Take Your Pic

Recommendations by R.C. Baker

Someone had a blast putting together this show of photographs taken between 1945 and 1960. First off, many of these 55 pictures are simply great images. An untitled shot from Robert Frank's "The Americans" captures one man closing huge double doors on another man; the rough grain in this 1956 photo hones the feeling that something shabby has transpired in this high-ceilinged space of wall sconces and heavy molding. The geometric composition of cobblestones and a pedestrian crosswalk in Toni Schneiders's 1952 view of a sedan speeding past two American soldiers in Frankfurt, Germany, conveys the sense of a victor's imposed order beginning to wane, as the natives start hustling again. But the juxtapositions are what really get the juices flowing: Alfred Eisenstaedt's iconic shot of a sailor wrangling a kiss from a nurse on VJ Day hangs next to a Helen Levitt photo from the same year, in which a girl on a New York street carries two milk jugs before her undeveloped breasts as an enormously pregnant woman in saddle shoes glances moodily at her. Together, the two pictures conjure a before and after of exuberant lovemaking and its prosaic consequence. Edmund Teske's small print of a naked young man in a dilapidated shack, flaunting his glory, is hung next to a large Fred Herzog color print of a heavyset gent peering from the shadows of a marquee, his cigarette pointing erectly to a male passerby.

Photography can offer a surfeit of information that sets the mind to wandering, which can also make it easy to get your facts wrong. Take what appears to be a photo of a row of Klansmen, in 1958, by Joan Colom. It's only when you glance at the title of the next shot—of a bonfire—to determine where this Klan rally took place that you realize how far off you were: The pointy-hooded revelers are actually part of a Catholic sect in Spain, and the bonfire celebrates New Year's Eve in Times Square, 1951. Even so, I'd gladly make up a story for three wonderful prints hanging in a row here: It's 1960, and Coltrane blows on his gently undulating sax, drummer Elvin Jones as blurry as a Seurat drawing in the background—bing! Next, college students party, one of them gyrating with angled arms in line with Trane's mouthpiece—bang! That youth's limbs lead your eye to the third photo, a closeup of a kick-drum's fuzzy hammer that's almost the size of Elvin's head—boom!

James Brooks

Brooks was one of "The Irascibles," that group of American avant-garde artists who, in 1950, protested the Metropolitan Museum as unwelcoming to advanced art. He stares out of the famous Life magazine group photo of the abstract expressionists, seated to Pollock's right, and while he was less daring than "Jack the Dripper" (and who wasn't?), he did possess a strong abstract vision and a virtuoso touch with acrylic, a medium shunned by many of his peers. Check out the silky brambles under his broad areas of silver and black in 1980's Hoon, and the beautifully built-up layers of white in 1969's Minos, which sets off a vibration in two areas of blue, as if a shadow has passed over the sky. Naran (1982) is as immediate as a cave painting, with stalactites of velvety charcoal scrubbed into the canvas, contrasting orange swatches that flicker like flames. Greenberg Van Doren, 730 Fifth Ave, 212-445-0444. Through March 29.

Dennis Kardon

Kardon takes pictures of his unfinished paintings and then reworks the elements on his com-puter, a form of digital sketching/composing that gives his figurative/sureal oil on-linen works a vivacious kick. In 2008's What Is There?, something mammalian (a severed lamb's head?) is displayed under glass atop a tapered cake pedestal. In the bacground, a figure-eight-shaped vase is encrusted with pink . . . icing? No matter—like all the works here, the image offers a gluttonous mix of intense color and scrumptious texture that coalesces into a banquet for the eyes, though not necessarily for the stomach. Mitchell Algus, 511 W 25th, 212-242-6242. Through March 15.

'Under Pain of Death'

The works in this group show on the theme of the death penalty range from moving to upsetting to darkly funny to repugnant. By the front door, quotes from the Bible are used to stir up contradictory passions. Printed in red block letters is wisdom from both Exodus (" . . . You are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth . . . ") and Matthew ("If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also"). Whatever. In a similar vein, Nick Oberthaler has wrapped a crucifix in one of those "Kill 'em all. Let God sort 'em out" banners. If, like me, you thought this hearty motto came to us courtesy of the U.S. Marines, you'll learn here that they appropriated it from a 13th-century papal legate giving battlefield advice to a commander having trouble distinguishing the Christians from the heretics. In his intense "Wonder Gaze" series, Ken Gonzales-Day has gathered postcards of lynchings that took place in California and removed the bodies and nooses, leaving only gawking crowds and executioners. Lucinda Devlin's deadpan color photos of execution chambers go further, featuring just the technology of death: electric chairs, gurneys, and the heavy steel doors of gas chambers. In the most poignant shot, rows of stackable plastic patio chairs face a curtained window, awaiting witnesses on execution day. Elsewhere, Manfred Erjautz proves you can build anything, even a full-size electric chair, from Legos. There's much thought-provoking work here, but Artur Zmijewski's film of naked people playing tag in two underground rooms—one a former Nazi gas chamber, the other a private basement—does nothing to fathom the cruelty of genocide and much to belittle the horror the victims must have felt as realization dawned on them. Austrian Cultural Forum, 11 E 52nd, 212-319-5300. Through May 10.

 
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