Primetime pioneer: from All in the Family to The Jeffersons, TV legend Norman Lear defined an era

The creative force behind over 100 television classics, Norman Lear captured contemporary life. With his wife, Lyn, he built an art collection that does the same

Norman Lear, Los Angeles, 1984. Photo by Bob Riha Jr/Getty Images

Norman Lear was a giant of the entertainment industry who revolutionised the medium of television. As the creator, producer and writer of groundbreaking programs like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times and Maude, Lear explored complex and poignant issues with humour and heart.

Lear pioneered a new era of candour in television, in which audiences saw the truth of their reality reflected onscreen — from the everyday toilet flush to major sociopolitical issues of the day. Lear also expanded the scope of television narratives by including feminist characters, divorced women and wealthy as well as working-class Black families. Never shying away from important topics like politics, abortion, race and poverty, he found a way to bring viewers together through comedy.

‘He changed situation comedy in the best way possible,’ the late-night host Jimmy Kimmel said in an on-air tribute after Lear’s death in December 2023. ‘He taught us so much about so many serious things, always making us laugh while he did it. Everyone who works in, and even watches, television owes him a great debt.’

lear on set

Left: Norman Lear with actors Carroll O'Connor and, Jean Stapleton on set of All in the Family, 1971. Photograph by Gene Trindl/TV Guide ©CBS/Courtesy Everett Collection. Right: Norman Lear with actors Isabel Sanford and Sherman Hemsley on the set of The Jeffersons, 1974. Photograph by Brian Hamill/Getty Images

Lear’s sensitivity to the world around him permeated every aspect of his life. He and his wife, Lyn Davis Lear, sought out authentic responses to modern life across entertainment, philanthropy, activism and art. Over decades, the couple amassed an extensive art collection anchored by creatives such as David Hockney and Ed Ruscha who, like Lear, sought to represent the truth of their times. Their groundbreaking representations of post-war American culture both reflected and defined the era.

This May, Christie’s is proud to offer The Collection of Norman and Lyn Lear in New York. Led by legends of 20th-century art from Richard Diebenkorn to Willem de Kooning, the collection embodies the authenticity and dedication to truth at the heart of Lear’s life and legacy.

lyn and norman lear

Norman and Lyn Lear, Los Angeles, 2023. Photograph: Celeste Sloman / Trunk Archive

‘Norman used to say that whenever he flew across the country, he would look at the lights down below and think about how he had helped people laugh in all those towns,’ Lyn tells Christie’s. ‘He loved that he could bring that to people.’

Over the course of his 65-year career, Lear brought more than 100 television series to life. He was the recipient of six Primetime Emmy awards, two Peabody Awards, the National Medal of Arts, the Kennedy Center Honors and the Golden Globe Carol Burnett Award.

norman lear

Norman Lear and Jimmy Kimmel with cast members of Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear's 'All in the Family' and 'The Jeffersons.' Photograph by Eric McCandless via Getty Images

‘What is truth?’

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, American television often presented an idealised portrait of the country. In 1971, Lear premiered All in the Family, which centred on the domestic conflict between prejudiced, loud-mouthed Archie Bunker and his progressive son-in-law. By tackling difficult topics with nuanced and layered storylines, the series reinvented onscreen comedy. His subsequent shows built on the success of All in the Family’s unique tone, and by the mid-1970s Lear was producing five of the 10 most popular programs on television.

Each of these programs offered a sharp look at what makes us human, a theme that runs throughout the Lears’ art collection as well. ‘What is truth? And how do you find what is true? These questions guided how Norman and I saw the world,’ says Lyn.

Ed Ruscha (b. 1937), Truth, 1973. Oil on canvas. 54 x 60 in (137.2 x 152.4 cm). Estimate: $7,000,000-10,000,000. Offered in 20th Century Evening Sale on 16 May at Christie's in New York

This theme is embodied most clearly in Ed Ruscha’s 1973 painting Truth. Like Lear, Ruscha evoked the realities of American life in his work, using everyday iconography and language to examine the contemporary experience. Truth is one of Ruscha’s iconic Text paintings, where he blends word and image on canvas. ‘There’s a reason why Norman picked that particular painting in 1980,’ says Lyn. ‘That’s what spoke to him. Everything he did in his life was really about truth.’

