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In recognition of the link between the aesthetics of early television and modern American art, acclaimed art collector and TV producer Doug Cramer (Batman, Mission: Impossible, The Brady Bunch, Dynasty) was honored during Art Basel Miami at a star-studded dinner in early December.
The event was also a celebration of “Revolution of the Eye,” a touring multimedia exhibit that makes a strong case for the connection between the two mediums and features works by Batman comic creator Bob Kane from Cramer’s personal collection.
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The connection? Cramer’s longtime friend is Bonnie Clearwater, director and curator of the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, where “Revolution of the Eye” is on view and to which Cramer — a renowned and prolific art collector — has lent several drawings by Kane. Kane created the comic Batman, which Cramer developed as a live-action series for TV in the late 1960s. The Kane drawings, which Cramer says he does not intend to lend to future iterations of the exhibit, include two for Batman and one for a never-made TV series of all female superheroes called The Crusaders.
These drawings, and the clips of Batman on view along with them, embody the exhibit’s theme: how the pioneers of American TV — many young and aesthetically adventurous — adopted modern art as a source of inspiration.
“Doug Cramer, long before he produced Batman, was friends with the artist Roy Lichtenstein,” explains Clearwater. “And the look, the campiness and the animation — the POW! the BAM! — that aesthetic came from Doug really knowing Pop Art.”
Cramer concurs. During a one-on-one tour of his personal collection in Miami, as the festivities for Art Basel began, he explains that he became friends with and began collecting the work of Lichtenstein — along with Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and other seminal artists of the day — through the artist Jim Dine. “Jim was in my brother’s class in school and introduced me to art and to all those guys,” says Cramer.
“Revolution of the Eye,” which originated at New York City’s Jewish Museum last spring and will tour the U.S. over the next two years, explores how the development of the dynamic new medium of TV both paralleled and embraced what was then cutting-edge art and design. The exhibit makes a strong case for how the visual revolution of the mid 20th century was created simultaneously by American television and modernist art and design.
Doug Cramer, left, with Eli and Edyth Broad at an ArtBasel Miami dinner celebrating the collector.
Early on, avant-garde artists found their way into American living rooms via the TV. Rod Serling and Ernie Kovacs appropriated Dada and Surrealist ideas in the aesthetically and conceptually rich series The Twilight Zone and The Ernie Kovacs Show. Surrealist artist Salvador Dali even appeared on the game show What’s My Line? as a mystery guest.
Later, Batman projected Pop Art into American homes, as did Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. One section of the exhibit is devoted to Andy Warhol’s design work for CBS and NBC in the 1950s, the TV programs and commercials he produced and his TV appearances. (This includes an episode of the Cramer-produced Love Boat. Warhol agreed to be on the campy show “if and only if” he could also make a portrait of the producer, Cramer recalls. That piece now hangs on one wall of Cramer’s bedroom, around the corner from an art-strewn hall with the series of Polaroids Warhol took of Cramer in preparation for making the silkscreened artwork. “I see it first thing when I wake up,” Cramer says as he looks on it with pride.)
Set designers for television embraced Color Field painting, Op Art and Minimalist sculpture. Curator Maurice Berger’s carefully constructed montage of clips from The Ed Sullivan Show features sets where The Beatles, The Temptations and The Jackson Five are stolen straight from artists like Warhol, Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris, who lent a sculpture for the exhibit. “As soon as I told Bob [Morris] about this, he was very happy and proud to lend a piece that shows how his artwork influenced TV,” says Berger.
All told, Berger has assembled more than 260 art and design objects, including works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Marcel Duchamp, Saul Bass, Agnes Martin and Georgia O’Keeffe. Berger stacks them up against delightful ephemera, TV memorabilia and clips. Among them is a category-defying and mesmerizing loop from CBS’ 1966 program Color Me Barbra of Barbra Streisand dancing about the modern art wing of The Philadelphia Museum of Art, where a canvas by Fernand Léger enjoys a brief cameo. “Barbra transformed herself into a personification of modernism in an Op-Art dress,” explains Berger on a private tour of the exhibit.
“Revolution of the Eye” has its roots in the low-income public housing of New York City, where Berger grew up and where his family could not afford access to the city’s cultural offerings. “It was a difficult childhood of real poverty, but we could partake in the public library and TV because they were free,” he explains. “So in the ’60s and ’70s, I’d watch all these shows while I was reading my art books from the library.” Berger recalls watching The Twilight Zone while looking at books about Surrealist art. “And as time passed, I kept thinking that early television like that had a connection to modern art.” (He demonstrates in the exhibit how Twilight Zone creator Serling appropriated the work of the Surrealists; the exhibit places the series’ famous opening credits of a spiral and a revolving door side by side with work by Luis Bunuel, Duchamp and Dali.)
“TV was part of my personal survival,” explains Berger. “So one of the joys of an exhibition about TV is that it is a way of thanking a medium that mattered immensely to me and finding a way of acknowledging both its importance and its artistic integrity.”
“Revolution of the Eye” is on view at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale through Jan. 10 and will travel to the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass. (Apr. 9-July 31); Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland in Baltimore (Oct. 20, 2016–Jan. 8, 2017); and the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago (Feb. 16, 2017–June 11, 2017). Plans are in the works for the exhibit to travel to a venue in Southern California.
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