Edward Kienholz's Roxys; The Studio Museum's 'Collected'; Richard Diebenkorn at Greenberg Van Doren

The chaste and charming whorehouse, run by a wise madam who mothers a coterie of fun-lovin' gals, is pure Hollywood nonsense. But the myth's persistence has kept Edward Kienholz's bitingly satiric diorama Roxys as trenchant today as it was 48 years ago, when it brought controversy to L.A.'s Ferus Gallery. Like so much of Kienholz's work, the room-size installation (re-created at David Zwirner almost entirely from the original material) combines truth-telling and nightmare.

In a space meticulously designed as a brothel's dim parlor of 1943 (with vintage furniture, bric-a-brac, and cooing jukebox), seven hideous female figures—assembled from mannequins and flea-market junk—present lives of abuse and quiet despair. There's Cockeyed Jenny, the old-timer who often gives boys their first taste of sex; her torso includes a trash can with a lid that reads "Love." Five Dollar Billy, only a teenager, lies draped over a sewing-machine table, dreaming of domestic bliss, but bearing on her wooden frame the carved names of clients. A 1920s letter-dispensing machine forms the pelvis of The Lady Named Zoa; slip a coin into the slot to see her unborn children, whose tiny heads hide inside a dark, central box. In the back, Ben Brown, the black kid who supplies towels, wards off any advances with a chastity belt and nails protruding from his ass.

A self-taught sculptor who learned his building skills on a farm, Kienholz essentially invented installation art, mostly because its dramatic potential best suited his interests in portraying society's degradations. His blunt honesty, laced with acerbic metaphor, never leaves you unmoved.

Don't look for Jelly Roll Morton playing in the parlor: Roxys
Cathy Carver/Courtesy David Zwirner, New York
Don't look for Jelly Roll Morton playing in the parlor: Roxys

'Collected: Reflections on the Permanent Collection'

The staid title may elicit a shrug, but this exhibit of work by more than 60 artists, renowned and emerging, offers another lively look at the Studio Museum's eclectic acquisitions. Start off with the wit of Ellen Gallagher, who in DeLuxe has lampooned old beauty products aimed at African-Americans by altering the products' magazine ads with printed and sculptural additions. Across the room, there's a superb Romare Bearden collage, a formal portrait of a dignified farmer, and nearby, almost as its opposite, a typical John Bankston watercolor fantasy that deposits an open-shirted Lothario in a children's story.

The tone takes other wild swings. Louise Nevelson's somber structure Homage to Martin Luther King stands near Leonardo Drew's Nevelson-inspired Number 74, a magnificent grid of wooden slots—filled with pastel-colored blocks and draped with stuffed animals—that seems to hold childhood memories. Downstairs, for a little humor, you'll find a videotaped struggle between performance artists, as Patty Chang tries to gouge out Clifford Owens's eyes. The summer promises the usual series of group-show grab bags in the galleries, but this collection's engaging mix will be hard to beat. Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th, 212-864-4500. Through June 27

Richard Diebenkorn: 'Paintings and Works on Paper, 1949–1955'

The black line—sinuous, jagged, erratic—coursed its way across a lot of abstract painting in the 1950s. A holdover, perhaps, from the outlines prevalent in German expressionism, the bold stroke became a defining element in de Kooning, Kline, Motherwell, Carone, and many others with Ab-Ex inclinations.

But you may be surprised to find that same gesture dominating the early efforts of Richard Diebenkorn, best known for the meditative planes of color in his Ocean Park series from the late 1960s. A topographic draftsman for the Marine Corps in World War II, the artist was having a little fun in the works on paper here: ink, oil stick, and gouache scoot over thin white paper in tangled pathways, making jittery, imprecise maps. Delightful for their introspection, the drawings bring to mind Henri Michaux's drug-fueled, calligraphic automatism and Philip Guston's late-career explorations of "raw feeling."

The aerial view of landscape—suggested or explicitly represented in Diebenkorn's later work—emerges in the paintings of the same period. The networks remain, but they're simpler, falling into the background to become perimeters for fields of washed-out, overpainted color; it's as if Google added terrain to a display of country roads. The gorgeous semi-abstraction subtitled Berkeley—a flood of streaky bright yellow flows around blue ponds and narrow patches of red and black—demonstrates how the artist, even at a young age, masterfully balanced compositions to capture quiet, thoughtful moods. Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, 730 Fifth Ave, 212-445-0444. Through June 25

 
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