After a Plague of Dead Fauna, A Disquieting Homage to Life

The sculpture of Gillian Jagger, currently the subject of a disquieting exhibition at the Phyllis Kind Gallery, puts me in mind of some wise advice I once received about sausage: Best not to ask how it’s made.

Until now, what little I knew about Ms. Jagger’s work I’d gleaned from gallery listings: brief descriptions of how “roadkill” is her inspiration and medium. Having suffered in recent years a plague of art incorporating dead fauna, I was in no rush to learn more. (The best place to go for that kind of thing is the American Museum of Natural History, where the specimens on display are offered in the name of science, not art.) And yet, having found myself in Soho recently on an errand, I decided it was my critical duty to pop into Kind and see the work. I was shocked-but not because it offended my not-so-delicate sensibilities. What’s shocking about Ms. Jagger’s sculptures is that they actually function-and succeed-as art. No Damien Hirst–like huckster, Ms. Jagger is a sculptor of singular, though not unproblematic, gifts.

Roadkill is not, literally speaking, Ms. Jagger’s medium. Her wraith-like effigies are casts made in plaster of horses and deer found dead on or near the artist’s farm in Kerhonkson, N.Y. Two of the three pieces are fractured “shells” of animals suspended by wires that have been attached to architectural armatures; the other, The Pregnant Deer (2000), is a free-standing piece. All of these partake of the theater: Offset with dramatic lighting, they’re like marionettes in an otherworldly ballet.

The detachment Ms. Jagger employs when casting her subjects must be formidable-it’s not every artist who, confronted with the corpse of her favorite horse, mixes up a batch of plaster. I don’t mean to imply that this detachment is a form of callousness. Ms. Jagger’s art is gentle and loving, an homage to life rather than its embodiment. As such, it’s stringent in its means and romantic in effect. Ms. Jagger balances these extremes adroitly, so that one’s quibbles about the bathetic are set aside. What can’t be set aside is the clumsiness of the installation: The floor lamps that illuminate the tableaus are an obstacle to both the eye and foot. Ms. Jagger needs to rethink her presentation. All the same, the show is an unlikely and unexpected triumph.

Gillian Jagger: The Absence of Faith is at the Phyllis Kind Gallery, 136 Greene Street, until July 29.

Vibrant Doodles

An artist may save every scrap of paper he’s ever doodled on, but does that mean they’re worth looking at? The ephemera culled from the flat files of the abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly, currently the subject of the exhibition Tablet 1949-1973 , now at the Drawing Center, are worth looking at, although one should bear in mind that they function less as ends than as means.

Each of the 188 scribbles, scrabbles and sketches on view offers evidence of an eye ever attuned to visual stimuli. Mr. Kelly takes inspiration where he finds it: from a snow-cone wrapper to a photograph of sailboats to a scrap of canvas riddled with blotches. He also sketches upon whatever surface is at hand-a gallery announcement from Julian Levy, a dinner invitation from Sidney Janis or a telegram from Mom. These notations aren’t much more than throwaways, but they are free-flowing and inquisitive, foolhardy and funny. They are, in short, everything Mr. Kelly’s art-his real art, one wants to say-is not.

As someone who finds Mr. Kelly’s real art beautiful and boring, I had a fine old time at the Drawing Center. It’s refreshing to see this most controlling of hedonists let down his hair; goofing around becomes him. One does, however, wonder about the hubris entailed in such an everything-but-the- kitchen-sink venture. Only an artist convinced of his Midas touch would dare such a thing.

Still, there are signs that Mr. Kelly doesn’t take himself too seriously. The show’s nonhierarchical installation-two rows of identically scaled frames ring the gallery without pause for emphasis-establishes, albeit in a back-handed manner, that this is an artist for whom aesthetic discrimination is paramount. Wise to the slim aesthetic weight his doodles carry, Mr. Kelly makes no distinctions here. The irony is that his doodles come closer to achieving the vitality we expect from art than his museum-ready masterworks. Is it unjust to claim that Tablet 1949-1973 is all the Ellsworth Kelly any reasonable person should ever need? I don’t think so.

Ellsworth Kelly: Tablet 1949-1973 is at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, until July 24.

That Huge and Angry Thing

I used to think that Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was the artist people hated to love, but now it seems like he’s the artist people love to hate. If that comment sounds disingenuous, consider that Picasso’s reputation has diminished in recent years. How could it not? When pranksters like Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia ascend to the front ranks of Modernist masters, everything that Picasso stood for-and here I speak of him as an artist, not as a human being-is all but thrown out the window. His pivotal role in the advent of Modernism is still pretty much intact, but rumblings that his achievement is not all it’s cut out to be are heard with increasing frequency. Also consider Picasso’s influence on the contemporary scene: practically nil. When the art world rewards transgression and discounts tradition, Picasso is no longer an inspiration-he’s the enemy or, worse, a nonentity.

These thoughts were brought to mind by Pablo Picasso: Metamorphoses , an exhibition currently at the Jan Krugier Gallery. The paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints on view are from the collection of the artist’s granddaughter, Marina Picasso. The gallery calls this show a “retrospective,” and I suppose it is: It spans the entirety of the artist’s career. We see him make his way from an early takeoff of Goya to full-fledged Cubism to Constructivist sculpture to a 1972 drawing that plunks Rembrandt smack dab in the middle of a pornographic reminiscence. Yet “retrospective” is too grand a word for what is, essentially, a patchwork compilation. Each piece is touched by Picasso’s genius-that huge and angry thing-but few are defined by it.

Metamorphoses is unlikely, in other words, to win Picasso any new converts. For true believers, it will serve as a reminder, albeit a bumpy one, of why we got religion in the first place. And when Picasso pulls off a winner against all odds-as in an appallingly hasty nude from 1946-we know that all the bumps are worth it.

Pablo Picasso: Metamorphoses; Work from 1898-1973 is at the Jan Krugier Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, until July 26.