Best in Show: Harun Farocki at MoMA

Plus: Frans Hals at the Met; Romare Bearden at the Schomburg Center

Born in 1944 in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, video artist Harun Farocki has a European's appreciation for the conundrums of history. On the left side of his two-channel video Watson Is Down (2010), naturalistic avatars of U.S. military trainees haul ass across a desert in armored vehicles. On the right-hand screen, a real-life training officer clicks on hazards—explosives concealed inside "Dead Dog" or "Coke Can"—before the camera cuts to the actual recruits sitting at laptops as their pixilated vehicles are attacked by insurgents. The young men are chatting, sometimes grinning, until the American machine-gunner on the screen is shot dead. The trainee playing that role looks stupefied, and his companions sag dejectedly as they absorb this possible foreshadowing of their deployment.

A caption in another recent work notes that there are no shadows in videos designed to help combat vets recall events connected with PTSD because "the system for remembering is a little cheaper than the one for training."

Farocki's 44-minute video collage of ads culled from decades of German TV, A Day in the Life of the End Users (1993), wittily strings together smiling tots, well-turned gams, and freshly shaved faces meant to grease viewer fantasies and send them panting after everything from breakfast jams to luxury cars. Consumer daydreams shift to bracingly authentic emotion in the 106-minute Videograms of a Revolution (1992), a gripping assemblage of news broadcasts and guerrilla footage capturing a roller-coaster ride of government treachery, televised resistance, and righteous triumph during the 1989 Romanian revolution. Watching scenes confirming the Christmas Day execution of the tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, the exhausted revolutionaries cheer halfheartedly, already refocusing their energy on rebuilding their tortured country.

Ceausescu gets a bad Christmas gift: Farocki's Videograms of a Revolution (1992)
© 2011 Harun Farocki; courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, N.Y.
Ceausescu gets a bad Christmas gift: Farocki's Videograms of a Revolution (1992)

Details

Harun Farocki: 'Images of War (at a Distance)'
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
212-708-9400, moma.org
Through October 17, 2011, and January 2, 2012

Frans Hals

This breezy and informative survey explicates how Hals's slashing brushstrokes depicting tavern wenches and merrymakers influenced the modernist immediacy of Manet, Whistler, and Sargent. But a more restrained portrait of a bearded man in a frilly white collar shows Hals (1582/3–1666) summoning pathos equal to that of that younger Dutch hotshot, Rembrandt. Hals's career was unequal to the gravitas of Rembrandt's or the luminescence of Vermeer's, yet his work still resonates in a jaunty scene of a smoker, which is accompanied by a wall label sure to please Mayor Bloomberg: "In Hals's day smoking was compared to drinking and whoring, except that smoking was also considered bad for your health." Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, metmuseum.org, 212-535-7710. Through October 10.

Romare Bearden: 'The Soul of Blackness'

Collage had been around for decades when Romare Bearden (1911–88) took it up in 1950, soon to become America's greatest practitioner of the medium. His first attempt, on display in this concise exhibition of collages, paintings, and prints, recalls the paper cutouts of Matisse's "Jazz" series, through its flat, colorful shapes of growling tigers and a whip-wielding animal trainer. Later works, such as Black Manhattan (1969), reveal Bearden the master: Fire escapes plunge in forced perspective, the gray grid interrupted by an orange garment hung out to dry; heads and hands of women gazing from windows shift in proportion, like African sculpture; an angled cut across the bottom of a group of stoop-sitting men conveys the cramped geometries of urban living.

Bearden had a keen design flair: In both his first collage and the more sophisticated mature work, he includes a motif of flat circle cut by a bar of contrasting color, abstract highlights that syncopate the picture like cymbal crashes in a jazz composition. Images of jamming musicians or a skeleton costume juxtaposed against the brown belly of a topless dancer pulsate with joy, but there are always stark fractures in the compositions—echoes, perhaps, of lives ravaged by the Middle Passage, uprooted by the Great Migration, or constrained by prejudice. As Bearden once told a close friend, "I am a black man who is an artist. . . . My blackness and life experience are full, rich, and satisfying. Yes, there are times when it's sad. But that's true for all of us." Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X Blvd., schomburgcenter.org, 212-491-2200. Through January 7.

 
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