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The First Contact Sheet of the Counterculture

It was a typical Village Voice front page from 1967: Over the left two columns, a street portrait of the “dean of American pacifists,” A.J. Muste; over the right two, an action shot of police arresting Charlotte Moorman, the Juilliard-trained cellist who was a must-see on the downtown art and music scene — not least because she sometimes performed nude.

Both photographs were snapped by the Voice’s always-on-the-scene Fred W. McDarrah.

The Voice of the Village: Fred W. McDarrah Photographs,” featuring many of the Voice staffer’s up-close-and-personal shots of the cultural and political luminaries of the 1960s and ’70s, opens today at the Museum of the City of New York.

As we wrote in an earlier Voice archive piece, “If reporters are charged with providing ‘the first rough draft of history,’ the ground-level, street-smart photojournalist McDarrah gave us some of the first contact sheets of the counterculture.”

It is hard to open one of the green-bound Voice archive volumes from those tumultuous decades and not see, after a few turns of the pages, a “Voice: Fred W. McDarrah” credit line. Born in Brooklyn in 1926, McDarrah served in the Army with the occupation forces in Japan after World War II. When he returned to New York, he began photographing the downtown demimonde, which he termed, “The most colorful community of interesting people, fascinating places, and dynamic ideas.”

In the August 23, 1962, issue of the paper, it was official. Fred W. McDarrah had become the Village Voice’s staff photographer. The announcement appeared on page 2 of that issue, surrounded by ads for galleries, bookshops, bars, and health-food stores.

McDarrah’s name now appeared on the masthead, which was on page 4, surrounded by letters to the editor about the Voice’s coverage of the suicide of Marilyn Monroe and the trial of the murderous Nazi bureaucrat Adolph [sic] Eichmann.

McDarrah, the native New Yorker, could be found on the spot, all over the city.

His main subject, however, remained the creative vanguard of downtown, including a compelling 1966 portrait of LeRoi Jones, the poet, theater director, and activist later known as Amiri Baraka.

The tenor of the times McDarrah was capturing can also be felt on these pages in ads for jazz innovators Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, as well as in calls to redeem war bonds as a way to protest war in Vietnam.

McDarrah also had entrée to studios, galleries, and museums all over town, capturing the avant-garde as it came into being.

McDarrah’s photos document the changes in the gender makeup of the moment — even if the accompanying captions weren’t yet up to speed. As his striking portrait of the seminal feminist sculptor Eva Hesse made clear, she was not having her first “one-man” show at the Fischbach gallery.

Although McDarrah started working for the Voice after the heyday of the abstract expressionists, he knew many of the artists who had made post-war New York the cultural capital of the world. When the painter Franz Kline died from heart failure at the age of 51, McDarrah had only to dig through his extensive archives to create a visual tribute that included Kline at work in his studio, as well as at play with some of his friends, including fellow artists Willem de Kooning and Alex Katz.

McDarrah also tracked the most powerful politicians of the day with his camera. In the spring of 1967, he was along as Robert F. Kennedy toured tenements on the Lower East Side. When McDarrah framed New York’s junior senator in his lens, something in the foreground cast a blur across the bottom of the frame, while a crooked portrait of Jesus crowned with thorns provided perfect compositional counterpoint to Kennedy’s downcast gaze. It is an astonishingly powerful photo in its own right, but a little more than a year later it became an elegiac cultural icon when it was printed on the Voice’s front page shortly after RFK’s assassination.

The first Voice issue of 1969 commemorated both the tragedies and triumphs of the year just past, with McDarrah photos of murdered leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Kennedy, along with a straightforward shot of copies of The New York Times, each featuring a defining headline, including a report of American astronauts flying “around the moon only 70 miles from surface; see ‘vast, forbidding place.’ ”

Inside, a double-page spread of McDarrah images offered a look back at the movers and shakers of 1968, including Andy Warhol, who had been shot and almost killed in June of that year. The caption reads “Warhol found out it was for real,” a reference no doubt to a headline in the September 12 issue of the Voice that quoted the pop maestro after his recovery: “I thought everyone was kidding.”

Another McDarrah shot captured a Republican power broker in mid-spiel above the caption, “Roy Cohn denies everything.” Whichever Voice editor came up with that phrase half a century ago could never have imagined that one of Cohn’s most slavish disciples, Donald Trump, would one day be president of the United States.

In those years McDarrah’s photos were also used for Voice promotional purposes. The publisher no doubt figured that an exclusive picture of the Fab Four might be one way to get New Yorkers to subscribe to the paper.

 

By 1976 McDarrah appeared on the masthead as the Voice’s picture editor. In the November 22 issue, a reader wrote in complaining that the photographs in the paper were not sexy enough.

Also that year, McDarrah was one of five jurors for a Village Voice photography contest that drew more than 2,000 “generally strong submissions.”

A few years later, Amiri Baraka was arrested on 8th Street amid disputed circumstances. It was apparently no problem for McDarrah to dive into his archive and find a wholehearted portrait of the poet/provocateur by press time. (In 1980 Baraka turned to the pages of the Voice to pen a front-page feature headlined “Confessions of a Former Anti-Semite.” McDarrah’s collection was again plumbed for photos of the literary demimonde — watch this space for a full reposting of that article in the near future).

