Lights! Camera! Action! New Addison Exhibit Traces Historical Interaction Between Visual Art and Television

Striding across the pristine marble floor in a somber art gallery, Barbra Streisand breaks into a rousing song, belting out, “Gotta move. Gotta get out. Gotta leave this place.” In addition to her impassioned vocals, Streisand’s bright, multihued, and geometrically patterned dress contrasts with the museum in the clip “Gotta Move” from “Color me Barbra.”

“Gotta Move” is currently on display as a focal point of the new Addison Gallery of American Art exhibit, “Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television,” curated at the Addison by Allison Kemmerer, Scott Mead Curator of Photography and Art after 1950. The gallery covers the entire second floor and features both artwork on loan to the Addison as well as pieces from the museum’s collection. The show explores the interplay between television and art as the television industry, specifically CBS, evolved over time.

“TV and art have had a symbiotic relationship. The look of TV and the format was very much influenced by modern art. But over time, TV actually influenced art as well, so you kind of see that going back and forth through the entire show,” said Kemmerer. “Underlying all of this, too, TV is a commercial venture. They need people to pay attention and watch. Art was a good way to get people’s attention, and it also elevated TV programming and advertising because it’s linked to high-culture, and TV always fought that perception of being for the masses and not really art.”

Each room in the show focuses on a different theme and time period, including “The Twilight Zone” and Andy Warhol.

In the room exploring “The Twilight Zone,” which was produced by Rod Serling, a clip of the opening sequence from three seasons of the show is projected onto a wall. In the clip, a ghostly white door gradually materializes into view, slowly drifting and rotating in a black space before opening and pulling the viewer through. Behind the door is a window that shatters, revealing a vast expanse of twinkling stars. A floating eyeball that slowly opens, a wooden doll, a ticking clock, and a swirling, hypnotic pattern–characteristics of surrealist art–each slowly emerge and cross the screen before disappearing

“[Serling’s] taking all the symbols you find in surrealist painting, and he’s putting all those elements together to explore identity in his age, which was the Cold War Era. His episodes deal with characters in civilizations that are almost at the edge of extinction, and they’re grappling with identity and who they are,” said Kemmerer. “The whole idea of twilight is you’re in between. You’re in between night and day, you’re in between your conscious and subconscious; it’s where truth lies.”

In the room titled “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes,” the pamphlet, “Get Smart, TV Guide” illustrated in 1966 by Warhol, depicts the four images of the same woman, Barbara Feldon, on orange, yellow, red, and blue backgrounds. The image is divided into four quarters, which appear stacked on top of one another. Feldon looks to the left in every image and sports brilliant eye shadow in colors ranging from white to teal and wears lilac, magenta, and red lipstick.

“[Warhol] as early as the 1950’s actually worked for different television networks designing their art and album covers. So he was in on TV sort of from the ground floor, and he understood the impact it had on society and continued to use it throughout his career…. In the 70’s when a lot of artists were done with TV, he was still totally in. He created art films, but he used techniques that TV introduced like split screens and the formats: soap opera and talk shows. He’s an example of art influencing TV and TV influencing art, so he’s like a great thread that runs through it all, even though he seems so contemporary and less historic,” said Kemmerer.

Another room in the gallery illustrates the way that pop art was incorporated into mainstream television. A clip from the episode “Pop Goes the Joker” in the popular TV series “Batman,” run by ABC in 1967, combines live-acting with eye-catching animations. The clip opens with the opening credits of Batman and Robin running toward the viewer on a solid green background. Whenever they punch a villain, the screen becomes a solid color and a bright, spiky-edged text bubble pops up with the words “WHAM” or “ZAMM” in a contrasting hue.

“[Pop art] was taking the goods, the consumer goods, of our commercial life and turning it into art. This was stuff that people could actually understand and they weren’t intimidated by it, so people really embraced pop art, and TV noticed that and also embraced it. So then, when you get to a show like ‘Batman,’ it totally co-opts the look of pop art. In using pop art, it sort of raises their coolness factor; it’s a hip, cool show,” said Kemmerer.