Want to see new art this weekend? Start in Midtown with Chris Martin’s funky, spiritual paintings. Then head to Chelsea for Surrealist explorations. And don’t miss Maja Ruznic’s dreamy, moonlit paintings in the Lower East Side and David Diao’s thrilling colors and compositions in TriBeCa.
Through Feb. 26. Anton Kern Gallery, 16 East 55th Street, Manhattan; (212) 367-9663, antonkerngallery.com
It’s thrilling to think of an exhibition — even a small one — of the gorgeous, funky, spiritual paintings of Chris Martin at the Whitney or the Museum of Modern Art, not to mention the Brooklyn Museum. But who do I kid? Although in his late 60s, this hero of the Williamsburg painting scene (who has also shown in Manhattan galleries since 1988) is represented in none of these museums; he’s never even been in a Whitney Biennial.
In a museum, these paintings would attract art novices of any age. With their allusions to immense night skies, preoccupation with outer space and their elegant improvisational brushwork, they are unusually accessible. Frequent additions of glitter, sequins and magazine images further demystify abstraction. And although often enormous, Martin’s paintings are never overwhelming. Their alluring lightness all but invites us to enter their vast spaces, and float away.
In an untitled painting, a dense field of brown glitter becomes a garden for a collage of gleaming marijuana leaves. “Jupiter Landscape” dots a fiery terrain with white ovals ringed in yellow. And the show’s tour de force, “Telescope Sphinx in Outer Space,” is collaged with photographs of Jupiter, the pyramids of Giza and Greta Garbo. On its very low horizon, Martin reviews motifs from his earlier work. One large untitled painting is unlike any Martin I’ve ever seen; working with a very broad brush, he created a vortex of color and light finished off with a restrained scattering of little gold stars. ROBERTA SMITH
Through Feb. 26. Paul Kasmin Gallery, 297 10th Avenue, Manhattan; 212-563-4474; kasmingallery.com.
In 1925, the story goes, André Breton, Yves Tanguy, Jacques Prévert and Marcel Duhamel took turns drawing on a sheet of paper folded into multiple horizontal panels. Only when it was unfolded would they discover if they’d produced a dream image, a prophetic indictment of a disordered civilization, or a joke. Though they also painted, printed leaflets, shot film and circulated petitions, this parlor game — later called “exquisite corpse,” after a line in a poem written with the same technique — may be the Parisian Surrealists’ most lasting contribution. It’s also the focus of a rich show, subtitled “Poetry, Art, Literature, Ingenuity and Life Itself,” presented by Paul Kasmin Gallery and the private dealer Timothy Baum.
The exhibition’s wide range of historical ephemera includes a painfully earnest manifesto signed by Diego Rivera; candid photos of Breton and company; “dessins communiqués,” in which multiple artists responded to a single verbal prompt; and alternate styles of exquisite corpse done with photographs or on stiff black paper. But the real hits are the raggedy, spontaneous originals, which demonstrate that making sense of a painful and terrifying world, if you really put your mind to it, can be fun. One 1928 example, by Breton, Duhamel, Max Morise and Tanguy, shows an orange-furred creature with a pair of smokestacks atop his head like horns, a flowerpot for a mouth, a green coconut brassiere, visible intestines, and a pair of tiny bleeding corpses for shoes. WILL HEINRICH
Lower East Side
Through Feb. 26. Karma, 188 & 172 East Second Street, Manhattan; (212) 390-8290, karmakarma.org.
Figures with mask-like faces materialize as if from a mist in Maja Ruznic’s latest paintings. Sometimes the figures do not appear at all, as in the allover abstraction of “Mother (Green Purple),” which uncannily reads like a dreamy moonlit reimagining of Monet’s water lilies. In the 33 paintings and works on paper on view, all from 2021, Ruznic conjures many other artists while remaining firmly her own. Her abstract paintings and backgrounds recall the saturated tones of Clyfford Still and, at their best, approach the reverential awe of Mark Rothko. The insectlike shape of “Mother & Child (Green)” suggests the spider-mother monsters of Louise Bourgeois. “Father (Consulting Shadows I)” evokes the geometries and theosophical symbolism of Hilma af Klint. “Mother (Blue-Yellow Hand)” seems to refer to Marlene Dumas’s toddler daughter, depicted in “The Painter” with hands in contrasting red and blue. Here, in Ruznic’s inversion, the titular mother’s hands are covered in blue and yellow paint, as if reaffirming her role as artist after becoming a mother.
