Unlike Robert Frank, who kept his distance when capturing his portraits of ordinary Americans, street photographer Leon Levinstein got as close as he could. He mixed with crowds, leaned over sunbathers, crept up behind the pensive. Many of the 44 pictures in this collection are like the furtive glances we make a hundred times a day but rarely remember: A bikinied woman lying on Coney Island sand, shot from above, clutches her baby’s head to her ear, as if desperate to hear a breath; a young couple fondles each other on a stairwell.
Over time, faces became less important than the moments. Heads sometimes disappeared entirely in the cropping. The thick body of a drag queen, glimpsed from the neck down, seems to recoil from a passer-by. A streetwalker leans into the darkened window of a grungy car, but we see only her elbows, legs, and ass. Overlooked for too long—the misfits and miscreants he preferred to photograph don’t lend themselves to easy sentiment—Levinstein deserves wider recognition for recording the fleeting, quirky scenes of city life. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave, 212-535-7710. Through October 17
Lee Bontecou: ‘All Freedom in Every Sense’
Though the Space Race and moon landings of the 1960s and ’70s captivated the American public, the art world pretty much shrugged. Even practitioners of Pop had little use for astronauts. One significant exception was Lee Bontecou, who began her career as a kind of neo-futurist, producing imaginative sculpture and drawings that not only embraced visions of the cosmos, but edged into the realm of sci-fi. Neglected for years until a few recent exhibits, Bontecou’s intelligent and mysterious work (nicely surveyed in this mini-retrospective) now looks fresher than ever.
The best-known pieces—wall-mounted vortices first displayed at the renowned Leo Castelli Gallery in the early ’60s—remain her most formidable. In one of two versions here, dirty polygons of canvas, stitched onto a dome-shaped armature of steel rods, swirl around a black hole—a galactic spiral that threatens to pull you inside. A similar construction, this one with a gaping maw, pre-figures Star Trek‘s Doomsday Machine.
But the foreboding did not preclude beauty. In a work from 1958, Bontecou applied soot (produced from her blowtorch) to paperboard, then used a razor blade to form an intricate maze of white pathways in the finely shaded blackness. The complexity is eerily intimate. Elsewhere, a horizontal arc cutting through denser soot suggests an apocalyptic dusk, but its subtle textures are nothing less than sublime.
Bontecou’s fascination with the extraterrestrial often merged with an interest in the natural (earthly) world. Mimicking 19th-century engravings of flora and fauna, several drawings group odd creatures that sometimes resemble space capsules. A 1998 pastel of menacing plant-like forms could have been a cover for Amazing Stories. Then there’s the exhibit’s centerpiece, a delicate Calder-like mobile that took 18 years to complete. Arcs of piano wire, affixed with golden wire mesh and porcelain knobs, stream outward from a central star-shaped module. It’s a journeying spacecraft, as elegant as an arrangement of flowers. The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, 212-708-9400, Through August 30
Boris Lurie: ‘No!art, An Exhibition of Early Work’
In his notorious Railroad Collage, Boris Lurie pasted a bare-assed pinup girl onto an image of Holocaust victims dumped on a flatcar. As co-founder of the anti-establishment No!art group, he helped stage (among other acts intended to disgust) the 1964 Shit Show. A survivor of Nazi death camps, and an artist incensed by trendy pop, Lurie (who died in 2008) had reasons to be angry, and he poured frustrations of all kinds into his work. So it may come as a surprise to find that his early efforts here offer a great deal of charm.
Figures drawn in the late 1940s, rendered with expressionistic primitivism, appear like haunting memories of the Latvia the artist left behind. In an exquisite watercolor, a man and woman frolic in a magical light reminiscent of Chagall. A colorful 1971 silkscreen layering magazine ads and old-fashioned porn is like a Rauschenberg combine, but slicker. All that rage-fueled provocation too often obscured a genuine talent. Westwood Gallery, 568 Broadway, 212-925-5700. Through July 17