The genius of postwar American art was distilled into the blunt but accurate label “action painting”: Pollock dancing around his canvas; de Kooning’s searching, sweeping brushstrokes. Another niche in this pantheon goes to the craggy sculptor David Smith (1906–1965), whose stenciled canvases combine volume, space, movement, texture, color, and contour—all the visceral gestures your eye, gut, and spine respond to when communing with a great painting. (A similar boldness energizes the drippy red dots and hand stencils in France’s Chauvet cave; they still feel fresh 30,000 years after their pigments were blown from the artists’ mouths. Smith once noted that Paleolithic art “defies word explanation as does any art.”) An early adapter of aerosol enamel when it hit the market in the mid-’50s, Smith placed metal cut-offs from his sculptures and other studio scraps onto canvas or sheets of paper and then sprayed around them with intense color, leaving white shapes behind when the stencil material was lifted off the surface. Depending on the can’s angle and its distance from the object, Smith could make his contours soft or sharp, opaque or misty, implying space and creating volume. Sometimes these background colors are slightly misaligned, imperfections that emphasize the artist’s seemingly effortless balance of industrial methods and thrillingly emotional physicality; often the canvases are vertical, alluding to Smith’s soaring abstract sculptures. Overlapping in varying densities, these white negative shapes convey the technological charge of X-rays while remaining as mysterious as a convocation of spirits. At times, Smith reworked edges with a brush, adding rough, scraggly textures, but it’s his use of the ephemeral sfumato technique (Renaissance jargon for “turned to vapor”) that makes these ghosts sing. Look at numbers 16 and 17 in the show, two untitled canvases that convey monumental structures fronting vast, atmospheric vistas, although they’re each only 12 inches square. In this extensive body of work, the subjects are missing. What objects made these beautiful shapes? It’s like the Rapture—the godly disappear into the ether while those less pure are left behind amid a radiant, earthy absence. Where would you rather be?
A collage on wood paneling joins a fluorescent disco-fever poster to snapshots of a bald man’s pratfalls; a bright yellow/red spray painting is studded with glass eyes, a cross between defaced street poster and fetish object; an indoor swimming pool has been covered with a layer of plywood—crawl underneath and claustrophobia, red lights, Styrofoam crystals, and a gibbering soundtrack combine to deliver an approximation of pot paranoia. Other pieces include printed T-shirts (such as one of Nixon greeting Elvis) blotted with paint or decorated with battered snapshots. The vibe here is of beauty salvaged from the ’70s and repurposed for our even more dysfunctional 0-fers. Cueto Project, 551 W 21st, 212-229-2221. Through February 16.
On a tiny screen, a couple looks to be getting amorous, but as you approach, a motion sensor trips the video to static. Sneak to the side, out of the device’s range, and crane your neck to see that the pair in this filmed marriage manual are clad in sensible underwear. In a two-channel projection culled from a communist propaganda film, leaders exhort a grandstand of workers. The untranslated Chinese lilts choppily; the proletariat has been edited to clap in exacting, repetitious rhythm while beaming maniacally. Elsewhere, a video monitor documents the real-time decay of rose petals scattered on a nearby pedestal. Frustrated sex, regimented happiness, beauty’s inexorable decomposition—this Chinese artist’s work seems a wry rumination on an ancient culture that finds itself fractured by the present. Tilton, 8 E 76th, 212-737-2221. Through February 16.
‘NEW YORK: IN EVERY KIND OF LIGHT’
We New Yorkers live in an uncanny place: This show of 50 vintage photographs from 1911 to 1964 includes the usual overwhelming piles of masonry, but also a 1936 shot by Sophie Lauffer, taken from far out in the harbor, that presents lower Manhattan looking as puny as saw teeth against a seemingly endless, cloudy sky. Weegee’s dark Empire State Building, lit from below by streetlights and above by jagged lightning, seems to be lumbering out of a Frankenstein flick, while Jan Lukas’s Fulton Fish Market (1964) frames the Brooklyn Bridge behind a work lamp, transforming it into a movie backdrop. The rich tones of these prints may remind you of classic films, with Benn Mitchell’s blonde on a subway platform, sunlit through a street grate, seemingly trapped between genres—either noir victim-to-be or plucky out-of-towner with Broadway dreams. Keith de Lellis, 1045 Madison Ave, 212-327-1482. Through February 16.
Guy Ben-Ner: ‘Stealing Beauty’
Admit it: You’ve longed to make yourself comfy in one of Ikea’s fully furnished, idealized home displays. Guy Ben-Ner used the chain’s showrooms as ready-made sets for his 18-minute guerrilla video, in which, playing harried dad “Max,” he bickers with wife “Angel” and engages in philosophical chats with his daughter and young son about the concepts of property and ownership. (Yes, the parents’ names intentionally echo the godfathers of communism.) Price tags hang like stalactites from housewares and furniture, and other shoppers occasionally stroll into the frame. Ben-Ner, parading amid sinks, showers, and toilets in his bathrobe, got the troupe ejected from one Ikea, so they moved on to the next, the narrative breezing along with the new sets; jaunty Muzak recorded at yet another Ikea provides continuity during fade-outs. Just what the masses didn’t know they needed—a sitcom about shopping and squatting. Postmasters, 459 W 19th, 212-727-3323. Through February 16.