This big, brightly didactic survey of painting movements since roughly 1965 feels a bit like the Astor Place Kmart—blocky white spaces filled with disparate goods of mixed quality. Culled from MOMA’s collection, the paintings are generally hung in groups of four so that affinities or clashes between artists and styles come at you from all points of the compass. Some artists, such as ’60s oddball Lee Lozano, shine amid this hurly-burly. In her diptych of a huge claw hammer, the tines bend back over the wooden handle, seemingly forced down by the canvas edge; grays, umbers, and olives predominate, but the claustrophobic composition is warmly animated, as if the contorted tool is caressing itself. Lozano’s piece forms a ménage with a Philip Pearlstein, featuring two elegantly juxtaposed nudes, and a Phillip Guston head, flayed and stitched like a cartoon medicine ball—canvases as lush as the flesh they represent.
Elsewhere, Francis Bacon’s final triptych is not his most scintillating work (especially when compared to his masterful 1946 Painting, with its slabs of meat and bureaucrat’s rictus under a black umbrella, which hangs a few floors below). However, the desiccated surface speaks to Bacon’s own body at the time—82 and a year shy of death. The artist’s parched but expressive brushstrokes and the black squares his figures step out of are testament to a lifetime of designing space in two dimensions. Other works in this room—debris clouds by Luc Tuymans and a prone female head by Marlene Dumas—feel thin and callow by comparison. Perhaps when these artists reach the far end of life and their arms and torsos are imbued with the muscle memory of untold swipes of the brush, their paintings will feel as lived-in as Bacon’s. “What is painting?”, though, is a thorny question. Take the nasty phrase “Cats in bag/bags in river,” which Christopher Wool adapted from the noir film Sweet Smell of Success. Somehow, the sinister associations are made absurdly beautiful by the stark form of black, billboard-size letters stenciled onto a sheer white ground (where passages of black overspray add tactile bravado). Can mere words pack a visual punch? These certainly do. And John Baldessari’s own text painting could be an epitaph for this column or any other critique, reading in part: “Art is a creation for the eye and can only be hinted at with words.” Amen, brother.
‘Agitation and Repose’
A man sits at an easel in a bucolic setting, his brush poised an inch from a blank canvas. A box sitting on the grass nearby begins to hiss and smoke. After a few moments, the box explodes like a large firecracker. The man gets up from his chair and the camera zooms in on his one startled black stroke. The idea of anxious waiting is portrayed in this and other videos by Roman Signer, including one of a model helicopter lifting off from a floating platform moments before it tumbles down a waterfall. Rainer Ganahl meets anxiety head-on by filming his own against-traffic bike ride through Bucharest—oh, and he doesn’t use his hands to steer; they’re holding his less-than-steady camera. Diana Al-Hadid’s sculpture, inspired by the cosmic sounds of black holes, is constructed of a spiral staircase leading up to a shattered dome surrounded by charred, flimsy flying buttresses and organ pipes. The ruined shapes recall Europe’s bombed cities of last century, and, like other works in this engaging group show, achieve a frazzled beauty. Tanya Bonakdar, 521 W 21st, 212-414-4144. Through August 17.
Although Liebling’s ’50s photos of Midwestern grain elevators and Brooklyn laundry lines can feel like a rehash of WPA-era realism, his late ’70s shots of sweaty, middle-aged handball players, their bulky guts swaying, have a unique flair: Lit by dramatic wedges of Miami Beach sunlight, these swaggering competitors have been carved into swinging gladiators. A different contest is captured when George McGovern’s wife nods off as her husband makes a 1972 speech; in a contrasting image, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s spouse sits behind him during the same presidential campaign, displaying shapely legs, high heels, and a taut smile. Nearby, the spindly legs of a cow in a slaughterhouse are juxtaposed with the thick struts of a worktable. The blood in this beautifully composed, if doleful, silver print is splattered with abstract expressionist abandon. Howard Greenberg, 41 E 57th, 212-334-0010. Through August 17.
Like a tic-tac-toe board of birth, bounty, rot, and death, Manfred Willmann’s grid of 27 large photographs features a blue pail filled with succulent cherries, a father hefting a toddler, and a pig’s head, pale as a grub, jutting from a bucket of sanguine murk. These scenes are compositionally bound together by images of graceful arcs and ovoids (beaded wires, soup bowls, wilting flower stems), and such juxtapositions as a sepulchral white crucifix and a platinum-blond Barbie, giving this photographic crazy quilt the expressive resonance of a large painting. Work by this show’s 21 photographers includes Lois Hechenblaikner’s large C-prints of a column of snowcats racing over an Alpine glacier in a “festival of gasoline, kerosene, and diesel,” and Erwin Wurm’s shot of a man in a fancy restaurant thrusting his head down the front of an unperturbed woman’s sweater, part of the artist’s series “Instructions on How to Be Politically Incorrect.” Hubert Blanz creates an industrial landscape at the nano scale: His camera pans like a swooping helicopter over rows of circuit boards, the various capacitors, memory chips, and processors standing in for cooling towers, fuel tanks, barracks, factories, and other trimmings of mechanized dystopia. Blanz has seen the future, and it isn’t Neuromancer, or even Tron. It’s still Bayonne. Austrian Cultural Forum, 11 East 52nd Street, 212-319-5300. Through August 25.