James Kerry Marshall, Black on Black

Kerry James Marshall’s paintings of black people simply being human stand out in an art-industrial complex where subjects, artists, purveyors, and consumers are pretty much white folk. In his series of five large grisaille paintings, he imagines a young man lifting his girl through the air in graceful arcs. The lovers are seen from different angles, and viewing the panels in quick succession conveys a swirling, physical joy. This romantic vision is complicated by such kitsch as floating hearts, Black Power fists, and rococo cascades of flowers entwining the word “LOVE.” Marshall masterfully leavens old-school pictorial space with poster-shop sentiment, demanding classical vigor from his compositions while also embracing Everyman tastes. In a beach scene, he transcends purposeful cliché with Albers-esque color sophistication—a cuddling couple basks in an orange sunset, the dusky subtleties of their bodies echoed in the rich contrast of yellow sun flares engulfing a shadowy seagull. A series depicting black artists hefting palettes the size of grand-piano lids plays with an art-historical trope—self-portrait with the tools of the trade. A reminder that the canon has largely turned a blind eye to the black creator, each artist is posed before the ghostly grids you see on studio walls, where drawings and paintings of different sizes have been worked on and then removed. There’s defiance inherent in this poignant absence: Here I am, the subjects seem to say— I won’t disappear even if my work is unseen.

Erica Svec

These intense paintings slalom between hallucinogenic visions and Jasper Johns–ian formality. Break Thru (2008) features a flat, pale-peach human silhouette, its huge, fleshy fist tattooed with a target; trompe l’oeil Polaroids have been painted to the left of this image, creating a grid of vaguely organic shapes. The swaying tassels and enigmatic diamond shapes in Untitled are painted with vivid contrasts, everything geared to a circular motif centering on a rainbow-colored sprocket. With its obscuring vaporous clouds and peppy patterns, Svec-world offers nightmarish flights of fancy anchored by corporeal frisson. Larissa Goldston, 530 W 25th, 212-206-7887. Through June 21.

Robert Polidori: ‘Versailles Etats Transitoires’

Using an 8 x 10 view camera, Polidori captures astonishing details of both the interior and the artistic contents of the ancien régime’s opulent palace at Versailles. An oval portrait of Marie Antoinette, alabaster cheeks rouged like a kewpie doll’s, hangs atop elaborate white molding; grimy handprints mar a concealed door cut into the ornamental trim. Another shot crops a canvas depicting Louis XIV, refashioning his sumptuously flowing robe into rich abstraction; Polidori’s composition contrasts the painting’s saturated colors against tacky burgundy wallpaper and faux marble edging. The prints are all five to six feet high, and one focuses on a modern surveillance camera bluntly mounted to frou-frou cherub decorations. Other shots capture chipped plaster, peeling paint, and a janitor’s floor buffer, documenting royal excess transmogrified into scruffy national theme park. Edwynn Houk, 745 Fifth Ave, 212-750-7070. Through June 14.

Jake & Dinos Chapman

Like Fred and Ginger, sex and death are perennial partners. Here, the Chapman brothers dismember the body and force the parts—brains and genitalia, mostly—into a danse macabre with maggots, rubber chickens, and surgical gloves inflated like distended udders. Arranged on tabletops along with hammers, saws, and drive chains poised to slash, pulverize, and flay the flesh, these gelatinous concoctions are actually fabricated from bronze. Painted in candy colors, the brothers’ “Little Death Machines” feel like the workbenches of psycho-killer clowns. L&M Arts, 45 E 78th, 212-861-0020. Through June 14.

‘Amerika: Back to the Future’

Keynoted to Rammstein’s rollicking music video “Amerika,” in which the Teutonic industrialists roll their R’s while bouncing about in Apollo spacesuits, this group show imagines various and sundry apocalypses by way of South Park. Jennifer and Kevin McCoy present two spinning dioramas of strip malls, the first depopulated and overrun by globally warmed vegetation, another scorched and swarming with zombies; Old Navy and Home Depot signs have been cannibalized into a billboard pleading “HELP US.” One Anthony Goicolea photo features burned-out buildings fronted by battered 55-gallon drums, while another envisions grain elevators swamped by ice floes. In the rear gallery, sculptor David Herbert offers Star Trek’s Enterprise propped up by a wooden framework—the spaceship is covered with Paleolithic markings and riddled with sheltering caves. It’s the same old story: Imperial plans crash and burn, becoming the mythos of the next empire. Postmasters, 459 W 19th, 212-727-3323. Through July 12.


Flood Watch

It takes a particular sensibility, in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, to focus on inanimate objects. “No ideas but in things,” the poet William Carlos Wiliams wrote, and it is part of Robert Polidori’s working method to let mute walls bear witness. Polidori is best known as an architectural photographer, but his true interests lie at the limits of the habitable world, where disaster and human failures combine to create places nearly lost to history. Two current exhibitions of his large-format color pictures testify to his fascination with space as an expression of psychology, and with ruins as vectors of emotional upheaval and social decay.

