New York

“From Receiver to Remote Control: The TV Set”

“From Receiver to Remote Control: The TV Set” addresses itself to a ubiquitous piece of domestic technology in the hopes of unraveling the messy tangle of psychological and social effects it has had on the (American) home and family. Surprisingly, the emphasis is not on the message, the medium, or their supposed conflation, but rather on the physical container itself. Through the box, in its various mutating forms, we are asked to divine the shifting currents of modern life.

This exhibition has a lot of show and not much tell. Curator Matthew Geller states in his introduction to the show’s catalogue that his “way of telling a story is associative and metaphoric, rather than linear or systematic. Don’t look for a central theme.” Don’t indeed. This exhibition assiduously resists a guiding thesis. Occasionally ideas bob to the surface, as when Margaret Morse notes in her catalogue essay that TV sets share some of the anthropomorphic and theatrical qualities that Michael Fried attributed to Minimalist sculpture, but, aside from recalling the old saw that TV sets entered the American home like new members of the family, the show as a whole makes little of this strained notion. “From Receiver to Remote Control” alludes to all the trendy, if sometimes pertinent, themes—the psychosociology of the family, the rhetoric of the body, and the intrusive powers of the media—but it never subjects these ideas to extensive or cogent critical inquiry.

Sure, it’s fun to look at TV sets of the last 50-odd years, and it’s also funny to look at the New Museum’s demonstrative installations—kitchen, family room, bachelor-pad bedroom, etc. These are all rich in nostalgic, kitsch, and camp associations. But really, isn’t every citizen of the United States already an expert on TV? This exhibition sustains a dunderheaded commitment to the obvious.

How would I have done this show differently? First, I would have forced the material into a procrustean bed of theory. Two approaches suggest themselves immediately: either run with the allusion to Minimalism and treat this as a sculpture show, stressing the formal and conceptual crosscurrents in the history of art and TV design, or use it as a crude demonstration of Lacanian object relations in which the TV set, as mirror and window, plays interactive “Other” to ourselves. Fortunately, I was not consulted; and, in this respect, we can at least be thankful for small mercies from a show that offered little else.

David Rimanelli