The works here were made after giving birth mid-pandemic and document the sleep-deprived night-space of early motherhood. Despite the many references, this isn’t busy postmodernism nor academic pastiche. Ruznic’s gathering of nocturnes are coherent and lyrical, often strongest when not trying to do too much. While fewer works would have made for a more refined exhibition, the small paintings and works on paper can make you wonder how they relate to the eight larger paintings, providing an opportunity to speculate over how the artist works. JOHN VINCLER
Through March 12. Postmasters, 54 Franklin Street, Manhattan; 212-727-3323; postmastersart.com.
A century ago, Marcel Duchamp presented everyday objects — a urinal, a shovel — as “readymade” art. An “assisted readymade” was a found postcard of Mona Lisa with a mustache added; a “reciprocal readymade” was supposed to take art, like a Rembrandt, and put it to work as an everyday ironing board.
In David Diao’s 14th Postmasters solo show since 1985, the 79-year-old artist takes an everyday object that already derives from art and uses paint to turn it back into the kind of art it derives from. It’s something like a “readymade assisted reciprocal readymade” — the art equivalent of a skater’s triple axel.
The not-so-everyday object that Diao based his work on hangs from the Postmasters ceiling: It’s the “Berlin” chair conceived by the Dutch designer Gerrit Rietveld in 1923. Built — uncomfortably — from eight rectangular planks of white, gray and black wood, it’s a functional riff on the Constructivist abstractions that Russian painters had just developed. Diao has taken Rietveld’s functional components and used them as forms in some new abstract paintings.
In one, the chair’s eight shapes are placed vertically, in rigorous order, like bars in a bar-graph. Another piles them messily on top of each other, evoking the dynamic compositions of the Constructivist El Lissitzky.
But these aren’t Duchamp’s “antiretinal” exercises in artistic irony. Diao’s sleek surfaces are gorgeous and complex, like the plaster walls in a palazzo. His colors and compositions are thrilling.
His “conceptual” paintings truly give retinal pleasure. BLAKE GOPNIK
‘Notes on Baroque Living: Colette and Her Living Environment, 1972-1983’
Through Feb. 12. Company Gallery, 145 Elizabeth Street, Manhattan. 646-756-4547; companygallery.us.
The 1970s was a golden age of downtown performance art, with the most interesting work taking place outside of commercial galleries. On the streets of SoHo Betsy Damon was appearing as a ghostly eco-feminist wraith and Stephen Varble as a gender-challenging living sculpture. Farther downtown, an artist who went by the name Colette turned her Pearl Street loft into an ever-changing installation of satiny fabrics and theatrical lighting effects, in the midst of which she embedded herself like a jewel.
In that environment and in many others — store windows, nightclubs, and eventually museums — the Tunisian-born artist, who now calls herself Colette Lumiere, cast herself, tableau vivant-style, as updated versions of historical figures, fictional or real, including Frida Kahlo, Ophelia and Joan of Arc, while moonlighting as the lead singer of the band Justine and the Victorian Punks. Her career continues today, but the 1970s had its own golden age, an immersive sampling of which — costumes, props, photographs of shrines-to-self — has been assembled in Company’s Lower East Side space by the curator Kenta Murakami, in collaboration with the artist Cajsa von Zeipel.
Today more than ever, commercial galleries function primarily as purveyors of individual objects, so it’s heartening to find shows like this that present and preserve environments and careers. Such was the case with David Lewis’s wonderful display of rooms from John Boskovich’s Los Angeles home in 2020, and in Company’s overview of the filmmaker Barbara Hammer’s work last season. If this is a trend, may it continue and grow. HOLLAND COTTER
Lower East Side
Through Feb. 12. Spencer Brownstone Gallery, 170-A Suffolk Street, Manhattan. 212-334-3455; spencerbrownstonegallery.com.
Doing the fine galleries of the Lower East Side, I’ve always noticed, and enjoyed, all the makers of shop signs and store awnings happily mixed among them. With the ongoing demise of so many small shops, I’ve wondered where those makers might be placing their products — and recently came across a possible answer. “Sun Smoke,” Shane Darwent’s second solo at Spencer Brownstone, presents a series of black vinyl awnings — standing on end; flat on their backs; hovering just off the floor — that do double duty as minimal sculpture. They work very nicely as exercises in shape and composition that cleverly deploy, and recast, a humble material normally found along city streets.
