In 1965, Nam June Paik used an early video system, Sony’s Portapak, to record a papal procession on Fifth Avenue—perhaps an odd subject for a visionary artist road-testing a new medium, but popes have been grist for generations of painters and sculptors, even if, by the 20th century, the balance had tipped decidedly in favor of spectacle over spirit. One Paik piece in this fascinating group media-art show encloses a small TV set inside an antique radio cabinet, a fusion of technology, historical insight, and sculptural form. Elsewhere, photos on the wall and a crammed vitrine feature George Maciunas’s absolutely fab graphics and typography for a 1967 issue of Film Culture, which showcased Warhol’s stable of “Superstars.” A nearby triptych of video monitors offers a dazzling (and, at times, dizzying) anthology of experimental films. To the left is a loop of five works from the 1920s, including Luis Buñuel’s surrealist shocker Un Chien Andalou (that sliced eyeball is still wince-inducing) and Fernand Léger’s kinetic Ballet Mécanique—the French painter juxtaposed pumping pistons and a woman’s smiling lips with pulsating circles and triangles, the images flowing like a Futurist river. To the far right is a collage film by Maciunas of strobing dot screens, flashing lines, and blindingly fast cuts of undergarment and shoe ads; in between rests an island of gray stasis, Andy Warhol’s eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building. These silent black-and-white moving pictures have more punch than much of today’s digital torrent. Jonas Mekas’s 2008 Fluxus & Warhol employs nine screens interlacing colorful cuts from his earlier films documenting various happenings—Yoko and John sit on the floor during a “Dumpling Party” at the Wooster Street Fluxhouse—with clips of the pop maestro and title cards, including ” ‘But it’s so easy to make movies, you can just shoot and every picture comes out right.’—Andy.” Thus spake the patron saint of YouTube.
Painting and Its Discontents
Those who believe that painting is dead (again) may skip down to the last two entries. Everyone else can bow before the self-proclaimed “most arrogant man in France,” Gustave Courbet (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave, 212-535-7710. Through May 18). With the ego (and id) of a Picasso and the PR savvy of a Warhol, Courbet (1819–1877) startled the public by giving to scenes of everyday life the gravity and scale that painting—one of the original blockbuster mediums—had previously accorded only to gods, kings, and generals. Additionally, he painted acres of full-frontal pulchritude—one foreshortened nude undulates like a sated anaconda, and his famous beaver shot, The Origin of the World, has been lent by France. But it’s the more prosaic scenes that astonish modern eyes. The Wave (1869) reduces ocean and sky to horizontal bars as abstract (and as spiritually compelling) as a Rothko. The atomized colors in a snowy scene of poachers are stabbed onto the canvas with a precise abandon that presages De Kooning, never mind Monet. This is painting that broke through the boundaries of its time, and it reverberates still. Take, for instance, Brian Rutenberg‘s largish abstractions at Forum Gallery (745 Fifth Ave, 212-355-4545. Through April 19): These canvases may at first recall corporate-lobby paintings, but Rutenberg goes hammer and tongs at the medium, busting up colorful Hofmannesque slabs with cascading grids. There’s a ballast of dark rhombuses anchoring a number of these works, leavened by a descending, misty light, and while some of the chromatic collisions grate, others (such as a plummy black chunk against spring-green tendrils in 2008’s Calabash 2) bring a blunt lyricism to the fore. David Shevlino (DFN, 210 Eleventh Ave, 212-334-3400. Through April 5) follows a different route in his dynamic street scenes built from swift delineations of traffic signs, taillights, and guardrails. Fat brushstrokes trace long recessionals and stark diagonals—a rooftop sunbather forms a bright pink wedge that contrasts with the gray plunge to a muted yellow taxi at street level. The resulting drips and smears convey both New York as impatient metropolis and the canvas as an arena for breakneck, yet graceful, decisions.
Guys and Dolls
Here, the male gaze is turned in on itself. Noted curator and photography critic (and former Voicer) Vince Aletti‘s perspicacious collection of photos, ephemera, and oddities offers a cornucopia of comely studs. Of particular delight is a record sleeve for The Fabulous Fabian, his immaculate pompadour and dimpled chin beckoning the bobby-soxer in us all. Among the 100-plus images is Aaron Siskind’s riveting shot of an acrobat, his arched back, arms, and feet creating a sinuous sphere. For those in thrall to the female form, a small side exhibit of 1979 nude self-portraits by Janice Guy offers the sexiest show in town. In one set, the artist hangs her head upside-down from an easy chair, her legs splayed up its back. Though not particularly revealing, her writhing postures from one image to the next prove both fierce and vulnerable. White Columns, 320 W 13th, 212-924-4212. Through March 30.
A long, rusty steel pipe has been twisted into a rough heart shape and adorned with melting candles; the sinuous but sharp bends resemble a conté crayon sketch, albeit one reaching 17 feet into the air. Similarly, a huge array of fluorescent lights have been mounted across one wall, but their metal housings block their radiance at stark angles, transforming the broad expanse into a Constructivist charcoal drawing of bright strokes and geometric shadows. Handforth combines an engineer’s brusqueness with loose-limbed grace in these playfully poignant sculptures. Gavin Brown, 620 Greenwich St, 212-627-5258. Through March 29.