His subject at the Metropolitan Museum (and in his massive new book After the Flood, published by Steidl) is the destruction visited upon New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Beginning on August 29, 2005, the storm’s 125-mph winds and torrential rains, and the flood waters that soon followed, reorganized the built environment in ways no urban planner could have imagined. Polidori, a French Canadian by birth who lived in New Orleans as a teenager, arrived there in late September; the streets were dark, food scarce, the water high in places, and much of the city sodden. On the first of four extended stays he set to work, documenting maimed houses and the remains of the lives that once filled them.

Outside, he registered nature’s surreal rearrangements: shotgun houses blown clear across the street, cars landed on their noses in front yards like extraterrestrials. Indoors, working with long exposures in rooms dimly lit by natural light, he showed four-poster beds collapsing under the weight of mud, upright pianos overturned and silenced, pathogenic mold blooming on upholstery and walls. There are allegories of fate, like the kitchen whose pots, hanging gaily overhead, escaped the floodwaters that wrecked havoc just below them, or the pink bedroom with a crystal chandelier suspended from bare rafters, its furnishings reduced to unidentifiable rubble. Who slept here, and where were they when the waters began to rise? Is this what the interiors of our bodies look like after death, or our souls after some great devastation?

Beautiful photographs of suffering people tend to make us uneasy; we wonder whose interests are served by such images. But the unearthly beauty Polidori uncovered in New Orleans seems harnessed to a larger cause; it heightens the emotional impact of what would otherwise be (for the most part) pictures of garbage, and it makes chaos visible. A requiem, after all, is nothing without a melody, and music (so close to the city’s soul) appears to be Polidori’s model here.

Can you make formal portraits of the end of civilization? This question also haunts an earlier series of pictures Polidori shot in the abandoned Ukrainian towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl, sites of the nuclear catastrophe that occurred in 1986. The photographer gained access to the area (which is strictly regulated) in 2001. (Edwynn Houk Gallery is showing a selection of images from his 2003 book Zones of Exclusion.) There, he focused his lens on public spaces, in particular the schools and hospitals of Pripyat, most of whose residents worked in the nearby nuclear facility. (The Kremlin kept news of the explosion a secret for a full 36 hours before ordering an evacuation.)

His pictures of kindergartens—with their peeling, institutional green walls; their little desks and chairs in disarray and covered in thick dust; and with gas masks and pictures of Lenin scattered among the toy trucks and dolls—are unutterably poignant images of a world that time forgot. Can they move us only to tears, or also to action? In Polidori’s photographs of New Orleans, something in our democracy lies shipwrecked; here, it’s the fate of future generations. In either case, the artist offers no prescription for repair, but makes visible the rift that wants healing.


I’ll Be Your Mirror

Kusama was a meteor on the ’60s art scene, arriving in New York from Japan, befriending Joseph Cornell, and painting dots and networks of lines on a vast number of surfaces, including furniture, people, animals, and phallic protuberances. She once crashed the Venice Biennale, offering small mirror balls for sale on the lawn outside the Italian pavilion, but was informed by authorities that one cannot “sell art like hot dogs or ice cream cones.” She has a history of hallucinations and stints in mental hospitals but has always continued working, and pieces like The Passing of Winter continue her obsessions: a box tiled with mirrors inside and out is pierced with cut-out circles; look inside and your reflection is bounced around a dizzying matrix of suspended and fallen reflective balls. Five-foot-high canvases hung in tight clusters have been silk-screened with obsessive patterns of repeated faces and braided abstract forms built up from wavy black lines, forming a river of graphic energy. Ladder to Heaven (2006) is threaded with fiber-optic cable that slowly cycles through a spectrum of color; large round mirrors placed top and bottom seem to offer a simple conclusion: Whether you climb to heaven or descend into hell, they are both illusions—all we can be sure of is the material fact of the beautiful object before us.

Robert Polidori

Polidori’s eye for composition (the blades of a ceiling fan droop like the petals of a dying magnolia, dried mud as thick and cracked as old concrete collapses a bed) and color (black and pink-pastel mold blooms on buckled walls, a framed beach scene of a lighthouse and blue waves lies crookedly across a filthy red recliner) heightens the impact of these photographs of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. These views of ravaged structures bring a disaster of biblical proportions down to human scale by documenting the destruction of the simple, mundane objects that make a house a home. Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Ave, 212-535-7710. Through Dec 10.

Romare Bearden

A swatch of red-and-white checked cloth, some crumpled foil, a scrap of paper that has been sanded, blurring the printed image into soft halos of intense color—Beardon (1911–88) employed ephemera to create soulful collages. He wielded scissors like a paintbrush, cutting arms, legs, and other body parts out of different photographs and cobbling them together into lithe figures who populate urban scenes; snippets of brick patterns and alternating strips of gray and white paper form the stoops of world-weary tenements. In a horizontal composition, the differing scales of limbs and heads conjure a bustling street scene, while a skeleton, its rib cage flat as a flounder, lies in the gutter—a piece of visual poetry augmented by the title: Mr. Blues Leaves a Calling Card—You Learned Very Early On That Either Side of the Street Could Be Sunny or Blue. Michael Rosenfeld, 24 W 57th, 212-247-0082. Through Oct 28.

