Growing up in Depression-era Bronx, Rosalyn Drexler’s parents would often take her to Vaudeville acts around town. The boisterous shows, soon to be replaced by radio and PG-rated Broadway revues, proved fertile ground for Drexler, whose polymorphous career would lead her from self-taught artist, novelist and playwright to a brief stint as a professional wrestler. A brilliant exhibition at Garth Greenan overflows with the spectacle, loneliness, violence and shallow glitz of showmen, artists, and gangsters and reveals the artist’s exceptional gift for teasing drama out of color and form. Drexler’s moda operandi often involves appropriating popular imagery from magazines and other print media which she then manipulates with popish colors, a process that she calls “embalming”. The resulting collaged narratives drip with dark humor and sardonic parody. Two paintings in the show circle back to Drexler’s burlesque childhood adventures. “Greatest Show on Earth”  and “Woman Sawed in Half”, both from 1989, are complex and surreal scenes that echo Drexler’s pastiches, but the inherent flatness of paint imbues them with a solid absoluteness where her collages deal in ambiguity. They are part of an extra-ordinary polymath art career littered with unpredictable twists and turns and a penchant, even at ninety-three years old, for playing the irritating gadfly with unabashed glee. At Garth Greenan through March 30.

A little-known treasure cave, DC Moore’s back gallery often offers unexpected visual gems. Currently, four exquisite paintings by Milton Avery are on view. “Pink Nude” (1946) and “Nude before Screen” (1949) delight in the simplicity of form, artistry of color handling and sovereignty of the picture plane. In “Yellow Robe” (1960) Avery’s wizardry with color is at play with yellow against red on muted ground which magically morphs into the assertive side of his wife Sally. “Fresh Strawberries” (1949) summons drawn-out summer lunches and languid afternoons under shady trees. A colander of luscious berries depicted from a birds-eye perspective on a checkered green tablecloth comes alive via the juxtaposition of interlocking planes with the centered assertiveness of the flat object. Yet again, color is the main protagonist. Grey on green beg for the liveliness of red and wondrously render this composition a simple expression of complex emotions. At DC Moore Through April 6.

The Rose of Jericho is a plant that can play dead for many years and only opens up when water is added. It is also the center piece of Ricardo Brey’s conceptual work “Rose of Jericho” which is both an installation and a video and consists of a fold-out box lined with Baroque wall paper that houses the plant encased in a glass dome on a comfortable bed of brittle paper. If, according to Brey, “The box is our head, the box is our cave, the box is the attic, the box is the memory and the world”, then the rose must be our brain which explains so many things. To add a personal flourish, the Cuban-born artist attaches an accordion-style series of his own drawings and text that somehow get folded into our complex consciousness. Brey’s fascination with boxes and their association with the complexities of the mind as it relates to the human race, evolution, history, and the relationship between man and nature are founded on the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the fascinating theory of the interconnectedness of the world of Alexander von Humboldt. They are poetic artifacts that aim to identify and move beyond cultural identity and call on us to realize the shakiness of our perception. At Alexander Gray through April 6.

Kiki Smith’s new exhibition “Murmur” leads from the spiritual world of nature into the extra-terrestrial expanse of the cosmos. Working across an almost inexhaustible array of mediums and dimensions, the show brings together large scale sculpture, stunning cyanotypes, delicate etchings, and small Wunderkammer-like objects. An exquisitely bronzed tree trunk starts an esoteric journey that leads via a cluster of wall-mounted shooting stars to a large meteoric sculpture and culminates in a Zen-like room lined with small allegorical animal sculptures on glass shelves. A Japanese-inspired water stone in the center provides a grounded serenity. Elsewhere, a series of ethereal cyanotypes recall the dreamy marvel of starry nights and the infinite expanse of cosmic space. At once whimsical and dramatic, the show aims for an experience rather than a display and invites to shed the pandemonium of the outside world in favor of a few minutes of quiet contemplation and repose. At Pace through March 30.

Jamaican-born artist Nari Ward often works with the detritus of the world and fashions it into installations and assemblages that are sobering reflections on society’s socio-economic and racial shortcomings and the fear and despair they beget. Ward has an uncanny ability to coax meaning out of materiality. Displacement, poverty, and racism are the fault-lines around which Ward operates. To that end, a room-full of discarded baby strollers becomes a searing indictment on the appalling plight of homelessness; broken furniture an emblem of gentrification and displacement; and an assemblage of charred baseball bats a symbol of broken dreams. Folk traditions, such as quilting and story-telling and the spiritual cure these ritualistic disciplines bequeath, are particularly important touchstones of Ward’s practice. In the monumentous sculpture “We the People” (2011), the first three words of the pre-amble to the US Constitution are spelled out with hundreds of colored shoelaces which renders this absolute manifest blurry and unclear. It is a brilliant attempt to repurpose the familiar in order to expose its alien. At the New Museum through May 26.

