In 1962, erudite but commercially ailing Esquire magazine hired prominent adman George Lois to juice up its covers; the 31 gathered in MOMA’s concise show are an exhilarating time capsule of politics, graphic design, and journalistic daredevilry. Shortly before his 1970 My Lai Massacre trial, a nervous Lieutenant William Calley sat for a cover shoot. Lois soothed the suspicious defendant by claiming: “The picture will say, ‘Here I am with these kids you’re accusing me of killing. Whether you believe I’m guilty or innocent, at least read about my background and motivations.’ ” The image of four dour Vietnamese kids surrounding the blond Calley, his chipmunk cheeks propped up by a buck-toothed smile, remains shocking today. At the time, Lois’s extremely supportive editor Harold Hayes opined: “We’ll lose advertisers, and we’ll lose subscribers. But I have no choice. I’ll never sleep again if I don’t muster the courage to run it.” Hayes knew what he was in for—in 1963, Lois had given the nation its first black Santa Claus in a glowering Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champ and former street thug, who had no interest in being a credit to any race. An estimated $750,000 in ad revenues went up the chimney as advertisers scurried to outlets more amenable to America’s demand for complacent Negroes. The MOMA exhibit also includes contact sheets and transparencies from such iconic shots as Muhammad Ali pierced by arrows (the St. Sebastian of Vietnam draft resisters) and a 1969 riff on the decline of the American avant-garde, which imagined Andy Warhol drowning in a can of tomato soup. With an adman’s brazenness, Lois transported the magazine cover beyond Norman Rockwell’s small towns and Time‘s head-shot formality to something that snagged the eye and flummoxed the brain.
Dinh Q. Lê
This Vietnamese artist has created a four-channel video that hypnotically traverses the weathered cells of an 1854 French colonial prison on Vietnam’s Con Dao Island. Many nationalist Vietnamese—not necessarily communists, but definitely anti-American—were imprisoned and tortured there during the Vietnam War. Lê’s slow, rotating pans of stained, pockmarked walls set with high, barred windows convey both the boredom of captivity and a vertiginous anxiety. Other works feature strips of cut-up black-and-white photos of Cambodian prisoners woven through large color shots of a notorious Khmer Rouge prison. The fractured images are striking and evocative of the shadow world of atrocity that underlies all wars. PPOW, 555 W 25th, 212-647-1004. Through May 31.
‘Rococo: The Continuing Curve, 1730–2008’
What do Frederick the Great’s bejeweled 1765 snuffbox and a psychedelic 1968 poster for the rock band Canned Heat have in common? Both exude extravagance through sinuous compositions, entwined textures, and rich color. This large survey traces the Rococo style from its opulent Paris beginnings (swirling golden waves encasing perfume bottles), through the organic undulations of Art Nouveau, and right up to Nicolette Brunklaus’s 2002 Blond Curtain, printed with cascading labial curls just waiting to be parted. These decadently beautiful objects (and the museum’s airy environs) are perfect for a spring art wallow. Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, 2 E 91st, 212-849-8400. Through July 6.
DISHONORABLE MENTION: ‘Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy’
Maybe it was that huge white fashion tent obscuring the Met’s grand outdoor staircase on a beautiful spring day. Or perhaps it was those Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman statues perched atop the information desk, as poorly realized as the bronze Rocky Balboa that keeps turning up at the Philadelphia Museum like a bad penny. Whatever, this show of haute couture celebrating superhero comics, which should be fun and perhaps even inspiring, is in fact enervating and rather pointless. The tent and statues were there only for Anna Wintour’s staunchly regimented gala, but the hoi polloi still must stagger past dark bays filled with enough black leather and vinyl for a remake of William Friedkin’s Cruising. And while eroticism, homo or otherwise, has provided an undercurrent to superhero-costume design since Superman first donned his blue unitard, this show is the antithesis of sexy—with the possible exception of a Sandman-inspired gas-mask ensemble, which features a long black hose and steel canister hanging fetchingly between mannequin breasts. The designs look even more uncomfortable than most runway toggery and have little understanding of the loopy flights of fancy that the superhero genre inspires. Here, flaming hairdos and football shoulder pads look ridiculous, whereas Jack Kirby’s similar costumes for the ’70s comic book Forever People set up an unhinged oscillation between the earthbound and the cosmic. Or consider ’40s artist Jack Cole, who launched Plastic Man through page after page of roller-coaster compositions, stretching the witty superhero and his red tights to pinnacles of thinness that supermodels can only salivate after. Sadly, you’ll find no such charm or abandon in these fatuous pastiches. Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Ave, 212-535-7710. Through September 1.