Just how moving were those first “moving pictures”? By 1895, when movies made their commercial debut, the public had pretty much accepted photography’s claims of factual truth as compared with painting and drawing (even if there were those who had long questioned the camera’s veracity—decades earlier, Matthew Brady’s assistants had rearranged corpses to give his shots of Civil War battlefields more pathos). But motion pictures promised something that no painting, lithograph, sculpture, or even the silvery grain of photographs could capture: movement. Everything from boxing matches to feeding a baby suddenly burst into life.
But only up to a point. From September 13 through December 9, NYU’s Grey Art Gallery (100 Washington Square East, 212-998-6780) will present “Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1880–1910,” which compares some of the earliest American films to other forms of visual art. A 49-foot, 42-second reel, made by the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company in 1904, records a woman hanging laundry during “A Windy Day on the Roof.” Yet the backdrop looks as phony as a vaudeville cityscape and is devoid of the sun-washed colors of John Sloan’s Ashcan School painting of the same subject, also on display, in which the young lass’s yellow-tinged frock and pink bare feet are set against the brown bricks and blue shadows of her tenement block. Unlike the more mature arts, which had over centuries learned to finesse the unsightly warts of the human condition, early films have a rough-hewn, industrial coarseness, the result of a dumb and arbitrary chemical reaction between light and film emulsion. This exhibit asks a question that has dogged aesthetes since the first daguerreotype: Which is the more faithful rendering of a male nude—John Singer Sargent’s closely observed, beautifully modeled charcoal studies of torqueing torsos and curling biceps or the Edison Manufacturing Company’s harshly lit 1894 movie of a flexing strongman? Then, as now, it’s your call.
A different take on mass media is the New York Public Library’s “Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan” (October 20 through February 4, 2007; Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street; 212-869-8089), which will trace 1,200 years’ worth of Japanese picture books, including individually painted manuscripts, calligraphic verses, Buddhist sutras, and books of modern photography, along with related drawings and woodblock prints. Kitagawa Utamaro’s spectacular vision Gifts of the Ebb Tide (circa 1789) depicts sea creatures congregating on a rock, some with rose-colored spiral shells, others circular, flat, and flexible, hugging the rough contours as tightly as skull caps; vertical lines of poetic calligraphy hang above this tidal scene like celestial kelp.
And on September 15, after boffo, multi-museum engagements in Los Angeles and Milwaukee, “Masters of American Comics” rumbles back to the historic home of the comics industry: Gotham. And Jersey too—the 600 pieces representing 14 groundbreaking cartoonists will be split between the pre-1950s period at the Newark Museum (49 Washington Street, Newark, New Jersey, 973-596-6550) and the post-’50s at the Jewish Museum (Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street, 212-423-3200). Although smaller than the West Coast version, and arriving amid brickbats aimed at the complete absence of female practitioners (a fact somewhat ameliorated by the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art’s “She Draws Comics” exhibit, which continues through November 6), it’s still great to have cartoons back where they were born amid the newspaper wars of a century ago, when the Sunday funnies proved a huge circulation draw. The art of Winsor McCay, Frank King, and George Herriman, all working in the first few decades of the 20th century, was as far-out as anything cooked up by those sophisticates back in the Old World. In fact, McCay’s 1908 Little Nemo strolling through upside-down palaces and monstrous walking beds beats the European Surrealists (and ’60s American master R. Crumb’s acid-tinged underground fantasias) to the punch by decades. Both King’s Gasoline Alley and Herriman’s Krazy Kat used the brashness of early mechanical reproduction to artistic advantage: Colors, textures, backgrounds, and props change whimsically.
And for those skeptics who think Chris Ware composes his immaculately designed, maniacally detailed strips on a Cray supercomputer, the boards on display argue otherwise: with their blue-pencil roughs, passages of white gouache, and smoothly precise inking, they offer convincing proof that drawing with the hand, that most ancient of art forms, has lost not one jot of its power.
Lola Alvarez Bravo
Sept 8–Nov 2
A spiky tongue juts from serrated lips in this pioneering Mexican photographer’s 1948 shot of a desert plant, Sexo Vegetal (Vegetal Sex), the petals of which resemble scary reproductive organs. Bravo (1903–93) was friend and colleague of such artistic heavyweights as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. In one of her portraits of the imposing Mexican muralist, he is manhandling a large tree branch; in her pictures of Kahlo there is something off-kilter in the posture, a hint of the pain and determination conveyed in the painter’s many self-portraits. Aperture Foundation, 547 W 27th, 212-505-5555
Sept 9–Oct 8
Always home to fascinating sculpture, this gallery offers summer residencies to visiting artists. The Germany-born Scheipner spent August preparing a multimedia installation featuring oddball, motorized creatures constructed from small disks of plywood, glue, and stubs of graphite. Like hybrids of marine mines and hedgehogs, these kinetic orbs, set off by sounds in the artist’s video projections, scuttle about mindlessly, drawing on sheets of paper. If the theory claiming that enough monkeys pounding away on enough keyboards will eventually re-create the works of Shakespeare is in fact sound, perhaps the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel will reappear on Plane Space’s floor this month. If not, at least we’ll know just what sort of abstraction is born of mindless transformers driving stubby pencils across blank sheets of paper. We’ve probably seen worse. Plane Space, 102 Charles, 917-606-1268
Sept 12–Oct 28
Any chance to see the small, dusky works by this painter’s painter is cause for celebration. Born in 1890, Morandi made still lifes of cups, bowls, vases, and misshapen boxes that appear makeshift, almost lackadaisical, but the colors and shapes are perfectly, inwardly tuned; the shadow across a blue-and-white-striped cup strikes as many subtle changes as a John Cage composition. Just as scientists can’t see atoms but can infer their existence through their interactions with each other, Morandi captured ineffable changes in light not just on surfaces but in the very air surrounding his humble, contemplative subjects. Paul Thiebaud, 42 E 76th, 212-737-9759
Sept 30–Nov 4
During the past decade, Ono has made sculptures from plastic drinking straws (two-foot square-gridded cubes) and paper towels, construction paper, and tape (geodesic-type spheres roughly the size of beach balls). An untitled work from his upcoming show is approximately four feet high, and sits atop a squat pedestal of uneven arches; it looks as if flat noodles have been twisted around each other, coming to rest after forming an uneven, attenuated cage. Ono says his work is about the intersection of differing systems and disruptions that are “often violent and sudden in nature (hiccup, sneeze, orgasm, coronary failure), or occasionally slow and deliberate (tumor, virus).” This young sculptor’s work treads a contradictory path between the delicate and prosaic. Feature, 530 W 25th, 212-675-7772
Nov 3–Jan 28, 2007
Ford’s huge watercolors of wild beasts pull off a neat trick—he anthropomorphizes his subjects while retaining their animal otherness. In Der Panterausbruch (2001), a black panther strides through the snow pursued by torch-wielding, elk-horn-blowing villagers looking for all the world like extras from an old Frankenstein flick. The Gothic text spelling out the title and “1934” across this five-foot-wide painting furthers the strange, campy vibe. Yet the steamy breath coming from the big cat’s mouth and its swaying, powerful paws stop any burlesque metaphor in its tracks—this is no cuddly mascot but a natural-born hunter. This schism between the melodramatic settings and the naturalistic animals promises to make this retrospective even more surreal than an actual zoo. Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Pkwy, 718-638-5000