My first memory of Mike Wallace is of the two of us riding in a car together in 1964; as soon as he sat next to me (I was driving) he snapped off the radio and told me of his one Broadway appearance, the lead in the 1954 spoof of the art world, “Reclining Figure,” written by Harry Kurnitz and directed by Abe Burrows. Mike had played a New York art dealer offering impressionist paintings to super-rich Texans.
It seemed apropos, then, that Mike and I were to work on two documentaries together, covering the New York art scene during the arrival of two major developments: Pop Art and Op Art, which is how he ended up my passenger shortly before “60 Minutes” took him to the perennial, memorable network series.
Back then, the New York art scene was ablaze with new artists under the label “Pop.” Avant garde galleries like Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery, the Pace and the Sidney Janis Galleries were exhibiting works by emerging artists including Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Marisol, and Claes Oldenburg. Adventuresome collectors abounded, epitomized by Robert Scull, the taxi fleet operator who plunged into the market buying works by Jasper Johns, George Segal, Jim Rosenquist and commissioning Andy Warhol to produce a multiple image portrait of his wife, Ethel, with silk screen images made from pictures taken at a photo booth.
Amidst all this, the Museum of Modern Art had just completed a new expansion, and at its reopening on May 24 were to be showing several Pop artists, all with newly acquired works. CBS Chairman William S. Paley was a trustee of the museum and, not surprisingly, WCBS-TV assigned me and Mike Wallace to cover the opening for “Eye on New York,” a Channel 2 primetime series.
Pop art was getting ribbing from many sides. However, in my preview of MoMA’s new galleries, I soon learned that was to be expected. Today’s accepted “classics” by Cezanne, Rousseau and Van Gogh, for example, had all been met with negative criticism in their times. Standing in front of works by these modern masters, Mike, as if he was a docent, cited how in 1904 one critic had reacted to a Cezanne still life by observing how it “somewhat recalls the designs that school children make by squeezing the heads of flies between the folds of a sheet of paper.”
Armed with such assurance that responses to Pop artists could be equally blindsided, we went to interview five of them, starting with Robert Rauschenberg. Sitting on stools in front of a massive new work in his studio on lower Broadway, Mike asked the artist why he used such improbable materials in his work as an automobile tire, a license plate, an electric light bulb.
“The materials were in my immediate vicinity,” Rauschenberg answered. “The reason I was there was to do a painting; and, ah, the reason I used these materials was because they were there. Ah, this is the equivalent, actually, I’ve just thought of it, of mixing your own pigment, you know, like how Rembrandt stood there and did this (he made a mixing motion as if grinding pigment with his hands).”
“Let’s go off on a total tack, Mr. Rauschenberg—how do you feel about hanging in the Museum of Modern Art?” Mike then asked.
“Ah, well, I don’t really care too much about museums anymore.”
“Honestly?” Mike said.
“Honestly,” the artist affirmed.
(Wallace and Rauschenberg kept a relationship over later years—when the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art opened in North Adams, Massachusetts, in May 1999, the great gallery was hung with nearly a thousand feet of panels created by Rauschenberg over the intervening years. The artist invited his old friend, the reporter, to select the order of some of the images with newsprint, photographs and other documentary elements reflecting the times.)
Next we filmed Robert Indiana—who later created that giant LOVE sculpture—and Mike followed up on the first exchange with Rauschenberg: “Is it important to an artist that he be hanging in the Museum of Modern Art?”
“Well, it’s one of the best things that might happen to a painter,” Indiana replied.