But on the Lower East Side, and right now, these recent pieces by Darwent, 38, seem more site- and time-specific than that. Despite being based in Tulsa, Okla., Darwent seems to have plugged into issues that vex New York City now: His “Nocturne (Wedge),” rears up like an obelisk, slightly broken, as though in commemoration of our lost retailers. “Nocturne (Sandstone)” pairs an awning with a glum boulder; hunkering low to the ground, it might be the Tomb of the Unknown Bodega. BLAKE GOPNIK
More to See
Through Feb. 19. Galerie Lelong & Co., 528 West 26th Street, Manhattan; (212) 315-0470, galerielelong.com.
This poignant, rigorous show presents numerous drawing-like paintings — small still lifes outlined in black oil on stark white canvas. All were made in 2021 by Etel Adnan, the Lebanese-born writer, poet and painter who died in Paris last November, at 96. She is best known for bright, semiabstract landscapes that synthesized memory and imagination. Here she scrutinizes her intimate surroundings, as suggested by the show’s title — “Discovery of Immediacy” — rendering one, two or a few small objects, set on the table at which she worked, but it would seem, also relaxed. Jauntily outlined, they include glasses, bottles, cups and saucers, jars, vases of different flowers as well as pieces of fruit. Their lines are rough, insistent and not entirely stable; they were painted in one sitting and allowed no corrections, which left such niceties as light and space to the viewer’s imagination. Their energetic style bristles: it is less Matisse than Max Beckmann. It’s impatient, as if the artist were depicting the instruments of long, convivial conversations and wanted to get back to them. ROBERTA SMITH
Through Feb. 26. Eric Firestone, 4 Great Jones Street, Manhattan; 646-998-3727, ericfirestonegallery.com.
Thomas Sills (1914-2000) is, for many contemporary viewers, a discovery: Much of the work in “Variegations, Paintings From the 1950s-70s” at Eric Firestone was in storage before being mounted here. Sills was hardly unknown during his lifetime, though. He socialized with New York School painters like Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko and had several solo exhibitions at the historically significant Betty Parsons Gallery before receding from the art world around 1980.
Sills’s paintings here include many of the traditional mid-20th-century New York School concerns. Abstract canvases with colored interlocking forms like “Travel” (1958) and “Son Bright” (1975) have a vibrant, dynamic tension similar to works by Lee Krasner and Piet Mondrian, who played with the painterly grid, and with the fleshy, promiscuous pink favored by de Kooning. Sills’s surfaces are also notable. He used rags instead of brushes to finish his paintings, and this gives the pigment a particularly even look, beautifully integrated into the canvas surface.
So why was he forgotten? One reason was that Sills was a largely self-taught African American artist. Born to sharecroppers in North Carolina, he moved to Harlem as a child before becoming part of the New York art world. Another reason: There are some pretty weird, spectral canvases here, like “Easter Holliday” (1955) and “The Morning” (1954), which has a perky, pink bird at its center. Spiritualist and transcendentalist painting, which flourished outside New York, is being re-evaluated today (think Hilma af Klint and Agnes Pelton). Sills’s jazzy, cool and skillful abstractions offer another case of welcome rediscovery. MARTHA SCHWENDENER
Through Feb. 19. 303 Gallery, 555 West 21st Street, Manhattan; 212-255-1121, 303gallery.com
Kristin Oppenheim started making immersive art in the early 1990s, some time before “immersive” became a tired art-world buzzword. Her sound and sound/video pieces were always spare, subtle, even Minimalist. You had to be still and find the immersion within before the larger one emerged. Oppenheim’s primary sound has been her own voice: singing a cappella versions of pop songs whose music and meanings she manipulates for her own purposes. Previous appropriations include “Sail On, Sailor,” “Hey Joe” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”
In “Bang Bang,” Oppenheim’s first New York solo since 2002, Nancy Sinatra’s 1966 cover of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” inspires a sound/video piece. The crucial phrase has been reversed to “I shot you down,” implying female agency but also the casual violence of our time. Meanwhile, on a large screen, oddly shaped fragments of light rapidly flash and mutate across a deep blue background. The lights suggest highly irregular stars, streetlights, or both, blurring, perhaps, in the eyes of someone who has been shot and is lying on the sidewalk. ROBERTA SMITH
‘Feminism and the Legacy of Surrealism’
Through Feb. 19. Thomas Erben Gallery, 526 West 26th Street; Manhattan. 212-645-8701; thomaserben.com.
