Modernism Meets the Boob Tube at NSU Art Museum

Before streaming House of Cards on Netflix and selecting the latest blockbuster movies to watch on demand on a mobile device were things, the great American family had limited flexibility on when and where they could watch their favorite shows.

Television and the nature of watching it have radically evolved since it entered our homes in the 1940s, as Baby Boomers and older generations can attest. While technological change is obvious, the intrigue of what made television unique in the 1940s to the mid-1970s is the subtle influences the industry's pioneers turned to — modern and avant-garde art — for storytelling ideas.

The mad men of advertising and corporate promotion of the televised medium are also highlighted.

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A national traveling exhibition, "Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television," examines the influential role of how modern art and design experimentation shaped the look and content of the boob tube in its formative years. The exhibition opens locally Saturday at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale.

"We are in the second golden age of television, so it makes sense to look back and look at the original golden age of television," says Bonnie Clearwater, the museum's director and chief curator. "The internet has changed our viewing habits. We are able to access our shows in so many different ways that we are no longer tied to the fact that we have to be home at 9 p.m. to watch our favorite shows."

That's a foreign concept millennials will have to chew on. Meanwhile, this show sends older generations down memory lane via, say, a scene in which a family is gathered around the coffee table with a steaming chicken dinner, waiting in anticipation.

The exhibit consists of more than 260 fine-art pieces and graphic designs and features works by the likes of Saul Bass, Marcel Duchamp, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Andy Warhol. Also on view, television memorabilia and video clips from programs and films such as Batman, the Ed Sullivan Show, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, and the Twilight Zone (ya know, that show before the Twilight saga existed.)

"What's particularly interesting in this exhibition," Clearwater says, "is how the pioneers of a new art form — television executive producers, directors, writers, actors, set designers — tapped into modern art, either consciously or subliminally, and recognized right from the beginning the vast potential of bringing modern art to our homes through television."

Dada and surrealism, for example, influenced the look and storytelling in the Twilight Zone and the Ernie Kovacs Show, as examined in the exhibit. The mad men of advertising and corporate promotion of the televised medium are also highlighted, as well as how artists, graphic designers, and critics played integral roles in pushing forth the innovation of this relatively new entertainment embraced by society.

"Major art collector Douglas S. Cramer, a friend of mine, produced the original Batman," Clearwater says. "So here's Mr. Cramer, who was very interested in collecting modern art, and he created a television series based on a comic. He's taken the look of pop art, as we see in Roy Lichtenstein's paintings that were taken from comic strips, and takes that look and puts it back into the Batman television series, and, as a result, it had a very strong campy element to it, campy acting and serious, but it was over-the-top. It had the colors of the comic strip, and he incorporated the animations, all the 'Wows!, Pows!, and Bams!'?"

"Compare the Batman series to the Superman series," she adds. "They have a completely different look, and you would have no idea that the Superman series was based on a comic book — it was straight television drama."

"Revolution of the Eye" — curated by Dr. Maurice Berger and organized by the Jewish Museum, New York; and the Center of Art, Design, and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore County — includes a series of television production workshops hosted through the NSU Museum's studio art school, for those who aspire to become new creators of this ever-changing medium.

"Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television"
On view from Saturday, October 24, to January 10 at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Admission costs $12; $5 for students; free for museum members. Visit, or call 954-525-5500.

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Andrea Richard