At any given moment New York City is at the center of a constellation of universes. Fred McDarrah was fortunate to be on the scene during an era when the downtown cosmos was burning exceptionally bright.

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Cameron Hayes at Ronald Feldman

Dystopian visions don’t get much darker than those of Cameron Hayes. Influenced, it would seem, by Hieronymus Bosch, underground comics, and Richard Scarry’s cluttered drawings for kids, the Australian artist paints meticulously detailed panoramas of urban mayhem. From afar, these sprawling cityscapes present loose organizations of motion and color, with cartoonish figures engaged in some vague collective activity. But closer inspection (the richness demands study) reveals a shadowy madness: murder, enslavement, sexual deviancy, and squalor.

If you spend time, too, reading Hayes’s descriptions of each work—freely mixing fact and fantasy—you’ll discover that he has created imaginative allegories that often touch on recent events, particularly confrontations between the rich and poor. The wild Kings of Werribee makes a direct reference to the Australian thugs who, in 2006, filmed themselves defiling a handicapped girl. Before a graffiti-covered wall, malevolent youths loom over their conquests while on the other side, a chaotic factory—replete with its own acts of degradation—appears to be manufacturing clothing. The satire broadens in Orphanages Make the Best Skyscrapers. In a sickly yellow fog, chaotic groups of suited men build rickety towers while, in the lowest rooms, fatherless boys—who constantly seek parental approval—are nurtured for corporate success.

Elsewhere, a more straightforward painting depicts another real situation, this one from India’s Mumbai Zoo. In a gloomy cage eerily tinted red, two sad monkeys, hanging from ropes, peer down at rats devouring their food. The symbolism could apply to any number of circumstances, but whatever your interpretation, Hayes gives us a striking portrayal of hell.

Józef Robakowski

Sleekly remodeled, the tiny but ambitious satellite gallery of the Goethe-Institut offers an intriguing introduction to experimental filmmaker Józef Robakowski, a prominent figure in his native Poland but little-known here. A sampling of work demonstrates the artist’s wide-ranging interests over the past 50 years.

Structuralist investigations of spare imagery define a number of the films. There’s the minimalist abstraction of Test I, a 1971 piece that “animates” white circles of light from perforations Robakowski made in the film itself. In the same year, The Dynamic Rectangle looked at the purity of a basic form; an oddly compelling geometric exercise set to pulsing electronic music, it plays like an homage to Malevich’s Suprematism. In the back room, the more conceptual Attention: Light!, echoing synesthesia, flashes colors according to certain pitches in an accompanying Chopin mazurka—a collaborative effort conceived by Robakowski’s fellow avant-gardist Paul Sharits, but one that feels a bit dated now.

Social and political concerns made their mark on later films, notably From My Window (1999), a personal look at Poland’s recent history. Splicing together two decades of footage shot from his apartment, Robakowski observes and wryly narrates the changing life around a bleak concrete courtyard. In the 1970s, under a regimented Communism, neighbors make predictable but comforting appearances. During the martial law of the 1980s, the space succumbs to authority and becomes a parking lot. Finally, with capitalism, the construction of a five-star hotel eliminates the view entirely—a development that leads, Robakowski ironically states, to “The End.” Ludlow 38, 38 Ludlow, 212-228-6848. Through May 15

‘Art/Sewn’

Sewing may never shake its association with grandmothers and tchotchkes, but the nine artists in this quiet, thoughtful show take their work well beyond notions of craft. Emily Barletta uses needle and thread like a pencil, writing dense rows of angular shapes that appear on the paper as personal hieroglyphics. Likewise, Linnea Glatt’s Filled gives almost imperceptible body to the “drawn” line in an encircled, Agnes Martin­–like grid.

A Minimalist spirit continues with Cyrilla Mozenter’s soft rectangular containers, made from industrial wool and reminiscent of sculpture by Eva Hesse. Elisa D’Arrigo, too, evokes Hesse in marvelous little wall-reliefs; stitched-together cubes of handmade paper, piled into mounds, suggest living organisms, growing cell by cell. It’s also a delight to see another embroidered “brainscape” from Jessica Rankin, whose Empty Night connects clusters of black text with sinuous pathways of pale thread on a window-like swath of gray, translucent organdy. FiveMyles, 558 St. Johns Place, Brooklyn, 718-783-4438. Through May 8

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Fourteen Works By Eva Hesse See the Light of Day

A perfect antidote to Jeff Koons’s commodities-trader-turned-artist-turned-curator extravaganza is an exhibition of 14 never-before-seen works by the late Eva Hesse at relative Gotham newcomers Hauser & Wirth. Hesse, the artist who did the most to breathe inner life into minimalism’s cutting rigidities, was committed to a process that opened up space for constant artistic experimentation. To a question about whether her efforts were sculpture, she responded with oracular directness: “A lot of it could be called nothing—a thing or an object or any word you want to give it.”

Largely improvisational, remarkably fragile somethings—or, better yet, some things—are what one finds on view uptown, laid out like unassuming Munchos chips on a long white trestle. Mostly untitled, curved shapes made from unstable combinations of paper, tape, cheesecloth, and adhesive, these yellowing, 40-year-old-plus sculptures present a view of art that, in a real sense, is both barely and stubbornly there.

