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Museum show takes on art and early TV

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NEW YORK From Salvador Dali's turn on 'What's My Line?' to a dreamy, cherry-topped ice cream sundae thought up by Andy Warhol for a restaurant commercial, modern art indelibly influenced early television.

In a new exhibit, 'Revolution of the Eye,' the Jewish Museum and its curator, Maurice Berger, travel back to the birth of TV, delving into most every crevice for connections to the art world through more than 260 objects, artifacts and clips.

There's innovator Rod Serling, who clashed often with network executives over 'The Twilight Zone,' Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson aka Batman and Robin debating the elitism of the avant-garde on 'Batman,' and the iconic eye logo of CBS, inspired by the hex symbol on Shaker barns.

They're joined by 'Winky Dink and You,' the CBS Saturday morning show that had kids drawing on TV screens via vinyl transparencies in the first ingenious attempt at interactivity in 1953. And there's Barbra Streisand romping through the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a CBS musical special that showed off the network's new all-color, prime-time lineup in 1966.

'It's an excited, open, anything-goes moment that allowed these two communities to come together,' Berger said Tuesday during a media preview ahead of the exhibit's Friday opening.

'In early television, in the 50s and 60s, there were no conventions. The remarkable thing is that the lack of conventions meant that smart people could hire smart artists and designers and get away with a lot,' he said.

Nobody tried harder than Ernie Kovacs, an early television gadfly who pushed boundaries as a comedian, actor, writer and producer. The mustachioed Kovacs once staged 'Swan Lake' with dancers in gorilla costumes and published a novel, 'Zoomar,' in 1957 about a broadcast executive's descent into insanity.

He wasn't alone in both mocking and embracing contemporary art genres, from surrealism and dadaism to op and pop, said Berger, a research professor at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

'I think that Batman' is the perfect example of the ambivalent relationship of mainstream culture to modern art and to the avant-garde,' he said. 'The producers and writers and directors of American television were not unaware of the prevailing view that television was purveying schlock, that television was not as good as film, that television was not an art form.'

That, Berger said, led the smartest among them to look to 'serious art as an influence in order to remind the public that TV was a medium that was trying, that it was pushing the envelope. But at the same time, I think, there was always a fear that if you got too elitist you would go over the heads of the American public.'

In addition to fictional, quiz and variety shows, much of the pushing and experimenting came in commercials.

Warhol created his sundae with 'groovy scoops' for the New York restaurant chain Schrafft's. He also turned Barbara Feldon of 'Get Smart' into four bright silhouettes on the cover of TV Guide in 1966.

Cartoonist Jules Feiffer came up with a suffering stick figure of a man and his disembodied head for Alka-Seltzer in 1967 and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art had a hand as early as 1941 in producing experimental programs that introduced its collections to a local audience on the city's CBS affiliate.

Behind it all, through much of the 20th century in Europe and the United States, were Jewish artists, designers, filmmakers, scholars, critics and performers shaping modern culture and TV simultaneously. Among them: Saul Bass, Roy Lichtenstein, Groucho Marx, Man Ray, Aline B. Saarinen and William S. Paley himself, the founder and president of CBS, an avid art collector who served on the board of the Museum of Modern Art for half a century.


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