Pinball: Unsung Art Hero

the divide between “high” and “low” art is a chasm much too deep for me (or someone far more qualified) to ever bridge in a singular text. but, it always informs my work on a semi-conscious level. i’m one of those art theorists that can’t follow kant. i don’t think that there is a mystical aura to art that separates it from craft and i never will.

for me, the difference between “low” art and “high” art is essentially nonexistent. there are subtleties in every creative form that i could appreciate equally in a thrift store or in a museum. as my guru, dave hickey, says: “bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege”. it is in this vein that i would like to canonize one of my favorite art forms. ladies and gentlemen, i present to you…

we’ll pull this off multi-ball style, in two installments. first, i wanna talk about the commercial artists, the “low” artists, who worked for design firms to create the back glass for functioning pinball machines. next post, i’ll talk about some reclaimed pinball machines by “high” art. maybe somewhere in between, we can tilt toward some institutionalized differences between high and low art.

first, some basic pinhead vocabulary.

gordon morison's backglass and cabinet design for "big indian"

the two dimensional, painted elements of a pinball machine include the back glass, play field and cabinet. the backglass is the most visible element of a pinball machine; in order to attract players, it garners the most artistic attention. usually, the imagery is silkscreened onto the back of a pane of glass. the glass is then inserted in the backbox, which contains an insert of lamps and scoring mechanisms that coordinate with the silkscreened back glass artwork.

the cabinet is the lower box which contains the playfield, flippers and coin box. usually, the cabinet is decorated with less elaborate artwork that coordinates with the playfield and backbox.

gordon morison playfield design for "big indian"
the playfield is the ornate space used in game play. the artistry of the playfield includes two-dimensional silkscreened playboard, translucent plastic pieces illuminated by tiny lamps beneath the playboard, silkscreened plastic inserts, spinners, magnets, bumpers, flippers, and more and more and more. playfields are known for their absurd opulence- with lights and colors rivaling any casino game.

the rococo quota ornamentation of pinball machines helped to establish their initiation into US cultural zeitgeists of the 1970s, but before then, helped to abolish them from the united states entirely. through the 1940s and 1950s, pinball production was put to a startling halt due to the war. afterward, the new york state government worked to end pinball production entirely by labeling it as a game of chance, its players, thus, gamblers. hard to imagine, given the innocent and wholesome cliche pinball enjoys today. i visited the national pinball gallery in las vegas, nevada, after spending a day or two in downtown casinos, to find the aesthetics of the gaudy and illuminant pinball hall fused with the dark profile of the serpentine casinos. the key difference was in ambiance: the vibe was much more hopeful and resilient in the pinball hall.

anyway, pinball, obviously, prevailed over new york state law, and rocketed through the stratosphere of popular culture, thanks in no small part to The Who. the 1970s were pinball golden years. advancements in playfield technology during the 1970s and 1980s made the games a lot more fun. magnets, multi-tiered playfields, and digital score readers kept pinball on the forefront of burgeoning technology in this decade. the themes became increasingly important and specific. the imagery, in turn, became much more intimately tied with the theme and with the playfield itself.

although the games of the 1970s and 1980s found huge advances in playfield functionality, the imagery of the 60s backglass and playfields are incomparable. two leading artists of the 1960s and 1970s are leroy parker (not that leroy parker) and gordon morison.
leroy parker

leroy parker, backglass "kings & queens"

leroy parker worked on “humpty-dumpty”, released by Gottlieb in 1947, the first game with any iteration of flippers. roy parker continued to work for Gottlieb through the 1950s & 60s, collaborating with game designer Wayne Neyens. the two produced countless classic pinball games through this decade. the aesthetic is distinctly mid-century atomic age. from the shape of the back box to the general themes of leroy parkers games, it seems he defined the aesthetics of the era.
gordon morison
Gordon Morison, "Abra-Ca-Dabra" 1971
Gordon Morison took over Gottlieb’s art during the 1970s. he is credited on the design team for around 150 pinball machines (according to internet pinball machine database). his style oscillates between a very deco sensibility, focusing on geometry and patterning, and psychedelic era maximalism. his pinball machines are almost always my top aesthetic choices. his work with Gottlieb produced a classic, perfect aesthetic for the pinball machine. artwork for pinball machines coexisted and fed off of other producers of popular culture: band flyers, posters, album covers, photography, film, etc., all entered into a feedback loop- refining a visual language that could define a generation.

this is something i want to spend a little time on: a citable difference between high art and low art. where leroy parker & gordon morison’s imagery commercially informs the culture within a market setting, high art serves to critique the saturation of vernacular artistic practice. the critique established by high art would not be functional without the pre-existing colloquial signage of popular visual culture. to make things concrete, let’s look at pop art.

pop art emerged as a direct critique of consumerism and advertising, often subverting messages within recycled advertisement imagery. without the pre-existing visual rhetoric of the advertising industry, pop art would have looked radically different. however, the advertising industry would have remained on the same path with or without pop art’s critique.

under this lens, high art is a parasitic form of cultural production. it feeds from the abuse of pre-existing visual data, often beneficially. however, the canonization of “high” art, at the expense of “low” art, proves irreconcilable in my mind.

so here’s a toast to the producers of popular visual culture: to leroy parker and gordon morison, and pinball artists new and old across the globe. i hereby, without any authority whatsoever, canonize you into the art history legend. enjoy- there’s no money and very little respect to accompany the title, but at least someone might catch your name down history’s ladder.

more to follow in part 2.


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