Take the smallest untitled sculpture in the room: Part child’s boat, part futuristic Dr. Scholl’s pad, it teeters on the edge of transformation, like a tadpole in a pond. One’s nostril breath can send it flying. Just the thought of it is wicked, and frightening, and subversive—and, above all, category jarring. A provocation to think, not shock, the wispy object, in the here and now, could not possibly prove more exciting.

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Chiharu Shiota’s Thread Head

Artists often circle back to the same childhood traumas for material, but Chiharu Shiota’s devotion to one particular memory borders on monomania. In Japan, when she was a girl, Shiota witnessed the burning of a neighbors’ home, and remembers, she says, the sound of their piano going up in flames. Several years ago, as if translating an imprinted image of the fire’s smoke into a safer physical form, Shiota started filling rooms with great lengths of black wool thread, stringing it dense and taut from ceilings, floors, and walls, often cocooning objects (including burnt pianos) within the angular web.

At Goff + Rosenthal (the artist’s first solo show in New York), Shiota has assembled a number of recently scorched chairs under a dense black plume of that thread—approximately 14 miles of it. The lines, intersecting at a thousand different angles, form a thick mass that occludes the space so much it’s nearly impossible to see the back wall. The chairs, still smelling of fire, virtually disappear. Even though it’s only a small sample of what Shiota, who lives in Berlin, has constructed elsewhere, the sight is thrilling—a mix of death, oppression, and catastrophe, contained and neatly designed.

Though often compared to Eva Hesse, Shiota works more like Gertrude Goldschmidt, the Venezuelan artist known as Gego, who used wire in a similar fashion. The comparison is especially apt for Shiota’s canvases. In these, like Gego, Shiota has limited her chosen material (the thread) to two dimensions, “sketching” exquisite tangles that coalesce into black-on-white organic forms—a kind of geometric embroidery. The artist has also strung thread inside open cubes the size of packing boxes to enclose various items (lightbulbs, baby shoes), but these works appear more like maquettes for ideas that belong in large spaces. Someone in the city (MOMA?) should give this woman’s dark obsession all the space it needs.

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Rubber and Glitter

In 1967, Walter Brooke famously asked Dustin Hoffman to consider “just one word,” a word that had come to represent, for many of the era, a sleek soullessness: plastics. Whether or not a young, soon-to-be-famous sculptor named Eva Hesse saw The Graduate that year, she would shortly take the advice, but in ways that upended the connotations. Hesse used plastics and rubber—specifically, resin, fiberglass, and latex—to transform the vogue of a cold, corporate-like minimalism into something softer and more approachable. A smartly comprehensive exhibit at the Jewish Museum reveals that Hesse’s sculpture, though physically deteriorating somewhat, still enchants.

Minimalism’s kingpins billed their movement as a thoughtful rebuke to overt expression, but the work often seemed manufactured—perfect forms that elicited little more from the viewer than they gave. White paintings received blank stares. Though strongly influenced by these artists (Sol LeWitt was a good friend), Hesse sort of rebuked the rebuke, introducing chance, defect, and variation—and thereby delightful flora and fauna elements—into geometry and repetition. This approach clearly emerges in her Accession V, an open steel cube, typical of Donald Judd, that sprouts anemone-like filaments of rubber tubing. Compare, too, Judd’s well-known stacks of metal boxes to Hesse’s Sans II from 1968, a horizontal unit of amber fiberglass drawers, each one slightly deformed. Differences in color, texture, and shape—which Hesse achieved by changing the molds—create a skin-like surface that appears to undulate, an inviting sense of life that minimalism’s rigid forms simply refuse to possess. That sense exists, too, in Hesse’s collections: misshapen buckets, hanging spiky objects, five-foot tubes—all of them simple and creaturish, like families of enlarged protozoa.

In trying to explain Hesse’s art, critics often stress her traumas—escape from the Nazis on kindertransport as a child, her mother’s suicide, the brain cancer that would kill her at age 34—but what comes across in the exhibit is her joie de vivre. Hesse truly embodied that free-spirit quality we associate with the ’60s. In one of her last works, rope and string covered in latex create a giant cat’s cradle, but one that has gone ecstatically wrong. It’s minimalism that embraces the mess of living.

Like Hesse, Gustav Klimt appropriated contemporary approaches and techniques, and made the results distinctly his own. In five stunning paintings at the Neue Galerie (finally returned from Nazi theft to the rightful owners), Klimt seems like an impresario of the canvas, who gathered the styles of Monet, Mucha, Cézanne, Matisse, and even a photographer to use as he pleased. Two worshipful portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer (possibly Klimt’s lover) dominate. In the better-known, Klimt enshrines her as a queen; the painting is a dreamy mix of expressionist urges, China-doll fragility, and golden Art Nouveau decoration full of mystical symbols (some, like Hirschfeld’s disguises for Nina, contain the sitter’s initials). In the other, she resembles a tall vase standing against panels of fauvist colors that could have been sketched by Matisse. Known for his eroticism, Klimt frequently touched on death too: Adele’s skin glows with a bluish pallor.

Three landscapes painted near a favorite vacation spot attest to Klimt’s love of nature. Abruptly cropped like snapshots, the scenes thrust outward, as if Klimt couldn’t get enough of what he saw. The gorgeous Birch Forest, with its bright cloisonné trees disappearing into darker reaches, creates that mix of foreboding and freedom common to the solitary hiker, two emotions emphasized by the floor of orange autumn leaves and the summer green above.

