This comprehensive exhibit of drawings by Georges Seurat (1859–91) reveals an artist redefining painting amid the hurly-burly of early modernism. In the late 1870s—an age when scientists had recently broken down the physical world to its constituent parts through the periodic table, and photographers were touting the verisimilitude of their young medium—Seurat’s academic drawings were as lifeless as the antique sculptures he was using for models. But a few years later, while fulfilling his military service on the outskirts of Paris, he began filling sketchbooks (which visitors can peruse digitally) with vivacious studies of people and animals: Quick, searching contours define broad figures, while spare details are nailed by the curve of a nose or the shadow beneath a mustache. Seurat soon began working on rough-grained paper with black Conté crayons, and while his figures retain the volume derived from his traditional training, they also project a matter-of-fact, immediate presence: A stone breaker from 1881, the handle on his sledgehammer going from thick to thin as if on a downward stroke, stands amid squiggling lines that convey surrounding rubble; a nurse is viewed from behind, white hat and scarf against a dark, bell-shaped coat forming a prescient abstraction. The rich, oily black of the crayon caresses the paper’s ridges to evoke misty luminosity or settles like tar in the shadows, a melding of material and imagery that feels startlingly fresh. Despite his figures’ classical stillness, Seurat’s scrabbling hand reads like Belle Époque action painting.
These lush, atmospheric drawings convey our animal advantage of binocular vision (compared to the camera’s single eye), capturing how we process ever-shifting perceptions of depth and space. Three Dancers (1886) feels positively alive: Black slashes define a high-stepping leg on a bright stage while the dark, bulbous figure of a spectator tilts across the foreground, conveying both the physical space and the psychological distance between players and audience. The composition of 1883–84’s Sidewalk Show—broad diagonals, striped costumes, a triangular horse—imparts monumental verve to this 12-inch-high drawing. Perhaps even more than his grand canvases deploying the complex mechanics of pointillist color dots, it is Seurat’s gorgeous drawings that enhanced painting’s DNA, strengthening it for the tumultuous evolutions to come.
A deep crack meanders between large stone blocks, limning centuries of stress in an Egyptian wall; an unevenly plastered hallway in Cairo’s Hotel Maffet is abraded with age, rounded corners softened by chiaroscuro light that settles like dust; a round sink, its white edge worn and mottled, juts from a dark wall. A European who has maintained a studio in Egypt since the 1970s, Guillot visits a site (Paris hospital, Brooklyn subway station, Berlin cemetery) many times, patiently refining the compositions of his black-and-white photographs, his long exposures blurring the occasional figures into a world of transients. The spectral beauty here comes not from world-weariness, but from an acceptance (celebration, even) of life’s one constant: imperfection. Skoto, 529 W 20th, 212-352-8058. Through December 1.
Three shows only steps apart offer a capsule survey of current artists smartly building upon disparate antecedents. Miguel Â Rocha‘s cut-plywood sculpture bursts from a heavy, round base like novelty snakes from a can. Narrow and sinuous as jungle vines, the opposite faces are painted red while the layered, jigsawed edges are left untouched: Twisting shadows on the wall provide a third color for this engagingly tangled mass reminiscent of Eva Hesse’s gnarly ropes. (ATM, 619B W 27th, 212-375-0349. Through December 19.) A few steps west bring you to Billy Malone‘s ballpoint-pen drawings of sculptures cobbled together from four-by-four timbers, angle irons, taut bungee cords, and eye bolts, along with the occasional cow skull or Bud can. The maniacally rendered detail of these angular, vaguely anthropomorphic constructions channel surrealism by way of Home Depot. (Clementine, 623 W 27th, 212-243-5937. Through November 17.) Next door at John Connelly, things get louche with Scott Hug‘s silkscreens of celebs, which sport captions such as “Easily Scared” under Dylan or “Get Well Soon” for Lindsay Lohan. Larger canvases feature Post front pages with typical headlines—”Death Plunge,” “Misery”—screen-printed multiple times, the overlaps coalescing into black holes. A diptych featuring a black mirror and a print of Michael Jackson (recognizable from his collapsed profile) and a darkened room with smoke machine, lasers, throbbing music, and a video enlargement of a Macintosh’s annoying chromatic spinning wheel gilds a dissolute Pop lily. (625 W 27th, 212-337-9563. Through November 21.)
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living
It’s baa-aaack!-—the signature piece from that not-so-Y-anymore bad boy of last millennium’s Young British Artists posse. No one knows if Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde tanks filled with animals (or chunks thereof) will have the staying power of earlier British invasions, but they undoubtedly deliver a sensation. I didn’t contemplate oblivion when I last saw Physical Impossibility in 1999 at the Brooklyn Museum, but the gaping, razor-edged gob of that suspended 14-foot tiger shark certainly made me wince. (This is a “refurbished” shark, replacing the 1991 original.) Plus, more than the conceptual title separates this piece from a natural-history- museum diorama or Ripley’s tableau: Walk around the huge tank and observe how the riveted struts appear to sway, and how the tail seems to swish as it casts prismatic halos, a strange effect from the distortion of the formaldehyde solution and thick glass panes. Morbid but sleek, this is the perfect objet d’art to dress the set of a Bond villain—at 22 tons of glass, steel, chemicals, and carcass, you feel every ounce, subtle as the dirt on a grave. The Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, 212-535-7710. Ongoing.