Lear was often drawn to artists whose stories paralleled his own. ‘He’s interested in people and life,’ George Clooney explained in the 2016 documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. ‘He sees something in everyone, and that’s what makes him so unique as an individual.’

In David Hockney, Lear recognised a shared knack for elevating the quotidian. As a British transplant to Los Angeles, Hockney revelled in the vivid landscape of his new home. In A Lawn Being Sprinkled (1967), the artist highlights the beauty of his surroundings through a commonplace scene. As palm trees reach skyward in the background, Hockney delineates the foreground with individual blades of grass being misted with water.

David Hockney (b. 1937), A Lawn Being Sprinkled, 1967. Acrylic on canvas. 60 x 60 in (152.4 x 152.4 cm). Estimate: $25,000,000-35,000,000. Offered in 20th Century Evening Sale on 16 May at Christie's in New York

The dynamic interplay of water with light and the lush greenery of the lawn flaunt California’s natural beauty. ‘This painting is so representative of Los Angeles,’ says Lyn. ‘Many of the artists we collected were based in LA. We wanted to support our community.’

Artists and friends

In addition to supporting the LA art scene, the Lears also formed lasting relationships with artists like Kenneth Noland, Ed Ruscha and Robert Rauschenberg. The couple purchased a farm in southern Vermont directly from Noland, and Ruscha gifted Lear a work he made specially for his 96th birthday.

In 1994, Rauschenberg came over to the Lears’ home to personally reinstall Rodeo Palace (Spread) (1976). The work, which measures 16 feet in length and includes three full-length doors, is an early example from the artist’s Spreads series. Produced between 1975–1983, the Spreads connected seemingly disparate objects and imagery across sprawling wall-mounted panels. Many works from the series are now represented in major museum collections like The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art in Louisiana.

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Rodeo Palace (Spread), 1976. Solvent transfer, fabric, cardboard, paper, acrylic and graphite on cardboard mounted on plywood with objects. Overall: 144 x 192 x 40⅜ in (365.8 x 487.7 x 102.6 cm). Estimate: $3,000,000-5,000,000. Offered in 20th Century Evening Sale on 16 May at Christie's in New York

Rauschenberg’s Rodeo Palace (Spread), which the couple bought together, held pride of place in their lives. When building their home, they constructed a wall in their screening room that was wide enough to fit the large-scale work. ‘We weren’t the kind of collectors to keep art in storage,’ says Lyn. ‘Our walls were filled. We lived with the pieces and loved having them be part of our family.’

A legacy of making a difference

The same commitment to truth that guided Lear’s creative output and the couple’s collecting habits was reflected in their lifelong dedication to philanthropy. In 1980, Lear founded People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy group. He also provided an endowment for the Norman Lear Center, a nonpartisan research and public policy centre. In addition, he served on the National Advisory Board of the Young Storytellers Foundation and was a trustee of the Paley Center for Media.

In 2001 the Lears purchased one of 26 known Dunlap broadsides, one of the first published copies of the Declaration of Independence. Hoping to inspire civic activism across the country, the couple brought the document on a national tour. ‘Whenever he saw an opportunity to give back or make a change, he would jump in,’ says Lyn. ‘It was very invigorating and exciting being with him for that reason.’

Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), I Love Liberty (Study), 1981. Painted and printed paper collage and graphite on paperboard. Image: 25¾ x 17 in (65.4 x 43.2 cm); sheet: 34 x 25 in (86.4 x 63.5 cm). Estimate: $600,000-800,000. Offered in 20th Century Evening Sale on 16 May at Christie's in New York

In 1982, Lear tapped the couple’s friend Roy Lichtenstein to make a promotional image for People for the American Way’s I Love Liberty celebration, a patriotic television broadcast celebrating America. Using his signature graphic style inspired by comics and newspapers, Lichtenstein create I Love Liberty, a close-cropped portrait of the Statue of Liberty rendered against a striped background. In its simple, forthright composition, the work spotlights an iconic American symbol of freedom and democracy — ideals that informed all of Lear’s activism.

Throughout his pioneering career in entertainment, Lear probed the complex nature of humanity and strove to reveal universal truths. The Collection of Lyn and Norman Lear is a reflection of the couple’s values, which drove their activism and their love of art. ‘Norman was not only a legend, he was very much loved,’ says Lyn. ‘People had so much admiration for him because he really made a difference.’

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