The Abstract Desert


For pure aesthetic pleasure, it’d be tough to top the 40 paintings and drawings that California artist Richard Diebenkorn (1922–1993) completed during a stint in New Mexico from 1950 to 1952. Already a skilled figurative artist, Diebenkorn was struggling to find a personal form of abstraction. In the late ’40s, he taught at the California School of Fine Arts, and one student remembers how the artist critiqued a drawing: “He was talking not about the form, but about the . . . line itself. I [then] realized there could be life in a line. It was one of the most profound things I ever learned.” The pupil went on to say, “All of this was done without words, just with agony and . . . croaks.” Soon after, Diebenkorn and his family settled into a caretaker’s cottage on an Albuquerque ranch, and the surrounding desert and livestock began to appear in his work as broad patches of warm color and lithe black squiggles. These pieces exude a hardscrabble light very different from the refined Matissean grandeur of Diebenkorn’s later, more famous Ocean Park abstractions of the shoreline near Santa Monica. In the New Mexico work, you get hints of the gritty orange planes of mesas and the stark shadows of deep arroyos. Spattery ink drawings compare well to what Philip Guston was exploring in New York; they also contain a vigor and humor that feels equal parts Miró and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip. (Diebenkorn loved the nimble background and color shifts that defined Coconino County’s surreal desert; he also once made quirky woodblock labels for his own home-brewed beer.) Though colorful 14-inch-high gouaches from his sketchbook use dynamic swatches of black to beat back a sense of actual landscape in favor of lively abstraction, those same contrasts convey a high and hard sun, while a smear of gray could be a distant rain squall. Diebenkorn was content to serve two masters, since they in turn served his purpose of achieving a distillation, rather than a depiction, of the world he observed.

‘Random Utterness’

George Peck’s videos of boxers and “wrestlers” (actually, two embracing nude women) projected onto bunched nylon scrims are gracefully fractured; ditto for Tamás Vészi’s large mixed-media drawings, which colorfully flutter between organic form and meandering abstraction. Also included in this group show are six photographs by former Voice stalwart Sylvia Plachy. The shots are different sizes, with different subjects, yet the arc of a fork next to some half-eaten meat in one image segues to the curve of steers’ horns in another. Then there’s the stance of a regal drag queen (or prostitute? or both?) posing before a shuttered Times Square storefront, the iron striations resonating with the hatch-mark reeds in a photo of a Rwandan river and with the spiral ribs in a plunging view of the Guggenheim’s ramp. These five pictures surround the deadpan shot of a truck’s rear end, hand-scrawled with directional arrows and the blind-spot warning “LIVE–THINK–DIE.” I’ve sat through movies with less drama and fewer thrills. Hungarian Cultural Center, 447 Broadway, 212-750-4450. Through March 8.

Karla Wozniak

Wozniak transforms the blanched banality of suburban sprawl into beautifully bedraggled vistas. The electrical tower in 2007’s Fireworks, I80, IN, has first been swiped with a rusty stroke of watercolor, then the paper has been rubbed raw, implying Midwestern heat, dust, and ennui. Her deft touch with materials is also evident in the oil painting WACK, Los Angeles, CA, where thin sweeps of orange that mimic L.A.’s petrochemical haze drip onto a diamond-shaped schmear of yellow surrounding a black stick-figure pedestrian. Denise Bibro, 529 W 20th, 212-647-7030. Through March 1.

Marc Riboud

Being a Magnum photographer puts a lot of stamps on your passport. Riboud (b. 1923) found dynamic compositions amid the blithe machismo of Havana (an ICBM painted on a wall seems to sprout from a passerby’s crotch) and within the haunting clouds engulfing a Chinese mountain. An untethered worker painting the Eiffel Tower in 1953 displays the insouciant agility of a Harold Lloyd slapstick, while hardhats constructing the new Times building in 2007 (yes, Riboud is still active) belly clumsily along scaffolding struts, safety harnesses trailing behind them. Whether capturing Churchill sitting heavy as a Buddha betwixt applauding dignitaries, veiled Iranian women under a Khomeini poster’s Big Brother gaze, or John Dean standing rigid at the Water-gate hearings, Riboud rarely failed to frame the dramatic essentials. Howard Greenberg, 41 E 57th, 212-334-0010. Through March 8.

Ana Mendieta and Hans Breder

As an instructor at the University of Iowa, Breder (b. 1935) took beautiful, strange photos of his student and lover Mendieta (1948–1985). Her nude lower body is reflected in mirrors that crop her torso and head; the multiplied limbs, whether jutting from streams, lolling on sand, or curving on rocks, are sensuous, cubistic mirages. Mendieta’s own ’70s photographs of her body’s contours—cavities dug in the earth or outlined with fungus or scraped into wood—achieve a more corporeal resonance with nature’s handiwork. Compare Breder’s 1971 video Moon Bright Sonata—Mendieta, kneeling in shallow water, lightly kisses the back of another nude woman, who, excruciatingly slowly, rolls against her—with Mendieta’s 1972 Chicken Piece, in which a freshly decapitated fowl convulses and spatters blood over the artist’s naked body, thrashing wings whipping wisps of hair around her head. Breder gazes at the ethereal grace of the female form; Mendieta viscerally brings it down to Mother Earth. Galerie Lelong, 528 W 26th, 212-315-0470. Through March 1.