Their lives were tragically short, but both Klimt and Hesse left us vital, inspiring art. You can easily take in these two exhibits on a single day (they’re within walking distance of each other); gorge on the maximalist, get some exercise, and then diet on the minimalist. It’s a healthy day of art.

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Fecund Master

The Hamburg-born Eva Hesse (1936–70) was possessed of a lithe hand and a determined work ethic: a page from a German schedule planner is covered with tiny sketches of flaccid shapes hanging from central points; four ruled yellow notebook sheets are filled with pencil drawings of suspended totems, flared like bones where they abut one another. These quick studies reveal a restless artist caught up in the rigor of her adopted land’s minimal and “process art” movements, to which she brought humor (no such visual detumescence was allowed by those macho abstract expressionists of the ’50s) and warmth (many drawings contain lively, colorful, biomorphic forms). In a 1960 ink drawing, lines fall, gather, twist, and trail downward like a flowing veil; in others, geometric shapes are softened by gradations of light. This superb installation of rough ‘n’ ready studies reveals Hesse’s thought processes and confirms that, despite her premature death from brain cancer, her work has given generations of artists fecund ground from which to grow.

Capsules: Eva Hesse: Sculpture

In addition to the drawing show above, Hesse’s art is being celebrated uptown.
Rope Piece, 1970 (the year Hesse died, at age 34), is suspended by wires: Lengths of rope of varying strand widths, covered with latex, create bowed lines spanning knotted, gloppy intersections. This congealed, scraggly web is improbably, poignantly lovely. Other works feature tubes or stubby columns of translucent fiberglass and polyester resin, industrial materials Hesse imbued with an organic, welcoming presence. Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave, 212-423-3200. Through Sept 17

Jenny Holzer

Holzer enlarges government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and prints them in various colors on linen: A “Wish List” from U.S. interrogators includes “Phone Book Strikes,” “Low Voltage Electrocution,” and “Closed Fist Strikes,” in white type on a black ground; broad dark swaths obliterate all but the letterhead (“The Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff”) and opening graf (“Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense”) of a four-page document. These heavily redacted directives, transcripts, and surveillance files (painter Alice Neel associated with commies!) reveal the cold face of realpolitik made more fearsome by Magic Marker deletions. Cheim & Read, 547 W 25th, 212-242-7727. Through June 17

“The Other Side”

A greatest-hits show of death and calamity: Three Warhol silk screens, all atrociously printed—part of the point—feature Lugosi’s Dracula, Cagney facing down a machine gun, and an anonymous suicide leap; Christopher Wool contributes a huge vertical stencil reading, “RI/OT”; Richard Prince gives us photos of biker maidens’ large bosoms sporting skulls and such bons mots as “Fuck Off & Die!” Quaff a fistful of reds and get in the spirit of two dozen A-listers living for the dark side. Tony Shafrazi, 544 W 26th, 212-274-9300. Through June 30

Fan Ho

These vintage black-and-white photographs (1952–64) of Hong Kong feature peasants residing in cramped neighborhoods. The brilliant compositions emphasize gritty light that cascades down broad concrete staircases, filters between teetering shacks, and traces the long, weathered curves of streetcar tracks; buildings are flattened by gray haze, laundry flutters like abstract swans. Shadows zigzag harshly, lending everything an air of grim, yet beautiful, theatricality. Laurence Miller, 20 W 57th, 212-397-3930. Through June 29

Whitfield Lovell

A young black man wearing a suit and high-cut, lace-up dress shoes and seated on a spindly piano stool is drawn in charcoal on large wooden planks hung on the wall; his vintage attire and precarious posture, coupled with an actual rope trailing from the boards to an old-fashioned chair, fill this piece (
Thirteen, 2006) with foreboding. Other portraits—all taken from anonymous, early-20th-century studio photographs of African Americans—are drawn on industrial-size cable spools and are surrounded by found objects such as shell casings and logging saws. Ghostly as tintypes, these enigmatic and at times tragic tableaux powerfully cut through the clatter of our own age. D.C. Moore, 724 Fifth Ave, 212-397-3930. Through June 23

Sarah Sze

A mysterious pyramid of disaster greets strollers at the southeastern entrance to Central Park: a full-scale section of an apartment building juts diagonally out of the paving stones, asphalt sheets flapping from the triangular slice of roof. Windows piercing the brick walls reveal a jumbled interior spread out below ground: stacks of towels and toilet paper, empty specimen bottles, pencils strung with thread like miniature high-tension wires, a tiny foam-core staircase spiraling up amid spring clamps and a bird’s nest. The blend of homey detail, shifting scale, and architectural detritus is a vision of homeland insecurity. Doris C. Freedman Plaza, 60th & Fifth Ave. Through Oct 29

E.V. Day

Two Bridezillas have booked the same slot at the most exclusive Location! Location! Location! ever, and each fabulous reception has been ruined by that other bitch! The remorseless tension of wedding day is manifested in a pair of disembodied bridal gowns facing off against each other, replete with satin heels, frilly undies, aqua garters, and jeweled tiaras: Tulle veils and silk trains are rent and twisted, with even the smallest shred freeze-framed in midair through a matrix of monofilament line, fishing tackle, and stainless-steel hardware—dooming these two society-page wannabes to mortal combat all summer long. Lever House, 390 Park Ave. Through Aug 26

