By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST November, 2022
Dots & Pixels: Pop. Art Reflections of Our Digital Lives, a show of Jay Samit’s watercolors at the Richard Taittinger Gallery on Ludlow, is several kinds of trips, time travel into our Pop art past being the most in your face. In one painting, a defining image, a young woman holds two fingers to her chin, in a classic indication of worried puzzlement, her dark glasses reflecting that she is looking at another woman being uplifted by Robbie the Robot, from the sci-fi 1956 movie, Forbidden Planet. The painted text above her reads: In the future, everyone will want to be anonymous for 15 minutes. Another is a triple image of a woman, with speech balloons reading Alexa ... Turn My ... Feelings Off. In the last she weeps. On another a woman screams into a telephone beneath the text: Is There No Escape from Chatbox Hell?
So Jay Samit is utterly not at home on our hi-tech worldscape, right? Wrong. Time for some back story. Upon graduating from UCLA in 1982, Samit founded Jasmine, a company which pioneered the migration of creative media onto personal computers. The company was acquired and he moved first to Universal, then to EMI, in each case into a position where he could indulge his instinct for the doors being swung open by fast evolving tech. Such as? “I created the first auction on the Internet, which evolved into E-Bay,” Samit told me. “I put the first video on a computer. It was called Video for Windows ... I was responsible for getting digital downloads of music and streaming of video content for the entertainment industry ... I created the first million member social network, ten years before Facebook. The same idea! For college kids to connect and have something that was unofficial. And Internet advertising. I did some of the first software for children with disabilities. It was called a Slap pad. So that people could communicate that they were hungry ... thirsty ... tired.”
Samit was head of EMI for a while and merged Sony and BMG. “I got to meet all my heroes,” he says. “And one of the things that I noticed was that artists fall into two categories. There are those that go into it for the women, for the fame, for the money, for whatever reason. And then there are those whose heads would explode if they didn’t get the music out of their body.” He was hailed by Variety as “the guru for the entire industry.” “But these things would have happened without me’” he says. “I was just the first one to focus on them. It was a blank canvas. We were just creating what we thought technology could do.” The work possessed him. “All the technologies I created, those things are creations,” he said. “I spent decades just basically on airplanes. In January of 2020 I was in nine countries, three continents.”
Came the Pandemic. “I thought we’d be home for two or three months,” Samit said. “Now I’m going to be locked in a house with the gift of time.” Well, he had always painted but had done so privately. “In business you’re supposed to be, you know, a suit,” he said. “Now I did a painting a day. I was reflecting on my life ... all the things I’ve been missing, all the things that get banished in your life. And that was my first show. I didn’t expect to hear from anybody, I was just painting because otherwise I’d go insane.”
America Disrupted, that first show was at the Richard Taittinger Gallery that fall. It consisted of watercolors, mostly of Americana, such as a ‘60s motel and roadside signage, which are deftly painted and resonant with a nuanced unease you could call Hopperesque or relate to such film noir as Kiss Me Deadly. But Dots and Pixels is wholly different, both in its execution and its conception, in that it has a harder edge and, piece by piece, addresses more specific situations.
Hello, Covid. “I had time during this pandemic to reflect on my career.” Samit says. “Every innovation, every disruption ... I thought I was adding to society. And when you get on the other side of 60, you suddenly look back, you say did I make the world better?” On his painted panels, Samit answers his own question. Pop Culture is no longer a mass media shared experience, but rather an all too alienating private interaction manipulated by private technology to dominate how we live, love, work and think, runs one. Another goes: Having been fortunate to start working on the Internet in 1978, I spent decades innovating the very technologies that now control us.
Samit decided that it would require a different pictorial language to convey the realities of our digital landscape and became engrossed with looking at Pop art, Roy Lichtenstein an Andy Warhol most particularly, and the variety of ways in which they channelled the commercial culture of Back Then. “That was sixty years ago. Ancient times!” he said. “What if I could update Pop art to reflect the way we are trying hold on to our humanity in a digital world?”
The pictorial language he developed is cutting. “I speak two languages, English and sarcasm,” he says. In one painting a guy in the front seat of a car and his hunched-up bosomy companion are depicted against a background of Roy Lichtensteinesque Ben Day dots. What convinced you to swipe right, he ask her. Desperation, she says. Another solicitous guy leans over a woman glued to her smartphone. Is everything ok? he is asking. You haven’t instagrammed your food yet. The speech bubble of a dark-haired gal, who brandishes her smartphone above her head, reads Say what you want about Onlyfans, but, I paid off my student loans in six months. A lounging gal pal adds: And bought a house.
Onlyfans incidentaally connects sexworkers. Online goes everywhere. “It’s funny, people thought Bill Gates was crazy when he said someday there’ll be a computer in every house,” Samit notes. “Back then they were selling them as you can balance your checkbook and a bunch of lame things like that.”
Life lived online and onscreen has been responsible for the melting of social glue, I observed. Good morning is seldom heard. Or a Thank You for an opened door. “I take it the further step,” Samit said. “Which is people become so rude on line, they think nothing of attacking, hurting. Cyberbullying. People lost their sense of humanity when they are just alone at a computer. And that’s what I’m trying to bring out in my artworks.” WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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