Finally, at age 96, Beverly Pepper is getting the credit she deserves. Recent revelations that Pepper worked with Cor-ten steel years before Richard Serra discovered the material and a belated recognition that she pioneered linking sculpture to landscape, cement the artist’s place at the vanguard of innovation. Pepper came late to sculpture. The artist was already forty years old and living in Italy, when she got introduced to David Smith and, in a baptism by fire, learned welding and metal work in a factory in the small town of Spoletto. A series of recent large-scale works circle back to the artist’s infatuation with Cor-ten steel. The monumental works are at once poetic and bold. Dynamic half-circles and buoyant loops in a weathered patina seemingly defy laws of physics and affirm Pepper’s superior proficiency with materiality, color and form. The illustrious art critic Clement Greenberg was supposed to have told Pepper once that women can never be great sculptors. It is fair to say that she proved him wrong. At Marlborough Gallery through March 23.

Arthur Schopenhauer once famously observed that “genius lives only one story above madness”. Nowhere is that more congruous than in the life and work of the late Italian artist Carol Rama. Rama was born in the last throes of World War I into an Italian family straight-jacketed by religion and repressed sexuality and spent her young adulthood witnessing the steamrolling ascent of fascism. When Rama was fifteen, her mother Marta was committed to a mental institution which, with its disturbing scenes of forced confinement and intense physical and physiological pain, made a deep impression on the young artist. Her early pastels and watercolors are raw depictions of disembodied limbs, figures trapped in wheelchairs, and frontal nudes defiantly sticking their blood-red tongues out. A series of works titled “Appassionata” links the hellish prospect of the Passion of Christ with the psychological torment of inhibited sexuality. In the magnificent “Appassionata (Marta e i marchettoni)” (1939), named after her mother, three nude figures are trapped in a tightly cropped composition. Two males, in barely visible outlines with stark-red lips and bloodied genitalia, masturbate or copulate in front of a woman wearing a flowery crown of thorns. That these types of works were a direct affront to the stifling patriarchal environment of Mussolini’s Italy was clear and intentional and led, not surprisingly, to the police shutdown of her first gallery show. In 1942 Rama’s father, who owned a bicycle factory, committed suicide. Subsequent works abandoned figuration and often incorporated deflated rubber tires, tar, and doll eyes on dark canvas. Carol Rama died on September 25, 2015 at age 97 in the same town where she was born. Throughout her self-taught art practice madness, sexuality, violence and repression was matter-of-factly tied to the inevitability of family blood which also was the cauldron that gave birth to Rama’s genius. At Levy Gorvy through March 23.

2020 promises to be a banner year for Jasper Johns. Duelling exhibitions at The Whitney Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art predict the most comprehensive consideration of the artist’s oeuvre to date. A small teaser of thirty-eight works made during the last six years is currently on view at Matthew Marks Gallery. A sombre color palette and the re-workings of earlier themes of death and dying invite the reading of the work of an artist at the twilight of his career. It absolves the show of the sort of didactic interpretations that have become de rigour when considering Johns’ work. The great quantum leap in linking language to experience and image to emotion which in turn are distilled into an artwork is the artist’s legacy and nowhere more apparent than in his searing drawings and monotypes based on the Life magazine photo of a grieving Lance Corporal James Farley during the Vietnam War. Elsewhere, Johns circles back to his Seasons paintings from the mid-1980s with two new interpretations that superimpose the artist’s shadow with a jolly skeleton. Recurring subjects and motifs serve as armatures for a continuous mirroring and rewriting of gestural form and provide the springboards for the artist’s relentless experimentation with materials that place him into the distinguished category of one of the most gifted living artist in America today. At Matthew Marks through April 6.

The armature around which Judith Linhares builds her expressive compositions has its origin in color. Acid greens, electric yellows, and artic blues dislodged from the brain without logic or intent find a sudden purpose in hallucinatory narratives where nature, animals, and the female form languidly commune. Dramatic bands of color inject movement and energy into nonsensical scenes where women are often the sole protagonists. Occasionally, Linhares places her own spin on art historical gems such as in “High Desert”, when she awakens Rousseau’s poetic Sleeping Gypsy (1897), strips her of her clothes and dips the scene in acid. A strange scene of domesticity plays out in “Saturday Morning” (2017) where two women cheerfully work and play in front of a pyramid-like structure. These narratives neither need nor miss men. Graceful, unhurried, and utterly unrestrained, the women go about their business in a world that feels natural on their own terms. At PPOW through March 16.

The idea that sparked Kevin Beasley’s brilliant installation “A View of a Landscape”, currently on view on the 8thfloor of the Whitney Museum, came from a trip to a family reunion in Virginia. For the first time, Beasley noticed a nearby cotton field and pondered his own connection to its violent history and acts of displacement. Beasley, who is black, tracked down a motor of a cotton gin that ran a field in Maplesville, Alabama from 1940 until 1973. He encased the motor in a sound-proof glass box, hooked up microphones and connected it to a synthesizer that allows him to manipulate the sound and vibrations which he then plays in an adjacent listening room. The resulting experience is sobering and profound. The mute segregation of the motor as a strong metaphor for the machine as a witness connects intuitively to the silencing of voices and the haunting of absent bodies. Time and place distorts historical narration and gets channelled into fragmented sound and vibrations that lets visitors process history on their own terms. For Beasley has morphed his own personal experience into a physical experience for viewers who can feel the pulse of the motor through the benches in the listening room. The buzzing and vibrations get transmitted into their bodies and stay as reverberations long after they have left the gallery. At the Whitney Museum of Art through March 10.

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