‘Andy Warhol’s Hats’

The Pop master’s sprawling career was grounded in smart illustration. Warhol designed this collection of “marvelous make-believe millinery” for McCall’s in 1958; the cutouts were intended to “transform any holiday get-together—the third-grade room party or the New Year’s Eve dance—into a festive Masked Ball.” Ranging from a jester’s drooping cone painted in a multicolored diamond pattern and trimmed with sleigh bells to a pirate’s hat festooned with crossbones and tied with a dainty red bow, each image is surrounded by rows of black printer’s crosshairs—a foreshadowing of the warts-and-all printing techniques he used later in his “Death and Disaster” silk screens. Like Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Warhol was in fact obsessed with the author), this is a time capsule from a lost New York, seeming at first fey and precious but on reflection filled with tattered insouciance and hard, remorseless edges. Paul Kasmin, 511 W 27th, 212-563-4474. Through Nov 11.

Chris Verene

They slouch on a backyard glider. He sports a muscle tee, baggy jeans, and a goatee, and is dozing (or perhaps just closing his mind against a bleak future); she’s a big girl, her pretty face, spit curl dangling, perched on his shoulder. The title of this color photograph is The Pregnancy Test. Other scenes in Verene’s 20-year quest (begun when he was 16) to document the life of his family in economically depressed Galesburg, Illinois, include his cousin wrapping a Christmas gift: Steve Hasn’t Seen His Girls in 14 Years, and a dilapidated house with “WIPE FEET” painted on the door, titled Travis and His Mom and Stepdad Live Here Now. Whether shot in slanting sunlight or by flashbulb or dining-room lamp, these folks seem to be just living their lives when the shutter happens to go off. Alona Kagan, 540 W 29th, 212-560-0670. Through Oct 28.

Loren Munk

The five-foot-wide canvas Aesthetic Discomfort Chart (2005–06) includes cut-away anatomical models with word balloons pointing to various regions: The groin gets “Ballbreaking of Feminist Art,” the bowels “Throbbing pain in rectum of Greenbergian formalism.” Munk himself could be termed a “Flo-Chart Expressionist”—his maps of Manhattan and Williamsburg are painted in thick, clashing oils and explicate, through arrows and overlapping captions, the history of “Art’s Town” by pinpointing various artists’ studios. Yes, Pat Steir is still over on 26th Street, but I didn’t know that the lesser-known second-generation abstract expressionist Ernest Briggs once lived there as well. Munk’s obsessions take the New York School back to school. Dam, Stuhltrager, 38 Marcy Ave, Bklyn, 718-387-9818. Through Nov 13.

Michael Eastman

While grabbing some six-packs in a Miami dive, Hunter Thompson once spied “a ruined platinum-blonde Cuban dazzler” haranguing her cheapskate date. Michael Eastman’s large (some are over six feet tall) color photographs of Havana’s once grand mansions capture that same sense of faded glory and lost riches. Now paint sags from soaring ceilings ringed by battered plaster molding; a tarnished chandelier seems to sob crystal tears over a vast room furnished with drying laundry strung above two tattered easy chairs. Yet even as the tropical light reveals every chip in a marble staircase and stain on a wall, it also saturates the pastel colors of the elegant archways, imbuing these images with a grande dame’s dignified beauty. Claire Oliver, 513 W 26th, 212-929-5949. Through Nov 11.


Buena Vista

It’s been some time since landscape photography could lay any claim to pictorial magnificence or inspirational grandeur. These days, it tends to the mundane and the idiosyncratic, annexing the outside world to the private realm and investing it with the emotional resonance of a portrait. Nan Goldin employed this strategy to astonishing effect for the wall of landscapes in her Whitney retro, and her pal David Armstrong hits a similarly warm, muted note with his new soft-focus color views (at Scalo, 560 Broadway, through April 17). Eschewing the cool conceptualism of Uta Barth and Seton Smith, who also see the world through a pointillist fog, Armstrong goes for something more romantic and dreamy; his Times Square at night is a twinkly wonderland, his suburban lawn a fuzzy green patch of memory. Like most reveries, Armstrong’s disappear when examined too closely, but they’re so freighted with yearning and remembered pleasure they stick with you anyway.

Robert Polidori’s and Todd Eberle’s landscapes from Brasilia (at Robert Miller, 41 East 57th, through April 24) come heavily freighted, too. Each photographer has evolved his own strategy for shrugging off this urban utopia’s burden of bruised optimism, but neither can entirely ignore it. While Eberle focuses on enduringly chic architectural details and carefully circumscribed vistas, imagining the city in preserved perfection, Polidori is alert to decay, improvisation, and the quotidian mess of a high-modernist ideal succumbing to the realities of postmodern life.

Tom Bamberger’s black-and-white pictures of furrowed farmland and flattened dirt (at Leslie Tonkonow, 601 West 26th Street, through May 1) have an austere, blasted beauty due, in large part, to their absence of sky. Each landscape ends at the far horizon in a faint gray mist punctuated by tiny trees or houses; above that, the sky is bleached dead white. Here, the richly detailed earth appears to float free, an eloquent swatch of soil lost in space.