Working With Mike Wallace

A producer remembers collaborating with the late journalist shortly before he started on "60 Minutes"

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.

George Segal’s piece confronted museum visitors with a white plaster life size sculpture of a bus driver sitting next to a real fare box and holding a real steering wheel. Segal noted: “It’s not a real bus, you know, it has no motor, it doesn’t have all the seats … It’s my memory of getting into a bus and all the things I was thinking and feeling at the moment.”

Mike asked him, “Why is it happening to all of you right now? Why is new art, Pop Art, happening?”

Segal thought a moment and replied: “Every generation crowds the heels of the preceding generation, and always there are lots of people who wish to make art—and always the casualty rates are enormously high, and always a minute percentage of artists really stick with it, and always only a very few become themselves and not only that, succeed in saying something which will touch the experience of a large number of other people.”

The white plaster figure of the bus driver did look a bit like an everyday, commonplace comment on ancient marble sculpture in many a museum. Mike clearly made the association, cocked his head and asked: “Mr. Segal, are you hopeful that you will become a ‘classic?’”

Segal paused a long pause and then replied: “I’m trying to be a human being. I used to idolize artists as demi-gods, I thought when I was younger that that was one of the most magnificent ways a man could spend his life. … gradually it dawned on me that art is made by men.”

As the producer/writer I was sure that we had filmed a landmark moment. Before we began editing the interviews down to the 25-minute program, I had uncut 16 mm prints made of each of Mike’s entire interviews and presented them to the Museum’s Television Archive on artists, which we originated with this show. (Last month, attending a MoMA opening, I asked the senior curator if she knew of these films in the museum’s archives, a kind of Mike Wallace time capsule of artists who have become among the major figures of Pop Art. She did not.)

After the segment aired, Jack O’Brian In the New York Journal American fumed, “Mike Wallace’s clumsy klatch with the uproarious artists on the pretentious ‘Eye on N. Y.’ last night was a drab drag because Wallace lacks a sense of conventional humor; his voice contains all the sincerity of a non-smoking cigaret announcer.”

We paid no heed. Eleven months later, the museum opened a blockbuster of a show, “The Responsive Eye.” Pop Art was overshadowed by Op Art—visual effects were a new preoccupation of artists worldwide—and crowds flocked to the museum. Mike and I again arrived with our cameras, and he began the program questioning people coming out of the show: “John Canady of the Times suggested that it’s one of the most exciting artistic events in a decade.” Said one woman: “But I can’t understand why. I don’t think it’s an artistic event. I think it’s a tourist attraction, maybe, but not an artistic event.”

“The Responsive Eye,” however, was a visual circus for our cameras. Mike gave an on-camera lecture on how the human eye receives visual information using a medical model of the eye, and then suggested that viewers carefully adjust their sets for maximum black and white contrast. Then we presented a portrait of the main gallery—what gallery director Richard Bellamy termed “the Hall of Science”—zooming in and out of wavy lines that seemed to generate colors, moving in on giant lenses, trucking past changing three-dimensions. We scored the visual effects with a percussion score improvised by Gordon “Specs” Powell.

Mike confronted Gerald Oster, a scientist from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn who was absorbed with moiré patterns.

“A scientific phenomenon is hardly an art form is it?” he asked.

Oster’s response: “Well, I think you’d have to argue with Leonardo Da Vinci, who, ah, from his notebooks, I get the impression that art and science are inexorably connected.”

Doubts about Op arose from different sources during our filming—George Rickey, a kinetic sculptor and art historian felt that “the ease with which Op Art has achieved publicity and made a certain entry into fashion, I think all of this is rather deplorable.” Lester Markel, an associate editor of The New York Times, averred it was “fascinating as a technique; but it is not art.”

Mike concluded: “‘The Responsive Eye’ has been one smash hit of a novelty. One of the biggest novelties is the great variety of artists it has assembled under the same label. To the extent that their work is simply fashionable this year, they will come to be replaced by other novelties. To the extent that they produce art of quality they will thrive and flourish.”

Television critics thought our piece was strong. The Daily News called it “an exceptionally good 30-minute examination of Op (optical) Art.”

Television was at a turning point-the prime time documentary was rapidly losing its prime time—yet we had prevailed with two reports on contemporary art. At this moment, Don Hewitt had a new job for Mike Wallace: “60 Minutes.”

We did not work together again for 39 years.

In 2004, I invited Mike to appear at Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood to host a salute celebrating the bicentennial of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birth. He was joined by Jane Fonda, David Strathairn and Marisa Tomei. Mike and Fonda reminisced about years before, when her reputation was under the clouds following her anti-war protest visit to North Vietnam and she was known as “Hanoi Jane.” Mike had noticed her on a New York street corner, awaiting a taxi. He stopped and gave her a lift, in more ways than one, the two recalled at dinner the night before the event.

The hall was packed and the event raised about a $100,000 for Shakespeare & Company, a key Berkshires cultural institution. Soon afterwards, Mike and his wife, Mary, were at dinner at our New York apartment to meet Jim Polshek and his wife, Ellen. Polshek had completed the work of his career—designing the imposing new Rose Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History that stands across the street from our living room. We all admired the beautiful five- story sphere encased in an eight-story glass cube, glowing in blue light at night.

As the meal unwound, Mike became curious about my wife’s work with seminars entitled “Getting to Next,” in which she assists women at changing moments in their careers. “Now, Carole,” pressed Mike, “just exactly what do you do with those women?”

“Oh, Mike,” she answered. “You sound just like Mike Wallace.” His was a memorable voice in American journalism, even at the dinner table.

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Gordon Hyatt spent decades producing CBS documentaries on topics ranging from art to the end of Life magazine. Tags: