W. Eugene Smith: Art, Not News


You’ve seen many of these black-and-white photos reproduced countless times—the pietà of a Japanese mother floating her deformed daughter in the bath, a G.I. cradling his wounded comrade on Okinawa, a welder’s goggles glinting in bright contrast to his grimy face. Yet here, divorced from the context of Life magazine photo essays, the individual frames reveal Smith to be not just an emphatic photojournalist but a wholly brilliant artist. While it is generally easy to determine the subject of these images, Smith’s narratives derive from more than sundry detail. Consider the stirring composition of 1944’s Burial at Sea: the corpse, a white, evocatively lumpy streak, is poised mid-drop, the ship’s deck providing a sweeping diagonal that emphasizes the finality of the solemn drama. A similarly powerful setup juxtaposes a tilting American flag against a Klan cross awaiting the torch. For a shot of Spanish women winnowing grain, Smith set his camera low to capture the weight of their labor, recalling the strain conveyed by Caravaggio when he painted St. Peter’s executioners raising his upside-down cross. That Smith evokes such classical comparisons is testament to his deep instinct—akin to that of a great athlete—for the physical grace and emotional resonance of the human form.

Matthew Brannon

Brannon leavens suave graphics with prose that is hard-boiled and brittle by turns. One letterpress print features a black bowl and yellow bars (lemon slices?) over the caption, “Mister, I work six ten-hour shifts a week. . . . If she was here she certainly didn’t look like that picture. Wearing that. I would have noticed.” Or this snippet, under a depiction of haute high heels: “I just nod and sip my vodka and soda. Soon he’ll be pinching my nipples. And undoing my skirt. While studying the small painting on the wall directly over his shoulder I find myself wondering if I’ll ever leave Los Angeles.” Brannon mixes Raymond Chandler with Sex and the City, adds a twist of consumer lust, and pours a smooth cocktail that might also conceal a roofie. Friedrich Petzel, 535 W 22nd, 212-680-9467. Through July 11.

Chris Burden

When you first look at this gleaming 65-foot-high tower, you might not connect it with Burden’s 1970s endurance pieces, such as when he stood for six hours on a wooden ladder set in electrified water, or attempted to lie under a tarp on a busy Los Angeles street, protected only by road flares—at night. (Killjoy cops put a swift end to what the artist described as “a piece of sculpture.”) Yet when you begin to contemplate how long it took to bolt these one million custom-made Erector Set struts together, or find yourself drawn into the see-through geometries that shift like quicksilver as you walk around the skeletal structure, Burden’s familiar obsessions about time colliding with space become manifest. A real attention-grabber, even on Fifth Avenue, Burden has constructed a monument to overindulged children everywhere. Rockefeller Center. Through July 19.

‘Present Tense’/’No Wave’

Curated by painters Mary Heilman and Don Christensen, the vibrant abstractions of ‘Present Tense’ (Spanierman Modern, 53 E 58th, 212-832-1400. Through August 2) coalesce into a buoyant summer group show. Polly Apfelbaum’s stained-fabric pieces are as delicately beautiful as mold blooms, providing a rich contrast to the radiantly furrowed canvases that Taro Suzuki creates by pulling a rake through layers of cyan, magenta, and yellow acrylic. Heilman’s own 1992 oil painting, Weave, also features primary colors, set in blunt rectangles that gain endearing subtlety from her lush, drippy brushwork. But it is Christensen, painting bright enamels over roughly cut wooden slabs, who steals the show. The misty pinks of 2008’s Up From the South are animated by painted black bars that, in combination with the wooden joints, create a rousing visual rhythm.

Long before arriving in such fancy uptown digs, Christensen was the drummer for the Contortions, one of the late-’70s downtown bands that were rooted as much in the visual avant-garde as in music. The ‘No Wave’ exhibition at KS Art (73 Leonard St, 212-219-9918. Through July 31) opens with a solid wall of brash flyers for such bands as Theoretical Girls, the Gynecologists, and Blinding Headache. Photos document many of the era’s highlights, including a Mudd Club performance by Von LMO featuring a welding helmet and a chainsaw. A portrait of the Contortions’ angular guitarist, Pat Place (one leg clad in a striped knee sock, the other in a high black boot), hangs next to her own photos of colorful toy monsters that swirl up from soft-focus backgrounds like demented taffy. In 1979, Robin Crutchfield, of the bands DNA and Dark Day, labeled identical baby pictures in a degraded Xerox “Dead” and “Asleep.” Three decades later, his diptych remains a sardonic talisman of yesteryear’s downtown wasteland. In an interview, Lydia Lunch, of Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, once related the era’s ethos: “Work? Are you nuts? Please. $75 per month—that was my rent . . . You begged, borrowed, stole, sold drugs, worked a couple of days at a titty bar if you had to.” This compendium of art and ephemera disinters the soul of a gritty bohemia now buried under chain stores and luxury towers.