Writing about the Metropolitan Museum’s thought-provoking “Surrealism Beyond Borders” exhibition, Jason Farago recently described Surrealism as less a movement than a “language of refusal” that pushes back at “constraints on the human subconscious, and on human freedom.” In a gratifying complement to the Met show, “Feminism and the Legacy of Surrealism” at Thomas Erben Gallery brings together art works from the 1970s to the present by eight women who, while they postdate the movement proper, are all conversant in this slippery but potent language.
Elizabeth Murray’s 1972 painting “Madame Cézanne Falling Out of Her Chair,” a gaudily colored cartoon-strip that shows the artist’s wife collapsing during one of his famously endless sittings, is a joke that conceals a jab. An untitled self-portrait by Brenda Goodman, from the following year, shows the artist as a tortured cloud of moving arms, but gray winglike forms suggest that she’s the swan as well as her own Leda. In “Studies for ‘Nudes Moving an Abstract Painting,’” a 2013 series of black-and-white snapshots by Elaine Stocki, naked women handle a canvas whose faded imagery is harder to make out than the shadows they inevitably cast against it. Synthesizing jabs, jokes, allusions and evasions is June Leaf’s delicate portrait of the human being as a mysterious compromise between body and mind: A foot-high wire sculpture of what looks like a sewing machine, it sits on a metal plate labeled “The Machine That Makes Itself.” WILL HEINRICH
Through Feb. 26. EFA Project Space, 323 West 39th Street, second floor, Manhattan. 212-563-5855 x244; projectspace-efanyc.org.
The Swedish artist Hilma af Klint was as much a pioneer of abstraction as a mystic. So, in 2020, when the artists Sharmistha Ray and Dannielle Tegeder formed a collective devoted to artwork by women, nonbinary, and trans people interested in spirituality, they named it after her.
Hilma’s Ghost’s first big project was creating a set of tarot cards. Now the duo has curated “Cosmic Geometries,” which expands on the deck, by continuing its exploration of connections between abstraction and mysticism. Aided by Sarah Potter, a witch, Ray and Tegeder used tarot as a guide for laying out the show. For each of the 25 artists, they pulled a card that’s displayed alongside the work.
Even if, like me, you don’t know much about tarot, you can appreciate its apparent curatorial powers. “March ’94” (1994), a bold and radiant canvas by Biren De, hangs next to Jackie Tileston’s painting “14. Muon Seance Aftermath” (2021), which evokes unseen forces in a quieter, more hermetic way. With their playful dances of color and shape, Marilyn Lerner’s “Queen Bee” (2020) and Rico Gatson’s “Untitled (Double Sun/Sonhouse)” (2021) look like a ready-made pair. Barbara Takenaga’s transcendent painting “Floater (Revised)” (2013—15) is unique, yet I felt echoes of it in the vibratory rhinestones of Evie Falci’s “Thalia” (2016).
It’s exhilarating to see a knockout exhibition that celebrates abstraction’s spiritual searching. These works are rooted in culture and form, but reminders, too, that when it comes to art, we’re often seeking something deeper. JILLIAN STEINHAUER
Through Feb. 26. Denny Dimin Gallery, 39 Lispenard Street, Manhattan. 212-226-6537; dennydimingallery.com.
Jessie Edelman’s new paintings seduce with abandon. The seven canvases in “Getaway” are alive with contrasting, if not clashing arrangements of gorgeous color; variations in paint-handling and distortions of style, space and scale. They contrast flattening patterns and plunging or tilted depths, modernist sophistication with gleeful naïveté.
These new works feature lush tropical promontories and turquoise bays seen from above: the safety of well-appointed modernist interiors that conjure Phillip Johnson’s famous Glass House. Jungle growth and area rugs alike are painted in thick slurries of brushwork. The scenes resemble over-lighted real estate ads sourced from the internet and are surrounded — framed, really, but also encroached upon — by bands of bright floral pattern that have a life of their own. They suggest cheap peasant textiles sometimes mixed with touches of Emilio Pucci or Lilly Pulitzer. The borders’ paint application is deft and smooth, like mass-produced “craft,” as are the decorated tourist-souvenir candlesticks in paintings like “Getaway” and “Candlesticks,” which has van Gogh’s “Starry Night” floating overhead.