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Wonder Women

In the visual arts, the avant-garde is always about 30,000 years behind the times: The Chauvet caves in France contain sophisticated paintings, drawings, and engravings of animals; perfect stencils of the human hand; abstract dots and stripes; and even found art in the form of a bear skull placed atop a boulder by an unknown Paleolithic designer. Still, there’s always room for new voices, and this spring it’s women who have a lot to say. Kathleen Gilje is a skilled art conservator with an amazing ability to mimic old-master techniques that allows her to pull icons of the past through wormholes of deconstruction and art theory to create alternate-universe replicas. In 1997, she “restored” a “lost” Caravaggio “copy” of The Musicians, one of the baroque genius’s masterpieces at the Met. Accompanying X-rays reveal that the boy holding a love madrigal in the original version is actually stroking his erect penis in the “newly restored” alternate. Gilje has applied such sleight-of-hand effect to artists ranging from El Greco to Artemisia Gentileschi, and in a new series (at Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, 22 East 80th Street, 212-472-6800, opening April 5), she will present portraits of current art-world scholars grafted into the objects of their study: Linda Nochlin, feminist art critic, becomes the full-frontal barmaid in a knockoff of Manet’s 1882 Bar at the Folies-Bergere.

Also in April (opening on the 14th at Zach Feuer, 530 West 24th Street, 212-989-7700), Nathalie Djurberg will be updating a more recent art form: Claymation. It ain’t your father’s Gumby, though—this Swedish-born filmmaker’s short videos are filled with rollicking humans and animals and occasional combinations thereof: A still from 2004’s Tiger Licking a Girl’s Butt delivers more truth-in-advertising than most Hollywood fare. The three-and-a-half-minute Florentine tells the story of two young girls ultra-violently turning the tables on a man who spanks them. Whatever Djurberg is working out through her art, the tiny sets are charmingly askew, the costumes colorfully flamboyant, and the action comically grotesque.

Eva Hesse (1936–70) also explored the grotesque with her achingly beautiful sculptures: large globules in distended net bags, boxes filled with tiny plastic filaments all pointing and gathering inward like geometric sea anemones, suspended matrices of strings gloppily coated with fiberglass or latex. But rather than outrageous humor, Hesse, who died at 34, an age when most artists are still stylistically and emotionally callow, sought to imbue her era’s minimalism and “process art” with a warmth that encompassed not only the physical facts of her materials but also the organic forms that inspired her oeuvre. On May 6 the Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, 212-219-2166) will unveil 150 works on paper by this woman who was at the vanguard of her moment, including 50 never-before-seen working notes and drawings, which should help our own time rediscover the accomplishments of a seminal and influential artist.

And what could be more seminal to our moment than cell phones? (Or, with their Top 40 ringtones and celebrity wallpaper, more crassly commercial?) The art world knows from crass commercialism, but in early June, Zone:Chelsea Gallery (601 West 26th Street, 212-255-2177) will showcase a globe-girdling project that aims to counter the profit motive by inviting artists from all over the world to donate digital audio/visual content, games, and—shades of John Cage—”silences wherein the callers can express themselves,” which will be accessible when the hoi polloi dial a special number. Big deal, you may grouse, it’s not hard to get artists to donate their time—they’re used to being underpaid. But Jennifer Bahng, the project’s originator, has convinced electronics giant Samsung and other global corporations to donate cell phones and minutes to designated sites worldwide, plus give 1 percent of the generated phone bill to the Vox Populi Foundation, which has been set up to distribute the money to local charities in participating countries. Anyone can call the number, interact with the software, and literally get his or her two cents in.

The project will be physically manifest at the gallery through sculptures (also with direct-to-charity price tags) using colorful arrays of cell phones encased in paper molds made from reprocessed food waste and cannon shells discarded by U.S. troops in Korea. Joseph Beuys once said, “Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler”; Vox Populi confirms that, indeed, “Everyone is an artist,” and gives the public a chance to put corporate money where its mouth is.


Listings by R.C. Baker

‘Women’s Work’
March 22–April 15

Greenberg Van Doren, 730 Fifth Ave, 212-445-0444

Large-scale works by 10 women painters, including the patterned figuration of Jennifer Bartlett, Joan Mitchell’s and Helen Frankenthaler’s brushy abstractions, Moira Dryer’s moody visions, and the shaped, exuberant canvases of Elizabeth Murray.


Markus Hansen
March 23–April 29

Virgil de Voldere Gallery, 526 W 26th, 212-343-9694

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This German-born photographer approximates the clothing of his subjects, then mimics their postures and expressions, becoming, in the resulting side-by-side photos, not a twin or a replica but a doppelg When he teams up with a woman or a person of a different race, his underlying empathy easily trumps any surface differences.


Amy Sillman
April 7–May 6

Sikkema Jenkins & Co., 530 W 22nd, 212-929-2262

Sillman’s imagery has long fluctuated between abstraction and goofy, even cartoonish, characters. And then there are her bright, often garish clashing colors. Yet when she nails the balance of such high-risk elements, she’s one of the most compelling painters around. This new work strips down the compositions to starker figures in sparer environments; the best ones always like to work without a net.


