April 13, 2010
 

Live On West 53rd--More Mad Ave Men and Women

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By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

It's hard to avoid--"Where The Truth Lies" at Sterling Cooper is in its creative deficiency. The shop in which AMC-TV's "Mad Men" (and solitary female copywriter) labor away is staffed with woefully under-talented people. Their dull work filled the first series.

Now the creative revolution of the 60s is happening all around these easy living hard drinkers, and under Don Draper's lagging, angst-driven leadership, the agency is starting to flounder in the second season. Sterling's already made the terrible blunder of resigning a viable and growing airline (Mohawk) just to pitch a larger airline (American) which the agency had no chance of winning. Week after week, Sterling Cooper is looking more like the Mad Ave gang that can't shoot straight.

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As we reported, some of the industry's state-of-the-art national campaigns of the 60s and other early decades are on display in the New York Public Library division at 34th and Madison through September 26. It's a great exhibit, and if you come away from "Mad Men" every Sunday night feeling a little queasy and dispirited about the industry we work in, taking a Monday lunch hour stroll through the library's knockout campaigns will instantly lift your spirits. What's more, if you walk up to the Museum of Modern Art on West 53rd, you can sample 40 mixed-media works that illustrate how innovative artists began infusing conceptual advertising thinking into their films and videos, starting in 1965. The exhibit, "Looking at Music," runs through January 5, supported by a schedule of ever-changing screenings in MoMA's theaters through December 21. In the exhibit as in the theater films, music is the bridge between art and advertising.

David Bowie's a good example. The monitor in the exhibit repeats his five-minute "Space Oddity" video all day long. But there's nothing odd about it--Bowie's seated playing acoustic guitar and singing in a limbo setting, the very essence of early, unadorned glam rock. He's as straightforward as a VW ad. While Bowie would use his training as a mime and commercial artist to change his appearance on his early albums, he never lost sight of his first objective of winning 16-year-old hearts across America. In MoMA's theater, a special presentation of Bowie's videos introduced by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth is set for December 1st at 7:00 p.m., with an encore showing on December 19 at 6:00 p.m.

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Some of the other l6mm films and videos running continuously in the exhibit include a short Beatles promotion, "Penny Lane," delightful in its unstructured dottiness..."The Residents' "Third Reich 'n Roll" which sends up 60s commercials...a peculiar 90-second spot for Captain Beefheart's Warner/Reprise album, "Lick My Decals Off, Baby," and the masked contortions of Devo stomping around performing "Secret Agent Man." The work is fresh, impish, and palpable in its sense of mystery and discovery. In their way the videos continue the sassy impudence of commercials down in the library exhibit like the gorilla spot for American Tourister luggage. You remember that smashing demo, created by DDB's Marcia Bell Grace and Roy Grace, with the ape doing everything in its considerable power for 60 seconds to destroy the suitcase, without making a dent.

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Some of the other special MoMA screenings should be of keen interest to Mad Ave workers with an eye and ear on earlier eras. Once in your lifetime you should experience Kenneth Anger's 1963 "Scorpio Rising" with its driving music and MTV-style fast cutting, partnered with Jack Smith's 1963 "Flaming Creatures," with its carnal imagery that will get your heart pumping faster than any couplings on "Mad Men." Those are showing September 3 at 8:30 p.m. and September 13 at 2:00 p.m. There's a two-hour retrospective of the work of composer Philip Glass (who scored the American Express "My Life, My Card" spot with Robert DeNiro) on November 26 at 6:00 p.m. And on October 2-4 there are screenings of work growing out of a collaboration between Bell Laboratory engineers and world-class artists like John Cage, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg and Deborah Hay in the early 60s.

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The signature exhibit of MoMA's "Looking at Music" is the television set pictured above. It's considered a sculpture created by video pioneer and pianist Nam June Palk in 1968. The encrusted pearls were added to its outer casing by her collaborator, Otto Piene. In the exhibit display, the set transmits an unchanging line image, sort of like a single piano note holding in the air. It's rather transfixing. Probably if Don Draper had been attending to influences like this, rather than drinking his lunch at a bar and reading Frank O'Hara, he might be coming up with more original work at Sterling Cooper. But then he wouldn't be a "Mad Man."


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