Represented as a 19-inch-tall bronze, a well-fed Lenin, his face scrunched in consternation, stares at an emaciated Giacometti-style everyman—the workers’ savior confronting one of his miserable charges. Mikhail Gorbachev, sporting blue eyeliner and with his pudgy face on a gilded background, is a sorry sibling of Warhol’s iconic Marilyn. Formally wise and riddled with fatalistic humor, this show of more than 50 nonconformist artists from the Soviet Union spans the furtive underground networks of the early ’70s—when clandestine dissidents worked under threat of arrest and with little hope of their work being seen (the KGB once bulldozed an outdoor exhibition)—through ’90s perestroika, with the empire too busy collapsing to bother jailing artists. These rebels clearly loved the freedom of Western art, but it was their own sublime and stoic culture, which has outlasted despots of all stripes, that kept them working through the darkest days.
Ilya and Emilia Kabakov
Perhaps the greatest artist to emerge from the gray terror of the Soviet Union, the 72-year-old Kabakov (working in collaboration with his wife since 1989), presents an installation of paintings and drawings in which blunt, dark abstraction obscures soviet realist scenes of work and play. There is sly humor here, and faith that the human spirit will find its individual calling even amid crushing orthodoxies, whether of the state or canonical art history texts. Sean Kelly, 528 W 29th, 212-239-1181. Through May 27.
Thousands of 12-inch steel spikes stacked in triangular mounds form a six-foot circle aptly titled Helio; the shiny surfaces and sharp contours radiate a sun-like energy. More spikes are laid end to end in exacting rows to form a metal carpet (10 by 32 feet) across the front of the gallery. With a blend of brutish material, simple rules (each piece consumes one ton of spikes), and insightful composition, Bisbee has mined an elemental, harmonious beauty. Plane Space, 102 Charles, 917-606-1268. Through June 1.
Willem de Kooning
The abstract-expressionist master was in his early seventies when he made these large canvases (1975–78), which reveal a surfeit of virtuosity: wet-into-wet paint is thickly brushed, thrown, and splattered, colors melding together through broad, gathering strokes. His fleshy women are gone, replaced by the blues and grays of Long Island sky and ocean, sometimes obscured by squalls of dark drips. In other works, ribbons of Chinese red dance across a creamy surface, and black strokes segue into orange swaths, as if de Kooning had left all physical inspiration behind to create his own gorgeous version of nature. L & M Arts, 45 E 78th, 212-861-0020. Through June 3.
There’s a sinister edge to this German artist’s beautifully wrought paintings: Charred struts protruding from burnt, upended campers are as stiff and spindly as the legs of dead roaches; oil derricks, barely visible through furrows of inch-thick black paint, form menacing, praying-mantis-like hulks. Even stranger is a woodsy, ivy-clad, Thomas Kinkade–esque cottage sprouting a flying-saucer-sized satellite dish, as if the Painter of Light’s homey fantasia of innocence recaptured was about to be sundered by broadband porn and violence. Friedrich Petzel, 535 W 22nd, 212-680-9467. Through May 27.
This California-based painter (1919–98), influenced by the Native American crafts of his Oklahoma childhood, a World War II stint as an army mapmaker, and his studies of Eastern religions, created landscapes of the cosmos: Space features short, thin strokes of paint bursting from the dark center of a large disk; the thickets of vibrant hash marks in the Raga canvases look as tightly woven as Navajo blankets. The vertical ticks of pigment that conjure sea, ocean, and desert rain in California Landscape prove a perfect example of Mullican’s rare combination of dynamism and charm. NYU, Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Sq E, 212-998-6780. Through July 15.
Working in various media (video, sculpture, monoprints, computer graphics), Mullican has created a unique cosmology. Oil-stick rubbings of reliefs feature his personal lexicon of geometric symbols, international signage (those stout stick figures), and architectural views; a bulletin board festooned with yellowed newspaper clippings and photos of a cadaver, a weathered doll’s face, and overturned soil betray a more material grounding than that of his father, Lee Mullican (see above). Tracy Williams, 313 W 4th, 212-229-2757. Through June 21.
‘Negadon: The Monster From Mars’
Like the deadpan, dead-on starlets Cindy Sherman embodied in her “Film Stills” self-portraits, Negadon feasts on ready-made clichés. Completely computer-generated, Jun Awazu’s anime lovingly re-creates primitive filmmaking—lens flares, blurry focus, emulsion scratches, clunky miniature cities—as it traverses decades of Japanese monster movies. Dirty facial pores and cigarette smoke are astonishingly realized, while Bakelite rotary phones and snowy TV broadcasts of color bars provide a purposefully anachronistic patina. Opening with a mushroom cloud and closing with a children’s song, this obsessively crafted tale of hope amid apocalypse distills Japan’s postwar culture down to 26 densely packed minutes. Negadonattacks.com.