Dennis Hollingsworth
April 7–June 10

Nicole Klagsbrun, 526 W 26th, 212-243-3335

Hollingsworth loves paint, and in the past has slathered it on, leaving disks of pigments stacked like pancakes, thick brown burrs jutting out an inch from the canvas, and palette-knife gouges deep in the fat surfaces. Such virtuoso technique never marred his chromatic smarts and boisterous compositions; it will be interesting to see how much weight his new work throws around.


Long-Bin Chen
April 21–June 3

Frederieke Taylor, 535 W 22nd, 646-230-0992

Like a sculptor working in granite, this Taiwanese artist carves his work from large blocks. His material, however, is considerably less durable: One large bearded face is crafted from a stack of 10 Brooklyn phone books, leaving striations where the covers join; veins of light and dark are determined by the areas of text and white space. Chen’s forms retain a veneer of solidity while conveying an existential transience.


‘Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s Amanda Lear’
April 21–June 3

Envoy Gallery, 535 W 22nd, 212-242-7524

Lover to Bryan Jones and David Bowie, a Salvador Dalí muse and stunning looker—though her guttural voice incited rumors that she was a transsexual, which didn’t halt her rise to disco divadom—Amanda Lear had quite a time of it this past century. Now pushing 60, her own artwork, plus the work of nine others inspired by her exploits, continues the legend.


Lee Mullican
April 25–July 15

Grey Art Gallery, NYU, 100 Washington Sq E, 212-998-6782

After a wartime stint with the Army Corps of Engineers, Mullican (1919–1998) used the patterning he’d seen in aerial photos and topographical maps as inspiration for his small (as compared to typical abstract paintings of the ’50s) canvases. His decorative, densely crosshatched, and carefully applied brushstrokes convey both the charm of a vibrant tiki bar menu and the breadth of a complicated, rolling landscape.


Mary Temple
April 27–May 27

Mixed Greens, 531 W 26th, 212-331-8889

Temple paints trompe l’oeil shadows of plants and window frames, sometimes trailing down to the floor, on both interior and exterior walls, causing viewers to hold their hands in front of the work in an attempt to determine the light source. This upcoming show features a complex shadow cast in a windowless room, a moment in time frozen in place.


Marco Boggio Sella
May 13–June 17

625 W 27th, 212-337-9563

In 2004, this Italian-born artist, who splits his time between Turin and Brooklyn, reimagined Matisse’s L’Atelier Rouge as an environment of rough-hewn red walls, ceilings, and floors, festooned with equally rough sculpture, furniture, easels, and brightly colored paintings whose subjects ranged from 19th-century etchings to ’70s comic-book panels. His upcoming show “Dreams and Nightmares of the African Astronaut” is a collaboration with artists in Africa, some of whom are skeptical that men ever walked on the moon.


Jerome Powers
May 18–June 24

Margaret Thatcher, 511 W 25th, 212-675-0222

We all know what happens to horses that get carted off to the glue factory. Well, like a chicken omelet, Powers takes horse hair and places it—sometimes in straight lines, like a Barnett Newman “zip,” other times in overlapping curves—between layers of poured Elmer’s glue. The hair (or sometimes pencil lines) applied in the earlier layers gets blurrier beneath successive applications of the glue, lending the work an atmosphere reminiscent of bugs trapped in prehistoric amber.


John Salvest
May 18–June 24

Morgan Lehman Gallery, 317 Tenth Ave, 212-268-6699

Taking the Latin inscription “Omnia tibi felicia” (“May all things bring you happiness”) as inspiration, Salvest makes art from humble materials: wine corks, rubber bands, stubby chalk remnants, and chewing gum. For this show, the gallery’s courtyard will be filled with 247 red, white, and blue milk crates stacked in the shape of Old Glory. In the past, Salvest has spread plastic lids on the floor in the shape of a map of the U.S., so expect him to use all available surfaces for his clever aesthetics of detritus.

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‘Sweet Taboos: A Mini Tirana Biennial in NYC’
May 24–July 1

Apexart, 291 Church, 212-431-5270

Albania was once one of the Communist bloc’s most repressive and backward members. After Communism collapsed across Eastern Europe, artists got some sense of what they’d been missing in the West. Last year’s third incarnation of Tirana’s Biennial allowed international artists to work on sites throughout that city for extended periods of time; a sampling of the results exploring “the taboos of contemporary society—what are they, what do they mean, how do they apply to the Albanian context, and how does one deal with them artistically”—is crossing the ocean for the edification of us jaded New Yorkers.

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To Hell and Back

Call it a seventh sense. Certain artists intuit that they’re going to die young, so they produce large bodies of work in condensed periods of time. They catch fire quickly, blaze brightly, then are gone. Neither Eva Hesse nor Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark nor Keith Haring lived past 35. Jean-Michel Basquiat died at 27. No one has yet determined the speed of art. Basquiat’s was lightning.

But fast and furious by themselves are not enough when it comes to art. There has to be an unexplained and original edge to this velocity and ferocity, an element that transforms desperation and desire into something new and compelling. Basquiat had this element. He didn’t want painting to only be looked at. He wanted it to function in the ways that it did a thousand years ago: as a sacramental or talismanic object, something that had the shamanic power to change lives, protect cities, or perform magic. This sounds like pseudo-religious romantic claptrap, but it’s borne out in the uneasy ways his bumpy paintings adorn walls, occupy space, and are constructed. Made on doors, fences, and other supports, they are presented not as paintings so much as banners, standards, and shields, things meant to be carried into battle, posted as warnings, or planted in graveyards.