These paintings imply excesses of surplus income, subverted by a kaleidoscopic energy that discourages single readings. For example, the floral patterns can be read as wall paper or tablecloths. If the latter, the real estate scenes are reduced to the size of postcards or snapshots plopped down while the maid is serving breakfast by the pool. Edelman’s work is fun to unpack and ultimately beautiful, if you like beauty with a side of humor. ROBERTA SMITH
John Seal/Calliope Pavlides
Through Feb. 20. Harkawik, 30 Orchard Street, Manhattan. 212-970-3284; harkawik.com.
Most of the 11 photorealistic oil paintings in John Seal’s “Picture in Picture” at Harkawik, the year-old Lower East Side offshoot of a slightly older space in Los Angeles, contain meticulous depictions of other paintings. One shows a canvas of tropical oranges by Henri Rousseau hanging in a California orange tree, another a postcard of “Vigilance” by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes tacked up inside an otherwise empty gilded frame. In an excellent essay that serves as the exhibition’s publicity release, the writer and art historian Edward Sterrett unravels the ideas invoked by such an approach: the strange geographic trajectories of paintings as objects, the medium’s surprisingly long history of reflecting on itself, what it means to live in the contemporary sea of images. What struck me more, though, than the paintings’ conceptual implications, which are pretty well traveled at this point, if still relevant, was how neatly Seal’s flat style keeps them in the background. In “Slipping Between,” my favorite example, he superimposes renditions of two fruit bowls like an accidental double exposure. It’s no less engaging to look at than it is to think about.
In “Generator,” a suite of energetic colored pencil drawings also showing at Harkawik, the very young painter Calliope Pavlides does something similar. Imagery that floats between surreal and whimsical is part of it, but it’s really about her color choices — she uses an appealing mix of yellows, blacks and pinks just dissonant enough to feel interestingly unresolved. WILL HEINRICH
Through Feb. 19. Paula Cooper Gallery, 521 West 21st Street, Manhattan. 212-255-1105; paulacoopergallery.com.
Ten cedar beams piled against the wall make up the work called “5VCEDAR5H.”
Sixteen steel plates, each 20 inches a side and laid out edge-to-edge, form the piece “4th Steel Square,” which functions like an area rug on the gallery floor.
Three blocks of gray granite, 18 inches by 6 inches by 6 inches, are placed two up and one across, with the title “Manet Post and Lintel.” They recall the stacked stones of Stonehenge, but shrunk.
Such works by Carl Andre, including the other dozen or so in this delightful show, are usually treated with great sobriety, as art-making at its most rigorously conceptual by an 86-year-old High Priest of minimal art. But as I took in the selection, which spans 1976 to 2021, the works came off as a touch absurd, even properly absurdist: “Manet Post and Lintel” might just about be called “Homage to Spinal Tap.”
Andre belongs in the great but neglected tradition of the modern artist as joker, tweaking the nose of established “high” culture. Manet, Duchamp and Warhol, not to mention David Hammons and Hannah Wilke, can all be placed in that camp and enjoyed for the heft of their naughtiness.
But Andre’s sculptures at Paula Cooper also struck me as more straightforwardly, deliciously playful. They reminded me of what a 5-year-old friend of mine gets up to when presented with just about any objects that can be stacked.
As any child psychologist will tell you, the human brain is built on such play. BLAKE GOPNIK
Lower East Side
Through Feb. 12. Klaus von Nichtssagend, 54 Ludlow Street, Manhattan. 212-777-7756; klausgallery.com.
It’s exciting to see an artist come into her vocabulary the way Holly Coulis has in “Eyes and Yous,” her fourth solo show at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery. Since her New York debut, nearly 20 years ago, she has covered a lot of subjects, from Napoleon to the common house cat, and has developed a recognizable style of flat but brightly hued shapes — most recently oranges and lemons — bordered with contrasting colors. It’s a clever and often very appealing way to enjoy the pleasures of abstract painting and even graphic design without the burdensome self-seriousness that afflicts them both.
