Retro Man


In 1959, with Abstract Expressionism triumphant over a then much smaller art world, the Museum of Modern Art mounted “New Images of Man,” an exhibition of existential, passionate, melodramatic figuration. Roundly panned at the time as airy humanism (Manny Farber decried the “wishful thinking buried under its sentimental hide”), the exhibit’s international roster included Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, and Karel Appel. Half a century later, sharp-eyed curator Mitchell Algus has reprised that moment, and proven that expressionistic figuration has a place in all but the stoniest of formalist hearts. In this gallery venue, Algus succinctly juxtaposes a few masters from the original MOMA show with past and present artists; compare Giacometti’s lithograph of an attenuated model in an atelier, conveyed in his trademark searching line, to a charming 1953 studio interior by Bernard Buffet, which today looks equal parts Van Gogh and atmospheric Disney background. In this show, the retro representational impulse deplored by those earlier critics seems a healthy, ever-renewing strain capable of attracting artists of all persuasions. Nicholas Marsicano’s 1956 oil painting Duo features a dark background leavened by two clotted, colorful shapes that might be figures, or perhaps the rough entrance to Plato’s flame-lit cave. Forty years later, Joyce Pensato’s Abominable Snow Mickey also plays with shifting negative space, the cartoon icon conjured from drippy black contours and a blizzard of white enamel. A fleshy fork is among the pink protuberances in Nicola Tyson’s 2000 Self Portrait Dancing, which darkens the painting’s goofy grace by calling to mind William S. Burroughs’s harsh insistence that we honestly face whatever dangles from the ends of our own forks.

‘Jeff Koons on the Roof’

The reflective surfaces of these large sculptures are uncanny. Balloon Dog (Yellow) is 12 feet long, and every twisted crease of the original rubber model has been lovingly, perfectly scaled. Ditto the 12-foot-high Sacred Heart (Red/Gold), reminiscent of a foil-wrapped chocolate purchased at the candy shoppe. But it is Coloring Book (1997­­-2005), an 18-foot-tall irregularly contoured slab of stainless steel, that utterly dazzles. The image derives from Magic Marker scrawls in a Winnie the Pooh coloring book, but the black outlines of Piglet have been removed, leaving only gossamer pastel swirls over a mirror-like surface that reflects viewers, an outdoor café, and scudding clouds. The slick materials suggest an imposing luxury high-rise, but the abiding effect is as ethereal as a child’s dream. Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, 212-535-7710. Through October 26.

‘Horror Vacui’

You could spend a summer’s day getting lost in these 33 dense abstractions, gathered from a score of artists. David Ambrose pin-pricks his paper to create delicately textured surfaces over which he paints vibrant, fluid forms; Adam Fowler draws sinuous lines on paper, excises the negative spaces with a knife, and then layers various sheets into overlapping webs. If that’s not maniacally obsessive enough for you, try Lee Etheredge IV’s 20-by-15-inch typewriter piece, in which a series of repeating letters have been rhythmically staggered in columns and rows to create a lyrically cascading poem for the eye. McKenzie, 511 W 25th, 212-989-5467. Through August 1.

Erkka Nissinen

Oh, man, I’m not sure what this young Finnish artist’s videos are about, but if you don’t mind gobs of bodily fluids, I guarantee you’ll be intrigued and entertained. The 13-minute Night School features creepily illuminated scenes of roadside abductions, a hilariously prolonged golden shower that burbles with philosophical musings, and a gooey post-blowjob sing-along, all shot with painterly aplomb. If Mr. Rogers had wandered his neighborhood in Leatherface’s flesh mask from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he might have gotten close to the vibe of the main character in the video Vantaa (2007). This hobbling dwarf, his face jiggling grotesquely, converses with Technicolor flowers, observes as the names of musical instruments are spelled out across the screen, and goes in search of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who has stolen his yogurt. When found, the German composer nearly drowns in a bowl of the goopy stuff, and you might think you’re watching an unexpurgated Monty Python skit. Lombard-Freid, 531 W 26th, 212-967-8040. Through August 1.

Dawn Mellor

This British artist attacks images of celebrities like a meth addict defacing subway posters. Seventy-one small canvases featuring A-listers from Debbie Harry to Pope John Paul II get ravaged: The word “Strike” is finger-painted on Margaret Thatcher’s coal-grimed, scabby forehead; Audrey Hepburn’s skinny features are partially stripped to bloody bone; Shelley Duval’s face torques into madness at the sight of a flower bouquet. Only Liz Taylor withstands the onslaught, a black grid darkly enhancing the smoldering beauty of her youth. In six huge paintings, Judy Garland’s Dorothy leads an army of the dead, poses as a gory corpse, and trundles wheelbarrows filled with gold bricks. Ferocious in intent, content, and execution, these works are perhaps puerile and definitely, defiantly, over the top, but they reify the deranged celebrity obsessions that gave the world Paris Hilton’s sex tapes and John Lennon’s murder. Team, 83 Grand, 212-279-9219. Through August 8.