight Zone and in surrealist/Dada art. The door was one of René Magritte’s favorite images. It can be seen in awe-inspiring paintings such as “La Victorie” and “L’Embellie.” The mannequin was a favorite of Dali’s. He positioned two in “Rainy Taxi,” a 3D artwork featuring a cab, two mannequin occupants, and a pipe creating a perpetual drizzle. In one of my favorite episodes of the Twilight Zone, a man suffering from delusions sees mannequins sitting in cars and tries desperately to wake them up. The connection is not coincidental.
The next section of the exhibit focuses on CBS. Many of the executives in charge of CBS, including the president, William Paley, were strong advocates of modern art. He would later donate his personal connection to MoMA. CBS adopted the symbol of the eye, along with its surrealist connotations, as the symbol of the channel. Its all-knowingness and watchfulness supported the visual nature of television. The high contrast and simplicity of the eye imprinted a memorable symbol in the eye (pun intended) of the viewer. In order to attract advertisers, CBS created a slew of advertisements FOR advertisers, that reflect both post-war consumer culture and avant-garde genres of art. A stand-out ad features the outline of a television screen, and a man’s face looming in front of it. His hand is on the TV dial. “This man is dangerous,” the ad reads. “He’s got to like what he sees or he’ll turn you off. Turn to CBS first because CBS has most of the programs most of your customers want.” The allusion to an omnipresent “he” is a creepy surrealist reference. This “he” is the everyman, the average Joe who the advertisers want to attract. This reflects a rising consumer lifestyle in which individuals are flattened into types, in order to be broadly marketed to. Another memorable advertisement features entangled shopping carts that resemble a loose concoction of lines. The image reflects the growing influence of minimalism.
Revolution of the Eye goes on to describe the Modern Art Television Project, sponsored by MoMA. Through this project, programs were created for television that taught adults and children about modern art. One such program was a kid’s show called “The Invisible Mustache of Raoul Dufy.” A clip in this exhibit features a doodled cartoon child painting his surroundings with a large brush while singing, “If I can’t be a painter, I’ll be a millionaire/I’ll buy a lot of pictures and put them everywhere/I’ll buy up all the paintings that other people make/Some little ones some big ones/All that I can take/If I can’t be a painter, a rich man I will be/My castle will be famous as a picture gallery.” For an entire clip of “The Invisible Mustache of Raoul Dufy,” click here. This cute animation, which features a whimsical little boy creating an entire world for himself in his head and on the screen, reflects the irrationality of dadaism. The dreamlike qualities of this vision seem almost surrealist. And yet the animation is minimalist, using lines that resemble doodles to illustrate the little boy’s visions.
I do not want to give too much away here- I DO want to convince people to see this incredibly stimulating, intellectual, visual exhibit. So I will not dictate all the other pieces that moved me. But I will drop a few hints…
Andy Warhol mocking television while ON television. The psychedelic stage designs featured on the Ed Sullivan Show. The beginnings of video art. The comparisons between Batman and pop art. Psychedelic rock posters.
As you can see, Revolution of the Eye seems less like an exhibit, and more like the coolest history book you have ever opened. I learned so much about art, television, and history than I ever have in one sitting. This exhibit made me think about entertainment and communication in an entirely new way. If such comparisons and connections can be drawn from early TV and modernism, what can I better understand about later TV and the art forms that developed around it? How were early blockbuster movies influenced by art? And how is the current major mode of communication- the internet- related to art?
I think the best kind of art is the kind that teaches you about something and inspires you to learn even more. Revolution of the Eye accomplishes exactly that. Check it out through September 27th at the Jewish Museum!
xoxo, Chloe <3