But now the oranges and lemons have gotten bigger. Sometimes they overlap, creating Brice Marden-like patterns within which Coulis can juxtapose lucid blocks of orange, pink and green, and sometimes she crops them until they’re unrecognizable as fruit. Most crucially, she’s also begun painting their outlines with a dry brush that skips and streaks. It’s a small change with an outsize effect: By enriching their visual texture, revealing their multiple layers and capturing the sensuous motion of the painter’s hand, these streaky outlines make plain just how substantial the paintings are. In “Mist Eyes,” four red-bordered lemons are superimposed in a kaleidoscopic double Venn diagram; in “Day You,” the figurative pretext is like an anchor keeping Coulis’s delirious colors tethered to earth. WILL HEINRICH
Through Feb. 12. Fort Gansevoort, 5 Ninth Avenue, Manhattan. 917-639-3113; fortgansevoort.com.
Beauty and horror meet in Winfred Rembert’s complexly assertive paintings. Sometimes radiant colors, tactile surfaces and folk-artish figures convey visual joy and personal dignity. Other works offer fearsome portrayals of growing up Black and male in Georgia during the Jim Crow era. In several of these, workers or convicts bend over endless expanses of white, picking cotton, overseen by white men on horses. In another, a young Black man crouches in the open trunk of a car as angry white men crowd forward; behind them are trees hung with nooses. Yet another shows a Black youth hanging upside down, on the verge of being lynched. The youth is Rembert, who lived to tell the tale, which is what is seen here.
The 23 paintings in the show, “Winfred Rembert: 1945-2021,” are finely detailed in tooled and dyed leather, a combination vital to their warmth. On the first floor of this small brick building hangs scenes from Rembert’s childhood; on the second, scenes from his brush with death; on the third, images of his seven years in prison. Afterward he married and moved to Connecticut, and around 1996, he began translating his memories into the dyed leather, using techniques learned in incarceration. For the fullest account of Rembert’s oddly majestic life, there’s his illustrated autobiography, “Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South,” published last year, which I highly recommend. ROBERTA SMITH
Through Feb. 12. Higher Pictures Generation, 16 Main Street, Brooklyn. 212-249-6100; higherpictures.com.
The 12 photographs in Keisha Scarville’s solo show at Higher Pictures Generation seem to marry opposites: black and white, figurative and abstract, legible yet enigmatic. They show mainly pieces of richly patterned fabrics and parts of bodies, but nothing appears complete. In “Negotiating/Maneuver (5)” (2021), a woman’s face is obscured below her eyes by a line of shadow (and her body further cut off by the frame). At the edge of “Within/Between/Corpus (3)” (2021), fingers touch what seems to be a leg, but they provide only a small identifiable reprieve amid a sea of cloth.
Scarville is a Brooklyn-born, Guyanese-American photographer whose work often takes up, in poetic ways, her family heritage. It’s fitting that this exhibition is titled “Li/mb” — both because of the arms and legs pictured and because of her interest in the Caribbean limbo dance, which may have originated on the slave ships of the Middle Passage. In the gallery, two sculpted hands hold an outstretched rope near the ground; above them hangs “Within/Between/Corpus (1)” (2020), a photograph that features another photograph, of a Black woman and child, at its center. To limbo is to bend yourself to pass through a series of increasingly constrictive challenges. The installation suggests that this skill may be an inheritance in Black families.
More than scenes or objects, Scarville’s charged photographs seem to represent a state of being. Limbo can mean confinement but also something more metaphysical: a sense of being in transition, never one thing or the other but always in between. JILLIAN STEINHAUER
Through Feb. 12 at David Zwirner Gallery, 537 West 20th Street, Manhattan. 212-517-8677; davidzwirner.com.
To look at James Castle’s work is to enter his secret world. The artist often bundled and then hid away his works in the walls of homes and outbuildings or even buried them in holes.
This habit of hiding exists in tension with the wondrous drawing on the second floor of David Zwirner Gallery in Manhattan, showing a bare plank-and-beam attic crowded with nearly 100 of his artworks, including books, dozens of sculptural figures leaning against a wall or standing on shelves, and nearly 20 drawings hung from the wall. Does this crowded but intuitively ordered display of his own work within a single drawing contradict his cloistered practice? Perhaps the drawing served as a catalog for works that were to be stored, so that he could later recall what was no longer at hand. While Castle’s intentions cannot be discerned, the pleasure comes in puzzling out the connections in his vast and often mysterious visual universe. Read the full review.
Through March 20. Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, Manhattan. 212-832-1155; japansociety.org.
