In 1964, the Philip Morris company hired Alfred C. Chadbourn, of the Famous Artists mail-order school (“Draw Binky the Skunk”), to paint portraits of such CBS TV luminaries as Red Skelton, Raymond Burr, and the entire cast of Gilligan’s Island. Although Sponsor magazine proclaimed the endeavor “a legitimate fine arts project,” author Lynn Spigel points out in her fascinating new book, TV by Design: Modern Art and the Rise of Network Television (University of Chicago Press, 402 pp., $27.50), that the cigarette company’s goal was to positively identify their increasingly suspect product with small-screen headliners.
But the real artistic accomplishment of early TV, as Spigel amply demonstrates, was to make the spare lines of modern European design and the disconcerting impact of movements such as abstract expressionism palatable to a suspicious Cold War populace. Production drawings from 1953 of the skeletal sets designed for the cramped confines of early television studios resemble a Russian constructivist version of Waiting for Godot; in an ad for CBS, Ben Shahn’s beautifully abstract 1955 ink drawing of a thicket of TV antennas illustrated the bumper crop of new viewers the network could peddle to advertisers.
As advertising, marketing, and fine art collided, Warhol was there, directing traffic. Andy looms large over TV by Design, drawing title cards for the 1953 CBS show Letter of Love, painting faux ads on canvas ($199 Television, 1961), and winning praise from art directors for his split-screen technique in Chelsea Girls (1966), which was promptly adapted by an ad agency making commercials for an athlete’s-foot remedy. Almost two decades later, the king of Pop art achieved perhaps his most dubious 15 minutes of fame when he appeared as himself on the 200th episode of The Love Boat. In one absorbing revelation among many, Spigel points out that Warhol—the master of analog reproduction, with his off-register screen prints and flash-blasted celebrity Polaroids—worked with a Commodore computer to enhance the visuals of the various cable shows he masterminded in the late 1970s and ’80s.
There’s little doubt that had he not died in 1987, Andy would nowadays be dutifully pecking away on a Macintosh keyboard. Mac’s ongoing dominance of the graphics field was presaged by its “1984” Superbowl ad, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on January 22. Ridley Scott’s enthralling 60-second spot features a comely woman in red shorts dashing through cadres of gray-clad drones, storm troopers in hot pursuit. With Olympic brio, she hurls a sledgehammer through a screen transmitting Big Brother’s newspeak exhortations, bathing the worker bees in liberating light over which floats the tagline, “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’ ” Superbowl XVIII had been a snooze, but many viewers were left open-mouthed by this instantly legendary ad, which arguably led to mass acceptance of computers as agents of personal creativity rather than conduits of centralized IBM conformity. In the 1972 underground comic strip The Rudolf, cartoonist Vaughn Bode had envisioned a similarly Piranesian labyrinth for regimented workers, but his scruffy rebel was cut down by grinning thought police. Decades later, it could be argued that although the Mac has undeniably enhanced the way images are made and disseminated, rather than freeing us, the personal computer has ushered in the 24/7 workweek, with the boss (if not Big Bro’) always just an e-mail away.
God only knows what sort of king-hell computer programs Pipilotti Rist employed for Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters), her ’60s-influenced happening at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd St., 212-708-9400, through February 2). Like a version of Warhol’s multimedia Exploding Plastic Inevitable staged in the Garden of Eden, this multichannel video envelopes you with psychedelic aureoles, garish fruit, and a nubile redhead projected across the three towering walls of MOMA’s atrium (hence, the subtitle). Amid a soundtrack conjuring the audio equivalent of a lava lamp, flower petals get stuffed into nostrils, the young woman and a pig sloppily nosh apples, and limbs merge in Rorschach-style confluences. Recurring scenes of bare feet treading upon rich soil, clotted trash, and rotting fruit offer ripe visions of either healthy animal desires or a sybaritic fall from grace. It’s worth taking off your shoes, lying back on the huge circular sofa, and contemplating which side you’re on.