Happiness Is Existential Ennui

Recommendations by R.C. Baker

In this eighth volume of an eventual 25 collecting all the daily and Sunday Peanuts strips, Snoopy dons an aviator's helmet for the first of his jaunty dogfights with the Red Baron. It's easy to track down this historical event through the index, which takes you to "SNOOPY . . . House Burning Down . . . Siblings . . . As World War I Flying Ace . . . " The beagle who flies, plays a mean shortstop, and subs as a bespectacled analyst at the neighborhood psychiatric booth is made utterly believable through deft drawing—when sleeping, he's a heap of bulbous curves, which shift to taut diagonals whenever he performs his ecstatic bipedal dances. Maybe it's no coincidence that Charles M. Schulz (1922–2000) created such a popular, charismatic canine, since he once confessed to an interviewer, "It took me a long time to become a human being." He'd had no dates in high school, and although he was a decent athlete, the other kids still regarded him as "kind of sissyfied." One could read these slights as the impetus to Charlie Brown's failure to ever pitch a winning game or squire that little red-haired girl to a school dance. But how to explain the first ever Peanuts strip (published on October 2, 1950), of two kids sitting together on a curb? As the future icon strolls by, the boy observes to the girl: "Good ol' Charlie Brown . . . How I hate him!" If brevity is the soul of wit, perhaps it was Schulz's astonishingly spare penwork that propelled the existential charm of the world he created. The boy in that first comic (who later became Shermy) sits with his hands crossed in his lap—until he delivers his anti–punch line with a downward squiggle of his brow and hands firmly on knees, body language as decisively portrayed as in any Picasso sketch.

Schulz, though, never considered himself "a true artist," explaining "I would love to be Andrew Wyeth or Picasso." Yet this utterly steel-willed Minnesotan's accomplishment—17,897 work-a-day dramas that struck a universal nerve—was driven by his artwork. "I don't think you can write a comic strip on a typewriter," he pointed out. "You're robbing yourself of the ideas that come from drawing." It was succinct visuals—the foreshortening of Charlie Brown's stubby legs as he lies forlornly on the pitcher's mound, the rhythm of dark and light panels when Snoopy is behind enemy lines—that made Schulz's Little League agonies and Great Pumpkin catechisms ring true. Like his chosen art form, there's something uniquely American about Schulz's earthbound realism. He never quite figured out how to fill in the "Happiness is a" blank in his own life, and he never let his characters forget it.


'Jumbie Camp'

Laura Anderson Barbata has created a vibe very different from the lassitude the Chelsea art-mall can sometimes inspire. She has crammed the gallery with sewing machines, ironing boards, and racks of colorful costumes for Moko Jumbies—stilt-walkers who perform vibrant dances, channeling ancient West African gods and post-slavery ghosts. In 2002, Anderson Barbata began working with a Trinidadian community group that provides free cultural workshops to local kids, and she brings that same spirit to this exhibition, which offers visitors the opportunity to work on the flamboyant costumes and masks. An outfit with broad black wings rises above the viewer, its red head like that of a giant turkey vulture, regally surveying a nearby headdress of peacock plumes, a green dragon, and a mound of tiger-striped fabric studded with eyes the size of frying pans. (The Brooklyn Jumbies will perform on September 15 at 3 p.m.) Galeria Ramis Barquet, 532 W 24th, 212-675-3421. Through September 29.


Martin Creed

As you enter this vacant lot under the defunct railbed of the Highline, three 40-foot-long I-beams point directly at you. Stacked on edge from largest gauge (roughly waist-high) to smallest, they are almost comically assertive, seeming to shout out their individuality—"I!"—in three different keys. Seen from the side, they feel more like cartoon speed lines, a sense reinforced by the horizontal strips of rust running their length. More in the spirit of Carl Andre than Richard Serra, these hulks of steel don't aim to be anything more than they are, but the fact that one end of the piece is cantilevered over a spot of uneven macadam evokes a playful mood, as if you could push down on it and watch the far tip rise like a teeter-totter. Affixed to the surrounding walls of brick and battered plywood, 15-foot-high, yellow neon letters spell out "SMALL THINGS." Framed by the Highline's weathered girders, the phrase adds a baleful theatricality to the minimal mix, like children playing on railroad tracks. 508 W 25th, 845-758-7598. Through September 15.


Richard Pare: 'Lost Vanguard'

In the first blush of revolutionary fervor, Soviet architects sought to reenergize their field as emphatically as the Bolsheviks were transforming society. Almost seven decades later, following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Pare began documenting these often forgotten structures—covertly, if official permission could not be obtained. He brought back images of a 1922 radio tower spiraling into the ether on an elegant steel skeleton; a gargantuan bakery with white tiles and polished wooden catwalks set in concentric circles, like a wedding cake made concrete; and a housing project for the dreaded Cheka police, constructed in the shape of a hammer and sickle, its interior laced with flowing curves. The blocky geometries of Lenin's red marble tomb are adorned with scarlet zigzags, the thunderbolts of a secular god. In the 1930s, when Stalin decreed that architecture, like the other arts, should hew to the more populist Socialist realism line, these astonishing modernist experiments fell into disrepair. Fortunately, Pare has resurrected, in all its now decrepit glory, this stillborn utopia. Museum of Modern Art, 11 W 53rd, 212-708-9400. Through October 29.

 
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