Television’s impact on Contemporary Art was just the right subject for my first project as a curator at the Queens Museum, a primarily contemporary arts venue located in Flushing Meadows Park, where television first debuted as part of the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair. For fair-goers, television was an exciting part of "The World of Tomorrow" which they thought was right at hand. But World War II delayed its actual advent and it wasn’t until the 1950s that TV fully entered American life. It was my generation, the baby boomers born in the 1940s and 50s, that first grew up with television. For us it was a powerful force, the ever-present intermediate through which we learned about the world, a prism that colored all aspects of our awareness.
I witnessed the impact of television on the art world first-hand as an active participant in the conceptual art movement in the 1970s and in the East Village art scene of the 1980s. Artists began to use the technology of television when lightweight video cameras were introduced in the late 1960s, and by the 1970s "video art" displayed on TV monitors was a regular feature in galleries and museums. In the 1980s the impact of television could be seen in every creative media including painting, sculpture, photography, and performance. Artists used TV subject matter; they found inspiration in the light, color and pixelation of the TV screen; and some even worked directly with television consoles both as a form of decoration and commentary. The time was ripe for a show about the phenomenon. My immediate inspiration was the Television Show that my friend Tom Wolf curated at Bard College. Concurrently with my exhibition at the Queens Museum, John Baldessari and Bruce Yonemoto mounted TV Generations, a group show of mostly California-based contemporary artists at LACE in Los Angeles.
As a fledgling curator working on his first museum exhibition, I tackled Television’s Impact with obsessive thoroughness. Despite a miniscule budget, limited space, and a catalogue of only forty-eight pages, I aimed to tell the whole complex story from the 1950s right to the present. Since video art was often surveyed in exhibitions, I emphasized the less familiar ground of television’s influence on painting, photography, and other traditional, static mediums.
The exhibition and catalog were organized chronologically but also included thematic sections. "Media Overload" explored the enhanced awareness of simultaneity that channel switching engendered. "Toward a New Abstraction" showed how garbled TV reception provides a window to new shapes and forms rooted in electric circuitry. And "Into the Future" linked television to videocassette recorders, video surveillance, video games, and the new prospects of computers. Many art stars were included: Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Chris Burden, Keith Sonnier, Nam June Paik, William Wegman ,Ed Paschke, Cindy Sherman, Keith Haring, to name only a few. On the front and back covers of the catalog were cartoons commissioned from John Holmstrom, the founder of Punk Magazine.
Television's Impact was both a popular and critical success. The museum guards were especially happy because the exhibition coincided with the World Series triumph of our Flushing Meadow Park neighbor, the New York Mets, and they were able to watch the games on the televisions included in the exhibition.