Best in Show: B. Wurtz at Metro Pictures

Ken Johnson's 'Are You Experienced?'; George Kroenert at Elizabeth Harris Gallery

What is beauty?

Does it emanate from Botticelli's 1486 painting of a lissome Venus enveloped in flowing blond locks? Or perhaps it resides within the grand piano that Joseph Beuys encased under a thick layer of gray felt in 1966, a gorgeous, if elegiac, evocation of thwarted potential and muted promise.

B. Wurtz's impossibly slight sculptures have wafted through this indefinable realm for decades. These constructions—maybe too robust a term for materials such as shoelaces and broccoli nets draped over bent coat hangers—oscillate between prosaic materiality and representation of natural forms. Bunch #2 (1995) offers a short pole sprouting thin metal rods festooned with plastic grocery bags—a tree fashioned with detritus often snagged by the branches of the real thing. And while I haven't laughed in a gallery since John Waters's last solo show skewering Hollywood pretensions, Wurtz's 1986 concoction of a barrel bolt, the male pin eternally separated from the female latch by a scrap of lumber, delivers a jolt of surrealist whimsy. Although he and Richard Tuttle share a Zen-like veneration for the world's neglected scraps, Wurtz moves beyond his elder's constraint with insightful playfulness. In Garden (1983), corrugated plastic lawn edging encircles green sprinkler valves atop orange wooden blocks in a Lilliputian circus ring.

Wurtz gets scrappy.
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures
Wurtz gets scrappy.

Details

B. Wurtz: Works 1970–2011
Metro Pictures
519 West 24th Street
212-206-7100, metropictures.com
Through August 5

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The suspension of a candy-striped hula hoop above a wooden dowel may not impart the immediate drama of Botticelli's pagan vision or Beuys's paean to our age of anxiety, but Wurtz's sleight-of-hand aesthetics unveil beauty hiding in plain sight.

'Are You Experienced?' Ken Johnson lets it all hang out in this copiously illustrated tome, subtitled How Psychedelic Consciousness Transformed Modern Art. Although Johnson, a New York Times art critic, generally doesn't know or care if a given artist has actually ingested psychotropic drugs, he speaks authoritatively of his own altered gallery-going experiences in the book's introduction: "All kinds of things look better and more interesting to the stoned observer." Of course—and thank you for the key to finally enjoying Agnes Martin's dour canvases of pencil grids!

Johnson dives into the surprisingly little-asked question of just how the drug culture of the 1960s influenced, and continues to influence, the visual arts. He quotes R. Crumb on his early experiments with LSD: "My mind would drift into these crackly grotesque cartoon images accompanied by off-key tinny music. It was in my brain. I had no control. NO control ... which was good for the art." Of course, Crumb was drawing underground comix of distorted figures enjoying contorted sex and splendiferous violence. Less obviously, Johnson detects a whiff of '60s perception in Christopher Williams's 2000 photo of a tipped-over 1964 Renault sedan, speculating that the dense technical data appended below the image harks back to the May 1968 uprising in France, symbolizing "the desire of the people to control their own destinies, to overthrow the apparatus that restricts and oppresses their lives."

Johnson also notes that artists of the past few decades have played with scale to a degree well beyond the perspectival shifts found in classical painting. In Charles Ray's realistic 1993 sculpture Family Romance—featuring naked mom, dad, sis, and brother, all with age-appropriate pubic hair or lack thereof—each figure is roughly four and a half feet tall. "One pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small," indeed.

Johnson's prose is straightforward, but his conclusion is summed up in a quote from culture critic Nick Bromell: "You may never have taken LSD, but America has." Prestel, 232 pp., $49.95

George Kroenert
As part of a sharp group show of four artists whose abstract structures are strung in midair or colonize the walls, George Kroenert has strapped thousands of multicolored cable ties around circular fluorescent lights to create luminous, if decidedly earthbound, constellations. The bristling strips of plastic warp the radiance of the round fixtures (familiar from tenement kitchens), while varying gauges of yellow and orange construction mesh crosshatch the walls, adding evocations of extraterrestrial radio static to Kroenert's charmingly utilitarian cosmos. Elizabeth Harris, 529 W 20th, elizabethharrisgallery.com, 212-463-9666. Through July 29

 
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