Critics have disparaged Basquiat’s work as “neoconservative” and “juvenile” and implied that he was overly interested in history. But Basquiat wasn’t just interested in history—he wanted to breed with, butcher, and avenge it. Engaged in a ritualistic act of historical restitution, he crossed the black diaspora with pop culture, religion, and drugs. Basquiat emerged at a time when many artists engaged in regressive painting strategies, and his art has many earmarks of ’80s neo-expressionism. His paintings can be grating and garish. In the otherwise excellent catalog for this show, disingenuous attempts are made to separate Basquiat from his peers. Basquiat did not act alone. His art was a collision of ’80s ideas, ’70s conceptualism, graffiti, Twombly, and Dubuffet. Disturbingly, Basquiat is often branded with the “primitive” label. This is nothing less than the “noble savage” myth retold by new white bwanas. Basquiat was precocious and black, not “primitive.”

He was also wildly uneven. Some of his work looks like junk. Yet to me he’s less about individual works than an overarching “voice.” In the same way that you can hear pain in every note that Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, or Roy Orbison sang, or in everything that Miles Davis or Charlie Parker played, you can discern a stinging aspiration in every inch of Basquiat’s work. Like Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, neither of whom possessed technically accomplished voices, Basquiat’s voice was limited but extraordinarily expressive and individualistic.

The Brooklyn Museum’s outstanding two-floor retrospective doesn’t capture the full drama of that voice. Instead, it lays out his work systematically and spaciously. As told here, Basquiat emerged rough but ready, not fully formed but fully loaded. Then he rapidly mutated, developing continually. From the start he had his own pictorial ideas, a distinctive graphic sensibility, an astute if gaudy sense of color, a way with words, and a genius for materials. By the time he died, his hand-built surfaces vibrated with energy and something prophetic. Received wisdom says he peaked in 1982. This year and 1983 were years of artistic grace for Basquiat. But the work from 1987 and ’88 is more integrated and probing. In these “later” pieces, words and pictures form seamless intoxicating wholes and feel like the last will and testament of a frenzied poet-historian-alchemist.

Julian Schnabel’s schmaltzy Basquiat gets the bio right. He was born in Brooklyn in 1960 to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother. He drew as a child and read English, Spanish, and French by the time he was seven. At eight he made cartoon books based on Hitchcock films. At 16 he created a persona named Samo and began writing poems. In 1977 he started painting these on the D train. When he was 18 an article about Samo appeared in this paper. In 1981 he had his first one-man show and Rene Ricard wrote an article in Artforum about him (and Keith Haring) titled “The Radiant Child.” Less than seven years later he died of a heroin overdose in the building he rented from his sometime painting partner and longtime admirer Andy Warhol. In eight years Basquiat had gone from street kid to art star to the grave.

Good or bad, Basquiat was a shot of adrenaline into the then shriveled art world. He was a pioneering architect of hip-hop culture and a stiletto to the heart of the white establishment. Ricard hyperbolically called him “the soul of the art world.” Whatever he was, his paintings of words are words of warning; his pictures are mystic proclamations about past black champions and heroes. Hip-hop founder Afrika Bambaataa has talked about “setting history on fire by adding a fifth element.” That’s what Basquiat did in his short time on earth and why he still matters.



jsaltz@villagevoice.com

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A Retrospective of Wax-Drenched, Neo-Baroque Sculpture

An artist’s artist, Petah Coyne has gone in and out of the public eye, though critical acclaim has rarely wavered. A survey of nearly 20 years of sculptural work, this museum-quality show takes place in two spaces, and is nothing short of impressive.

Feathers, lace, candles, ribbon, animal hair, plastic beads and flowers—these are some of the materials Coyne has used over the years to create her distinctive organic abstractions, covering their feminine, sometimes kitschy forms with skins of clotted white and black wax, woven horsehair, and metal car shavings turned to sand. With only hints of color—yellow, pink, peach, red, and green—peeking through, the work’s starkness recalls the sculpture of Louise Nevelson, who similarly transformed found objects into poetic abstractions, exploiting the metaphoric power of black and white to evoke polarities of life and death, purity and sin, beauty and ugliness. Other women artists, like Eva Hesse, Lee Bontecou, and Louise Bourgeois, also come to mind.

The effects of Coyne’s palette are striking. Compare two untitled works that feature white plaster Madonnas about three feet high, both in the same room at the SculptureCenter: One is a radiant vision in white, the other is somber and black. Nearly everything is identical: Both face away from the viewer toward corners, enveloped by elaborate cloaks of wax-drenched flowers that trail behind them on the floor. Various flowers and ribbon clusters dot the perimeter of these skirts, and extinguished candles are everywhere. The first, though, has the aura of a young girl making her first Communion. A lace collar and bright pearls add to this effect, but it’s the brightness of the white wax that imbues the white Madonna with hope and innocence. The black version, by contrast, evokes decay and suffering.

