‘The New Frontier: Art and Television, 1960-65’

Local Arts Reviews

<i>Outer and Inner Space</i>  by Andy Warhol, 1965
Outer and Inner Space by Andy Warhol, 1965

The New Frontier: Art and Television, 1960-65 Something's On

Austin Museum of Art -- Downtown

Through December 2

Current news headlines touting the negative impact of television, including but not limited to substance abuse, obesity, and violent behavior, might prove Edward R. Murrow's statement that "Television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us." The Austin Museum of Art's current exhibition, however, revives a time when television, still relatively new, wasn't such an object of disparagement.

In today's age of palm pilots, Internet-ready cell phones, and instant connectivity, it seems impossible that a measly television set -- black-and-white, with a screen as small as 10 inches, no less -- was once the window to the world for many American families. But using a legion of artists -- including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Yoko Ono, and Dennis Hopper -- curator John Alan Farmer brings back that bygone era and, in "The New Frontier: Art and Television 1960-65," convinces us that's just how it was.

Farmer devotes two entire rooms to the role of television and media in responding to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy -- only fitting since he's drawn the title of the exhibition from Kennedy's comment in the 1960 presidential campaign, "The New Frontier is here whether we seek it or not." Visitors can watch not only the segment of the Abraham Zapruder home movie showing the seconds before and after Kennedy was shot, but also the CBS news coverage of the event, beginning with the assassination and concluding with JFK's burial, packaged as "Four Dark Days."

Farmer also focuses on pop art's take on TV. Andy Warhol's Outer and Inner Space occupies another room. In it, Edie Sedgwick -- the inspiration for Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman" and "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat"? -- is seated in front of a large television monitor on which a prerecorded videotape of herself is playing. Warhol shot two 33-minute sound reels of the two Sedgwicks to create a quadruple portrait of his star, making it seem as if Sedgwick is whispering in her own ear, a sort of metaphysical confrontation between the private self and the public image. It's very reminiscent of the serial imagery of his paintings.

Korean video artist Nam June Paik is also represented. Paik, arguably the father of technological art in the West, illustrates the tethering of Western art to other cultures' influences with new technological media. In Zen for TV, Paik has taken an ordinary television set, altered its circuitry so that it displays only a single horizontal line, then flipped the set on its side so that the line seems vertical. Simple, yes, but it manages to suggest that cultural boundaries and expectations in the contemporary experience can exist hand-in-hand with newer technologies.

Tom Wesselmann's Still Life #28 is by far one of the show's most disturbing pieces. Created in 1963, the collage is packed with consumer objects of the day, along with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. The unsettling element is the television set placed inside the wall, set flush with the canvas, which broadcasts current programming, in this case, that day's Fox NFL Sunday. In an exhibit gorged with material from the Golden Age of Television, this anachronism was very disorienting.

Truth to tell, the exhibition fatigued me more than my 10 straight hours of TV Land's recent Charlie's Angels marathon. But it also offers a peep into the world of television past in a bevy of mediums and modes, including a hodgepodge of TV commercials from the Fifties and Sixties that present a suburban America where dinner was always at 6pm and canned milk excited song. Other visitors also found themselves lulled by the hum of the television sets, becoming part of "The New Frontier" -- on first glance, the couple watching Outer and Inner Space appeared to this reviewer to be part of the installation, as did the two elderly ladies who fell asleep during Bruce Conner's 13-minute film, REPORT. The resemblance to my dad snoring in his favorite chair, keeping time with the movie of the week, one hand gripped tightly to the remote control, was uncanny.

If you think nothing's on television, obviously you haven't been to the Austin Museum of Art lately.

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Austin Museum of Art, Austin Museum of Art -- Downtown, The New Frontier: Art and Television, 1960-65, John Alan Farmer, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Yoko Ono, Dennis Hopper, Edie Sedgwick, Tom Wesselmann, Outer and Inner Space, Nam June Paik, Br

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