Shiko Munakata (1903-1975), a self-taught artist from a poor family in northern Honshu, wanted to be the Japanese van Gogh. Unlike van Gogh, he enjoyed great success in his lifetime, particularly with his woodblock prints, which, in a break with most earlier masters of the form, he carved himself. In the early 1960s, Munakata traveled along the 53 former official rest stations of the Tokaido, the Shogunate-era road connecting Kyoto to Edo, as Tokyo was known, to make 61 scenic prints on white paper, half in black sumi ink and half with additional colors applied by hand.
This series, which hasn’t been shown in the United States for over 50 years, is the highlight of “A Way of Seeing” at Japan Society, an exhibition that also includes the dozen large woodblock prints of Munakata’s charming “Ten Great Disciples of Buddha” series. Hung only an arm’s breadth apart in two double rows that bisect the gallery, the Tokaido prints pass like tantalizing glimpses from the window of a clattering train. Black and white, in Munakata’s hands, become a Buddhist poem about the power of context: White can be both sky and earth, and black anything from a towering tree trunk to a lattice of cool shadow. Mount Fuji also appears in many guises: Seen from Hara, the iconic volcano is a Modernist black triangle, flecked with white but dense as oil paint; from Matsubara, it floats over a gorgeous fog of royal blue daubs bordered in rosy pink. WILL HEINRICH
Upper East Side
Through Feb. 26. Craig F. Starr Gallery, 5 East 73rd Street, Manhattan. 212-570-1739; craigstarr.com.
Over the past several decades, the self-taught artist John Willenbecher has gone relatively overlooked. But his exhibition “Works From the 1960s” proves that even his earliest output is well worth revisiting. The show begins with wall-mounted shadowboxes containing items of the sort one might find at rummage sales.
Arranged into simple configurations and painted sinister shades of black, white or gray, these found objects include Christmas ornaments, balusters and a handmade roulette wheel, not to mention rows and rows of balls. At times embellished with numbers, these spheres invoke lotteries, secret ballots or Newton’s Cradles. Some strange game is clearly afoot. Five gilded, cryptic letters — “PANSA”— gleam near the bottom of “Unknown Game #3” (1963). (The artist has long remained tight-lipped about what that word might mean.) In a second room, a group of artworks are more straightforward about their subject matter: astronomy and color. The drawing “Study for Sunup Sundown” (1966) conjures the blues and pinks of a changing sky.
A trained art historian, Willenbecher owes much in his compositions to Joseph Cornell’s boxes and Louise Nevelson’s all-black assemblages. And his interests in hazard and chance certainly connect him to Dada artists like Marcel Duchamp. Revisited now, though, Willenbecher’s works resound at a uniquely contemporary pitch, at a time when every next TV show features diabolical trials and contests. Precise and ominously elegant, his shadowboxes evoke the archetypal villain of the moment: the untouchably powerful maestro ensuring that the house always wins. DAWN CHAN
‘The Unseen Professors’
Through Feb. 26. Tina Kim Gallery, 525 West 21st Street, Manhattan. 212-716-1100; tinakimgallery.com.
As the writer and curator John Yau points out, grouping the sculptors Minoru Niizuma (1930-1998), Leo Amino (1911-1989) and John Pai (born 1937) as “Asian Americans” is a little reductive — but it may also be the neatest way of encapsulating why they haven’t gotten more attention. Born in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, Amino briefly attended college in California before moving to New York, while Niizuma, raised and educated in Tokyo, didn’t get here till 1959. Pai, who lives in Connecticut, left Korea with his parents as an 11-year-old.
Juxtaposed by Yau in “The Unseen Professors,” though, their works complement powerfully. Pai’s welded steel skirts the border between math and craft, while Niizuma’s chunky marble sculptures reveal the beauty of the stone without eliding the ambivalent violence of carving it.
But it’s Amino, if you missed last year’s show at David Zwirner, who’s likely to be the revelation. Experimenting with polyester resin after it was declassified following World War II, Amino made transparent boxes enlivened with streaks of primary color, transforming the ordinary experience of viewing sculpture by making his objects seem, from certain vantage points, less than solid. The angled facets of “Refractional #21,” a geometric composition of triangles and rhomboids, flicker like an old movie as you move around it, while “Refractional 27A,” whose colors float like clouds in a frozen fish tank, seems to exist not in three full dimensions but only in two and a half. WILL HEINRICH