Coyne’s impulse to preserve, recycle, and alchemize what our culture typically devalues or throws away is consistently conveyed in her baroque transformations of the insignificant and ugly. Reminiscent of Gothic candelabra, several mammoth works suspended from the ceiling are shaped in tiers and ringed in candles. Plastic doves with peacock feathers adorn these forms, as do other birds, some hidden under the canopies. One wall piece, made of braided and knotted hair, feathers out in a wing-like pattern, its laborious and delicate form recalling Victorian memorial jewelry made from the hair of deceased loved ones. Taxidermied fowl lie within its densely webbed areas, but like similar birds in other works, are barely visible. Nesting or imprisoned, they suggest transitory states of death and renewal, and are acts of magic.

Indeed, as intensely sensual and material as they are, Coyne’s works force us to contemplate the possibilities of our own metamorphosis, spiritual or otherwise. More than anything else, it is this intimate regard for the transformative power of ritual that distinguishes her work.

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Hell Holes

In 1972, when I was a deeply green, 19-year-old Midwestern art student, I was blown away by a Lee Bontecou survey in Chicago. Here were these bilious, bulbous things, ominous, outlandish, alarming, and alluring—organisms unto themselves, neither sculpture nor painting, but something between cave painting, constructivism, intrauterine architecture, and the gates of hell. Made of welded metal, copper wire, sooty canvas, and army-surplus supplies, they were modern but not in the minimal, pop, or conceptual ways I was learning about. They were modern in a pre-modern, almost archaic way, like Giacometti’s stick people or Golub’s brutes. I had already been floored by the modern primitivism of Eva Hesse, who had been wowed by Bontecou: “I am amazed at what this woman can do,” Hesse wrote. Bontecou struck me as far less experimental, dynamic, or contemporary than Hesse. She was more of an angsty throwback to abstract expressionism. Bontecou had said, “I want to awaken in the beholder some dormant reality.” Old-school or not, that’s the reality she awakened in me.

Unfortunately, that reality was fleeting. I learned that Bontecou was a big deal in New York, the only woman in the Castelli Gallery stable, and that Donald Judd had written that she was “one of the best artists working anywhere.” Then she was gone.

Legend has it that her 1972 Castelli show of vacuum-formed fish and plastic flowers was critically panned and she “turned her back on the art world.” This is melodrama. The most negative review I found (albeit in The New York Times) wasn’t that negative. Essentially, the critic said this was Bontecou’s least successful work. In fact, if fish and flowers were all there were to her oeuvre, there’d be no Bontecou beatification. And if Bontecou left the art world because of this, she has pretty thin skin. Many artists have toughed it out over far worse. Other explanations for Bontecou’s vanishing read more like paranoid fantasies. The truth is more mundane and telling. “I needed a rest,” she now says. She settled in rural Pennsylvania with her artist husband, had a child (“Having a baby was the most wonderful piece of sculpture I ever made”), and for 20 years commuted to Brooklyn College to teach. Meanwhile, her low-to-no profile turned Bontecou into a kind of ghost artist.

Now 73, she’s back. Her well-selected, at times dated-looking, occasionally overpowering retrospective doesn’t live up to the extravagant praise heaped upon it in its previous stops in Los Angeles and Chicago, where Bontecou was lauded as “heroic” and “triumphant.” At MOMA, larger works are sometimes crowded together, and smaller ones are grouped in cases so that Bontecou comes off more fusty than she did in Chicago, where she looked otherworldly. There, her recent airy, atomized mobiles resembling sailing ships and dragonflies from other solar systems were striking. Here, they’re only interesting.

The problems aren’t all due to the installation. I love much of her work, but Bontecou is an extremely dogged, repetitious artist. One piece is much like the next; monotony sets in. You long for a change in tone, texture, color, or mood. Anything other than gravitas. When she finally initiates a change in 1966, a process seen here in the two strongest, most garish pieces in the show—both from that year—she doesn’t follow through. Gradually, you realize that Bontecou left the art world because she refused to pressure herself. She wasn’t lazy; she just wanted to pursue her own work in her own time, out of the spotlight and in private. This might have been a survival tactic but I think it stunted her development.

Nevertheless, much of her work is spellbinding. This show makes clear that Bontecou totally nailed a very particular herniating, ulcerating, telescoping space. This space is both entirely her own and universal, no small feat. The spatial effect is especially palpable in the dark, spooky reliefs that she made between 1959 and 1968 (the pre-1959 work is hokey and weak). These ’60s works look like lunar landscapes, imaginary multi-eyed sea creatures, or slicing continental plates. It’s as if she invented these wild devices that allow you to peer into a parallel plane where space bulges, goes elastic, then ectoplasmic. These works nearly always have round or oblong black holes that bring you from outside to inside to someplace metaphysical and sexual. You look into these holes but can’t see the back of them. This bottomlessness accounts for much of the cosmic and erotic clout in Bontecou’s work.

Many have likened Bontecou’s early pieces to vagina dentata. This drove, and apparently still drives, her nuts. In the first sentence of her statement in the show’s superb catalog, she complains, “There has been so much written about my work that has nothing to do with me.” Her vexation is understandable but misplaced. Jasper Johns said, “If you invent chewing gum in your studio and everyone uses it as glue, you’ve also invented glue.” In fact, the multiple associations in Bontecou’s work—sexual, terrestrial, and celestial—are what makes some of her art so wide-reaching and powerful. Just as the work of Georgia O’Keeffe and Jay DeFeo is not only vaginal or female, so Bontecou’s best work opens up onto more than femaleness or sex and unveils a fragmented abstract language.



jsaltz@villagevoice.com