New York Works on Paper, 1997 (from the print archive)

"Author's cut" of an article that appeared in the now-defunct magazine On Paper (aka Art on Paper), May-June 1997, page 8 (the column title was "New York Paper"). The paragraph on Richard Tuttle had his supporters up in arms, from what the editors told me. The words "legend has it" were added to the bit about Marcia Tucker being fired from the Whitney over the '70s Tuttle show, because I couldn't back up the anecdote--this was before Google. The paragraph on the Guggenheim Soho was also removed--you have to remember, this predated blogging, when discourse was extremely polite.

Works on paper on view in Manhattan this month offer a tour of the space-time continuum: from the Antarctic Ocean to distant galaxies, from Columbus's discovery of America to the Whitney's discovery of the moment.

Through May 30, The Hispanic Society of America, at 613 W. 155th Street, presents "Defining the Americas: Accounts and Images from Latin America from the European Encounter to Independence," showing how European travelers depicted the flora, fauna, and native peoples of the New World in published manuscripts dating from 1500 to 1850 A. D.

The earliest images are the most fascinating, with artists struggling to represent the unfamiliar based on known models. In one graphic 16th Century image, of cannibals roasting explorers over an open flame, the natives appear as identical bald Caucasians wearing earrings and loincloths. Elsewhere armadillos and coatimundis are seen as hybrids of European animals, some with human faces. Despite errors of perspective and proportion, another image from the late 1500s presents the grim truth of the "European encounter." Exquisitely faded, this fragile sketch depicts natives and llamas hauling ore down an Andean mountain, under the eyes of Spanish overseers. As the wall-text explains, these were the silver mines of Potosi, Peru, "which financed the military machine of the kings of Spain."

In another eye-opening exhibit, at The New York Historical Society, we learn that one of the great 19th Century naturalists slaughtered thousands of birds in his lifetime. "Taking Flight: John James Audubon and the Watercolors for The Birds of America" (through September 7, at 2 West 77th Street) reveals that Audubon was an avid hunter, and while his shooting provided him with his models, most often it was done for the sheer thrill of it. The exhibit features an impressive number of his original watercolors: done in the era before the shortcuts of camera-ready illustration, they are more intricate and emotionally invested than one might expect (Audubon makes Andrew Wyeth look like Leroy Neiman). The obsessively-rendered images, incorporating gouache, pastel, and oil glazes in addition to watercolor, convey more about the "essential bird"--be it flamingo, condor, or the now-extinct Carolina parakeet--than the dull objectivity of the camera ever could.

If Audubon has an antithesis, it might be 20th Century artist Richard Tuttle, whose works are so enigmatic and ephemeral they got Marcia Tucker fired from her Whitney curatorial post, legend has it, when she showed them back in the '70s. When Tuttle is "on," he amazes you with his ability to make something out of virtually nothing--a scrap of paper, a few pencil marks--but when he's not, as is often the case in his show of prints and bookworks on view at the New York Public Library--he can be awfully precious. The exhibit demonstrates Tuttle's commitment to the book as a medium, with scores of examples from all phases of his career. Most were produced in connection with museums and galleries, and far too many have a souvenir look (as opposed to something realized out of inner need). The best works were the earliest, done on a budget, such as Sparrow, 1965, an edition of 25 bound in raw canvas, opened to a gorgeous geometric drawing in mauve and green-gold. (The exhibition runs through May 31, at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street.)

Also in contemporary vein, Karen McReady Fine Art presents "Oceans and Galaxies," an up-to-date survey of cosmic and oceanic themes in a variety of media (through April 26, at 425 W. 13th Street, 5th Floor) The show could be viewed as an enormous sandwich with Vija Celmins as the bread, each work relating in some way to Celmins' deadpan drawings of ocean waves, on the one hand, or starscapes, on the other. Celmins herself is amply represented, most notably by a wood engraving (No Title, 1995) which could be the sea after the Pequod went down, from a heretofore-unknown edition of Moby Dick. Other obvious inclusions are Hiroshi Sugimoto's ethereal, watery horizons and Thomas Ruff's astral views. Particularly striking is Stuart Klipper's chromogenic print of a vast triangular slab of Antarctic ice, sheared off with apocalyptic finality and surrounded by dark ocean--a landscape utterly indifferent to human experience.

Further downtown, at the Guggenheim Soho, one can see "Art/Fashion," a modified version of an exhibit at the Biennale de Firenze curated by Germano Celant, Interview editor Ingrid Sischy, and others (ending June 8). Recreating pavilions at the Biennale, the exhibit pairs famous artists and stars of the fashion world--e. g., Tony Cragg/Karl Lagerfeld, Roy Lichtenstein/Versace--and the curators have the incredible hubris to compare this mixing of brand names with the creative ferment of the early Modernist era, when Picasso made costumes for Diaghilev and the Russian constructivist Varvara Stepanova designed attire for female workers. Fortunately, to give us a taste of that earlier era, they have assembled examples of clothing by Futurists, Surrealists, and other artists, and the bold, colorful sketches of dresses and suits by Giacomo Balla and Sonya Delaunay, in particular, steal the show. (These works, as well as recent clothing-related sculptures by Beverly Semmes, Vito Acconci, and Wiebke Siem, deserve better than this trivializing context, which harks back to MOMA's "Primitivism/Modernism" show in the '80s.)

Finally, the Whitney Biennial, on view through June 1, features some excellent photography and work on paper, in keeping with this year's focus on narrative and "artists' cosmologies." Particularly noteworthy are John Schabel's photos of passengers sitting in airplanes, shot from bridges and overpasses without their knowledge (using a telephoto lens). These soft, grainy images are as chilling as surveillance photos, but with an unexpected poignancy--a sort of Where Do We Come From? Where Are We Going? Who Are We? for the age of air travel.

Although the New York Times singled out Shazia Sikander's small works for high praise, the artist's creative strategies--incorporating abstract and biomorphic elements into Indian miniatures relating to her life and past--seem pretty obvious, particularly in comparison to Kerry James Marshall's work, paintings of African-American families in suburban utopias (resembling theatrical backdrops altered with collage and drippy abstract marks), which are both inviting and curiously impenetrable. With Marshall's work, you keep looking, searching for the elusive meaning; with Sikander's the moment of disorientation quickly dissipates. Neverthless, it is nice to see work on an intimate scale in an exhibition that continues to be dominated by in-your-face installations.

--Tom Moody