Published: Vol. 23, No. 13, August 4 - 10

‘Look Ahead’ with Stephanie Buhmann
Noteworthy August Exhibitions Not to be Missed

Otto Dix, Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber, 1925

Otto Dix (1891-1969)
Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber, 1925
Currently exhibited at the Neue Galerie, NY

After several weeks of record-breaking temperatures, this New York summer has tested many a city-stuck resident. Those to whom the ocean remains a mere concept might find some relief by attending the fantastic multi-gallery group show “Lush Life” — which has certainly raised the bar for elaborate theme shows to come.

Organized by Omar Lopez-Chahoud and Franklin Evans, the exhibition spanned nine Lower East Side galleries and involved dozens of artists currently associated with the neighborhood’s gallery community. Richard Price’s 2008 popular thriller of the same title has nine chapters — and the curators adopted its structure.

Hosting the chapter entitled “Whistle,” Sue Scott Gallery offered one of the most elaborate displays — with David Kramer’s sculptural recreation of a bar, complete with back mirror, stools, Jim beam bottles and shot glasses. In contrast, the mood at Invisible-Exports navigated between the whimsical and the ethereal. Inspired by chapter three — “First Bird (A Few Butterflies)” — it featured several depictions of birds, of which works by Jon Rappleye, Gina Magid and Jeffrey Gibson stood out. The installation captured the haunting sentiment of Price’s description of the killer — who, listening to the bird outside his window, faces the first morning after his fatal deed. Chapter four’s “Let It Die” is one of the strongest works — and can be seen outside the door of Lehmann Maupin (201 Chrystie St.) through Aug. 13. Set up on the sidewalk, Robert Buck’s “The Shrine” evokes a not uncommon city still life. Flowers, candles and stuffed animals have been assembled to pay homage to a recently deceased member of the neighborhood — in this case, the victim of Price’s story. Buck’s work remains on view even on the days the gallery is closed, providing it with an eerie life of its own and succeeding in fusing (and confusing) fiction with reality.

In contrast to galleries which are heading towards their summer break (many close for at least a couple of weeks in August and schedules should be checked individually), the city’s art museums continue to offer eclectic fare without pause.

August is the last month for the exceptional Otto Dix exhibition (Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Ave., through August 30). Considering Dix’s status as the leading member of the New Objectivity movement, it is hard to fathom why this is his first solo museum show in North America. Along with George Grosz, Dix (1891-1969) was the most important artist to have captured German society in the aftermath of World War I and during the subsequent era of the Weimar Republic. Enlisted as a soldier, he witnessed the devastations of World War I firsthand — an experience that supplied him with intimate visual knowledge of any horror imaginable. Upon his return, he settled in Dresden and began to portray his time and his people with unparalleled vehemence, honesty and a sarcastic sense of humor. Despite the occasional landscape, his main subjects were the inhabitants of urban street life — democratically including prostitutes as well as workers, members of the upper class and war veterans. He graphically described the divide between the era’s decadence and widespread destitution that made it a dangerous breeding ground for the Nazis. To illustrate Dix’s vitality, the Neue Galerie has assembled over a hundred of his works — including true masterpieces such as “Portrait of the Laryngologist Dr. Mayer-Hermann” (1926) and “Reclining Woman on Leopard Skin” (1927).

An incredible portraitist, Dix painted others as well as himself (with or without his family). However, the work to best reveal his power of observation and imagination is the spectacular “Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber” (1925). Berber was a nude dancer in Berlin, whose scandalous lifestyle made her infamous by the late 1910s. Dix’s vision of Berber in a skintight red dress, with cherry-red hair and green eye shadow that contrasts the powdered white skin of her aging face, discloses his admiration and intrigue with his subject’s strength and aura. In this portrait, Berber appears as an exotic siren and proud creature of the Golden era — who, in her eccentric glory, creates a stark contrast to the uncertainty of the future.

Nearby, “Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield” enters into an interesting, yet unintentional dialogue with Otto Dix (Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave., through October 17). Curated by the radical contemporary artist Robert Gober, this well-rounded survey features over one hundred major watercolors, drawings, oil paintings, sketches, notebooks and journals. Though Burchfield (1883-1967) was Dix’s contemporary, his context could not have been more different. Raised in Ohio rather than in war-torn Germany, he preferred rural and small town America to buzzing urban centers. However, despite their different circumstances, styles and interests, Burchfield (like Dix) became a master of capturing his immediate surroundings. Burchfield’s world was a more peacefully contained one (which involved his garden, harmonious domestic and nature scenes).

Both men examined their surroundings with attention to detail. But where Dix was cynical — stripping his subjects to a skeleton of truth — Burchfield embraced a Romantic notion that allowed for a sense of mysticism. The Whitney exhibition marks the first major step towards a general reevaluation of Burchfield’s oeuvre. Though he was acclaimed by critics during his lifetime, he receded somewhat into obscurity after his death. Burchfield’s unique depiction of his particular slice of America should guarantee him more than a simple footnote in Western Modernism.

One of this year’s most thought-provoking museum exhibitions, “Dead or Alive” features thirty international artists, whose works employ and transform organic materials such as insects, feathers, bones and hair (Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, through October 24). Two whole floors are filled with intricately crafted installations and sculptures that draw on once-living parts of flora and fauna. Pondering the transience and fragility of life, the works are at times elegant, brutal, lyrical and horrifying. The list of artists ranges from established names (such as Damien Hirst and Nick Cave) to the up-and-coming German artist Christiane Löhr —who suspends a nest of thistle and dandelion seeds from the ceiling in the entrance hall.

Other site-specific commissions include works by the American artist Jennifer Angus (known for her architectural interiors covered with thousands of dried insects that are pinned to mimic vintage wallpaper) and Kate MccGwire, who created a large cascade of feathers. Though devoid of overt sociocritical messages, “Dead or Alive” nevertheless draws attention to the many environmental concerns that make our world less healthy and stable every day. In the course of viewing the exhibition, the title seems to be pointing at a crucial decision that society can make as a whole. Do we want to exist in a world in which species become extinct, oceans are poisoned and forest destroyed? Do we want our world to be, in fact, dead or alive?