One horrific war had just ended, pitched sectarian street battles were practically an everyday occurrence, but despite it all, denizens of the Weimar Republic partied hard, and a cadre of great artists, some of whom had suffered in the trenches of World War I, documented the scene. In a harsh self-portrait, a stern, helmeted Otto Dix hefts a machine gun. He was equally unsparing with his sitters, portraying one prostitute with saggy breasts, her prominent buckteeth visible behind her electric-blue veil. George Grosz’s hatred of The Pimps of Death (as he labeled generals and industrialists in one of his scabrous drawings) comes through in every slash of ink; equally visceral is Max Beckmann’s self-portrait set in a nightclub of veering angles, in which another patron, sliced in half by a red wall, laughs maniacally. Christian Schad’s androgynous subjects have schadenfreude to burn: They gaze morosely, but the festive trappings suggest that they’re still having a better time than you are.
While bartending in Philadelphia, Stolfa began using her clients as photographic subjects. With bright-red tresses, cigarette, near-empty beer mug, spaghetti strap top, notebook binder, and faraway eyes, Kataryna Choniel (2006) could be one of a number of bar types: grad student? floozy? wronged woman? Another patron, in black fedora, coat, and cuffs, chin resting in a hand sporting a pinky ring, might be a bored hit man, though his eyeglasses say “accountant.” Stolfa’s portraits fascinate; the dark intimacy of the neighborhood tavern conceals many secrets.
Silverstein, 535 W 24th, 212-627-3930. Through Jan 6.
Arrayed in vitrines, hunks of 40million-year-old amber and 17th-century figurines carved from the same honey-colored substance provide a fitting backdrop for this German artist’s resin paintings, which hang on the gallery’s purple walls. Layers of translucent splatters on diaphanous polyester fiber cast shadows; drips and swirls of pigment are trapped like prehistoric insects. An artist whose imagery segues effortlessly between figuration and abstraction, Polke’s appeal is as mysterious and abiding as this primordial substance.
Michael Werner, 4 E 77th, 212-988-1623. Through Jan 13.
A homemade magic lantern throws swooping silhouettes of fighter jets across the walls and ceilings of this darkened gallery, while snippets of presidential speeches (Reagan delivering a classic better-dead-than-red bromide) and pop songs (Whitney’s soaring “I-I-I will always love you!”) provide the soundtrack for Fischer’s installation Rhetoric Machine. Gears whirring, a straggly plaster eagle slowly flaps its skeletal wings amid clunky tape recorders, TVs, tanks, and other objects cobbled together from cardboard and plywood while the lightbulb eyes of a bulky robot flash. It’s the bully pulpit as sardonic funhouse. Oliver Kamm/5BE, 621 W 27th, 212-255-0979.
Through Jan 6.
‘Defamation of Character’
One room of this sprawling group show features Gilbert and George’s huge photo enlargement of turds and Sarah Lucas’s decrepit toilet with “Is Suicide Genetic?” scrawled across the bowl. Bruce Nauman’s video of a faux-chivalrous practical joke that escalates into a double stabbing continues the tone of misanthropy and disgust that—as in Paul McCarthy’s glacially paced Sailor’s Meat video, rife with all manner of gooey orifices and flabby protuberances—often proves morbidly riveting. Good thing Giuliani isn’t still mayor. P.S. 1, 22-25 Jackson Ave, Queens, 718-784-2084. Through Jan 8.
These two panel paintings from 1280 A.D. are each smaller than a standard sheet of paper and, although the buildings and furniture are somewhat skewed, they have a naturalism achieved through receding-perspective diagonals and curving, shaded contours. In these visions of Christ’s flagellation and the virgin and child on a throne, you can feel this early-Renaissance painter’s rediscovery of the light and liveliness that had once imbued ancient Greco-Roman art, but was lost during the initial dark age of Christianity. The Frick Collection, 1 E 70th, 212-288-0700. Through Dec 31.
Dony Permedi’s astonishing three-minute animation (abetted by Tim Cassell’s succinct musical score) features a flightless, round little bird who pulls off a Wile E. Coyote–like physical feat: He nails hundreds of trees perpendicularly to a towering cliff face and then leaps from the summit to soar past his ersatz forest and experience, for a few glorious moments, the exhilarating bliss of flight. Merciful clouds obscure the ending, but sensations of joy and tragedy, determination and surrender reverberate long after the screen goes blank. youtube.com