Two women stand on a traffic island in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, a siren duet of sickly green flesh, high heels, feathers, and lace. Men stride across zigzagging sidewalks toward these “flowers of the asphalt” (as one contemporary described the German capital’s prostitutes in the years preceding World War I). Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) portrayed these streetwalkers with harsh colors and slashing brushstrokes, a vision of illicit sex colliding with a great city’s heedless energy. MOMA’s exhibition includes seven of Kirchner’s street paintings, in which the artist downplayed architecture and vehicles in favor of the degraded glamour of the demimonde: Flesh tones shift from pink to yellow to gray under the glare of unseen street lamps and electric signs. In numerous drawings and prints, Kirchner’s breakneck hand manifests the frenzy of early modernism, his figures abandoned to sinuous, expressionistic lines. The 1914 etching War Widows on the Street was scratched directly onto the plate like a pencil sketch, the scene’s immediacy captured in the plaintive pitch and heavy black strokes of one woman’s body against gray pedestrians. Kirchner’s women rise like angular stalks, perhaps reflecting a pair of sisters whom he met after his move to the great metropolis—he described these cabaret dancers as “architectonically constructed, severely formed,” in contrast to the “soft Saxon physique” embodied by the girls of his native Dresden. Even an idyllic 1913 bathing scene—which plunders Matisse’s supple curves and Mediterranean colors—betrays an urban grit, the lithographic inks ragged and grainy, as if the print had been left to weather in a gutter. Decades later, the Nazis caught up with Kirchner, and he was labeled a “degenerate” painter. But this focused exhibition reveals an artist acutely sympathetic to the emotional dislocations at the dawn of modernity.
‘Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko’
As the co-creator of Spider-Man, Steve Ditko (b. 1927) is heir to one of the most lucrative pop-culture franchises in history. Yet, as Blake Bell’s engrossing biography delineates, the artist’s stubborn adherence to Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy cut him off from a world he sees as populated by “non-producers.” Ditko began drawing comics professionally in 1953; by the time Spider-Man debuted in 1962, he was one of the industry’s most widely respected artists and story plotters. The following year, Ditko and Stan Lee launched another seminal character, Dr. Strange, a “Master of Mystic Arts” who blazed through the consciousness of college campuses and rode with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. In the late ’60s, however, Ditko left Marvel Comics, feeling that he’d been cheated of Spider-Man royalties, and began to seem a man out of time—his self-published, Rand-inspired characters were still wearing fedoras, and his previously dynamic page layouts had become crowded with didactic text: “. . . it is not any collective but the individual that is a LIVING ENTITY. And it is only to a living entity that a thing can be GOOD or EVIL!” Withdrawing into fortress Rand, dismissing collectors offering lucrative private commissions, Ditko refused any compromise, emulating one of Objectivism’s heroes, Howard Roark: “My work done my way. A private, personal, selfish, egotistical motivation.” In 1997, given complete autonomy over a new comic from a major publisher, Ditko quit when the cover—a wonderfully trippy, bubble-lettered ’60s throwback—was not printed to his exact specs.
Readers might wish for more complete story reprints in Bell’s book—as powerfully as Ditko’s figures and graphic designs fill the page (see the cinematic layouts and atmospheric ink-wash realms he devised for Creepy and Eerie magazines), it was his sinewy, visual plotting that cemented his characters in the popular imagination. Still, this fascinating tale of a bull-headed individual who gave his all to the masses and then withdrew from their adulation offers a stark twist on the American Dream. fantagraphics.com, 220 pp., $39.99.
‘Of the Refrain’
The first image in this vibrant group photography show initially feels out of place: de Kooning sitting stiffly in a chair in his studio. But one of his lively biomorphic paintings is propped up near him, and that lithe blob from 1947 keynotes this show’s parade of graceful dancers, captivating portraits, and compelling abstractions. Polio victim Hazel Larsen Archer was confined to a wheelchair, but her 1948 shot of a leaping and gyrating Merce Cunningham, his head cropped from the top of the frame, is testament to a universal desire to defy gravity. Barbara Morgan’s 1940 picture of Martha Graham, tight costume straining at far-flung limbs, segues beautifully, if unexpectedly, into Bernice Abbott’s 1958 study of light bouncing through a prism. Concepts and affinities carom through these 53 black-and-white images, and current Photoshop wizards could do worse than swipe ideas from the weird head-shots staged by the Depression-era duo of ringl + pit. Robert Mann, 210 Eleventh Avenue, 212-989-7600. Through August 22.