Existential Jazz

2006 Village Voice article about Edward Hopper and George Herriman's Krazy Kat comic strip

Hopper has filled his 1930 masterpiece Early Sunday Morning, a horizontal painting of squat apartments and storefronts, with jazzy visual rhythms—the steady indentations of dark gray cornices move like a smooth bassline, yellow squares of drawn window shades shift high and low like chords, darkened doorways are syncopated drumbeats, with an off-kilter red, white, and blue barber pole and stumpy fire plug providing sharp rim shots. Squint slightly and the red bricks, yellow geometries, and dark rectangles have the “boogie woogie” vibe of Mondrian’s pure abstractions, while a mysterious shadow running the length of the sidewalk might be cribbed from de Chirico: Something wicked (or at least surrealist) this way comes. Hopper captured the weirdness lurking behind America’s businesslike facade through complex, hard-won compositions. Another gem, New York Movie (1939), is accompanied by over 50 preparatory sketches—everything from the flashlight clutched in the bored usherette’s hand to the repeated curves of chair backs and light fixtures. The painting is a chutes ‘n’ ladders maze of space—subdued orange lights plunge toward the screen, which displays silvery blue undulations. An entwining kiss? A cowboy’s horse? Only the elderly couple, sunk deep in their padded seats, will ever know.

Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
Through December 3


‘Krazy & Ignatz 1937–38’

Strange bedfellows joined by love

Hemingway. Disney. Picasso. Gertrude Stein. Charlie Chaplin. R. Crumb. Calvin Coolidge. Strange bedfellows joined by love of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. Notorious press baron William Randolph Hearst insisted the strip run in his papers, despite many an editor scratching his head over its enigmatic triangle of cat loves mouse, dog loves cat, and mouse disdains everyone. Fantagraphics’ latest collection of exactingly reproduced color Sunday pages reveals anew a virtuoso draftsman who could shift backgrounds and day-for-night from panel to panel, his beautiful crosshatching and sharp black accents conveying theatrical space and wry emotion in a single penstroke. Red pulsing hearts and green-cheese-wedge moons float above while volcanos hurl bricks at the Kat; those old-world surrealists got nothing on our homegrown master, dah-links. fantagraphics.com

‘Daughters of Dada’
The visual hubbub of salon-style hanging is appropriate for this show of six independent women, all born in the late 19th century. A high-stepping stick figure thumbing his nose at the world is no surprise coming from the brush of Beatrice Wood. Marcel Duchamp, her mentor, is often given the credit for Wood’s famous observation that “the only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.” Florine Stettheimer is represented by a trio of hand-painted china plates, two featuring a pale, blonde coquette with a partially obscured, swarthy companion. For sheer weirdness, few works can top Mina Loy’s 1955 Christ on a Clothesline: Hanging amid tenements, with a bird’s nest in place of the crown of thorns, his grim face drooping between clothespinned shoulders, the son of God has never looked humbler. Francis M. Nauman, 22 E 80th, 212-472-6800. Through July 28.

‘A Brighter Day’
Roxy Paine’s polymer tower of lifelike fungus and mushrooms, stacked like a troll’s high-rise, is the perfect foil to Pierpaolo Campanini’s canvas of a floating arm ending in a wire-frame hand. In the middle of the gallery, David Altmejd’s sculpture of a hairy beast riven with mirror shards and fluorescent tubes feels like a werewolf caught in a disco disaster. Erick Swenson’s resin animal skull, with swatches of peeling skin and antlers like dry branches, is a startling imitation of death; its title, Ne Plus Ultra, implies that there is nothing beyond the dessicated flesh. With daydreams like this, who needs nightmares? James Cohan, 533 W 26th, 212-714-9500. Through July 14.

To enter the gallery space, the viewer must squeeze past a roughly plastered, angled wall, which in turn leads to more planes and curves. A couple of feet over head-high, these dry, gray surfaces look like a poor man’s Serra; still, the suspicion that there is more going on than abstract exploration is confirmed when one climbs a temporary steel staircase that looks out over the sculpture. Suffice to say (without spoiling the punchline), the artists Sara Goldschmied and Elonora Chiari offer a greeting to those intrepid enough to scale the heights. Spencer Brownstone, 39 Wooster, 212-334-3455. Through July 15.

R. Luke DuBois
Need a refresher course on Oscar’s Best Pictures? DuBois’s 76-minute DVD Academy (2006) provides the ticket—every winner from Wings to Chicago is here, compressed to one minute each. The early years are a silky, silvery blur, with famous faces momentarily resolving during long bits of dialogue—Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel is followed shortly by Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. Then a blast of Technicolor—Rhett and Scarlett going at it hammer and tongs. More black-and-white years hurtle past, the soundtracks speeding like tractor-trailer rigs or whispering as if a ghostly chorus. By the time American Beauty‘s red carpet of roses flashes by you’ll be as exhausted as a guest stumbling out of one of the late “Swifty” Lazar’s legendary Oscar bashes. Bitforms, 529 W 20th, 212-366-6939. Through July 15.

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