Currently Hanging

Heads Up: Fine Sculptor

Reconfigures the Noggin

The organizing principle behind Alfred H. Maurer and Jonathan Silver: An Installation , on display at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, is obvious: Although Maurer (1868-1932) and Silver (1937-1992) belonged to different historical epochs, they share a fascination with the human head, both as an iconographic mainstay and as a way to explore matters of form. The correspondences between their work go deep, but I don’t want to waste space writing about Maurer. Don’t get me wrong-as the superb retrospective at Hollis Taggart Galleries a year or so back confirmed, Maurer is an artist of the first rank and in need of historical reappraisal (though it must be admitted that his head pictures are the weakest part of the oeuvre ). I’d rather write about Silver, who is, I think, one of the finest American sculptors of the late 20th century.

A rash conclusion to jump to given that I’ve only come across a dozen of his pieces, and three of those were duds. But once you’ve seen Silver’s heads, you can’t shake them-or, for that matter, account for them. Sure, you can trace the impetus to Alberto Giacometti: The earliest head at Bookstein, done in bronze and dated 1967, plainly announces its debt to the great Swiss artist. But it’s only when Silver’s reverence for precedent turned into skepticism, and then into a kind of violence, that his sculpture came in to its own. Working in plaster, Silver brought an unremitting tenacity to reconfiguring the head-concentrating it, denying it and, ultimately, breaking it to pieces, only to confirm its archetypal power. The less Silver’s pieces kowtow to representation, the truer they are to themselves. Agamemnon (1977)-with its harsh accumulation of rubble, steel fragments, a $12 price tag and, unless I’m imagining things, bubble gum-feels like the culmination of a tradition that dates back to ancient Egypt. It’s an amazing sculpture in that its contentiousness is so utterly rational. There’s no way Donald Judd, Frank Stella or (I insist) Richard Serra can match Silver’s ferocious probity. He’s a classic waiting to happen.

Alfred H. Maurer and Jonathan Silver: An Installation is at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, 50 East 78th Street, Suite 2A, until Jan. 25.

Microcellular

Big Bang

RabbiSaulJ. Berman, writing in the catalog that accompanies Tobi Kahn: Microcosmos , a beautifully appointed exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum, claims that Mr. Kahn’s paintings are “a visual-spiritual midrash

[interpretive commentary] on the biblical narrative of creation.” That’s quite a load to saddle on pictures as condensed-notto say as simple-as these, but I’m not so sure Mr. Kahn can’t handle the weight. A proponent of biomorphic abstraction, Mr.Kahn tethers one or two amoeba-like forms to the perimeters of the canvas, establishes an intimate and sometimes furtive ambiance, and then slathers the lot with attention-or, rather, acrylic paint. Mr. Kahn, it seems, wants to endow his floating and elusive blips with a physicality that will render them monumental and immovable. One wishes, however, that he weren’t so insistent on covering his tracks during the painterly evolution of the imagery; the brushy uniformity of his surfaces tends to homogenize the work. Still, the seriousness of Mr. Kahn’s pursuit is plain, and his gift for endowing shape with symbolic heft undeniable. The microcellular big bang that is Ahlom (2001) would be hard to live with, for the right reason: It’s a reminder of just how assertive the intangible can be.

Tobi Kahn: Microcosmos is at the Yeshiva University Museum, 15 West 16th Street, until Jan. 26.

Undiminished Vitality

Looking at Fountain of the Moor (circa 1653), a recently discovered terra-cotta study by the great Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), currently on display at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, I couldn’t help but think of Jeff Koons. You remember Mr. Koons, of course-he of the oleaginous smile and oversized tchotchkes . Well, he recently received a mixed but basically commendatory write-up in The New York Times . That his art was praised didn’t faze me; plaudits are a dime a dozen these days. That he was pegged as a sculptor did. Sculpture has, of course, undergone substantial transmutations in the past 400 years, and I’m wise to the Dadaist aesthetic. But pondering Mr. Koons while gazing at the roiling majesty of Bernini’s modello leads me to suggest that we ought to invent a new word for what Mr. Koons does-or despair at how loose the defination of sculpture has become.

Having said that, Bernini: The Modello for the Fountain of the Moor and its pendant exhibition at Salander-O’Reilly, Italian Sculpture: From the Gothic to the Baroque , should not prompt nostalgic ruminations on the days when men were men, sculptors were sculptors, and Duchamp and his progeny were unimaginable. Rather, it should be cause for celebrating the here and now, when we can saunter into a New York gallery and marvel at art whose vitality is undiminished by time. Bernini’s piece-with its sinuous musculature and delicately brushed cross-contours-is the show-stopper. Also recommended are the languid sensuality of Agostino di Duccio’s Female Saint (circa 1463-1471), the coursing vulgarity of Baccio Bandinelli’s Venus and Mars Caught by Vulcan (circa 1530-1540), and Saint Paul (circa 1530-1539), a quietly dramatic terra cotta by Giovanni Andrea Galletti. Curiosity-seekers should look for the herm, a column-like monument carved from walnut, that is the collaboration between Dionigi di Matteo Nigetti and Giorgio Vasari, author of the seminal art-historical text Lives of the Artists . Credit goes to art historian Andrew Butterfield, who, having organized two shows of Italian sculpture at this venue last season, has established a salutary continuity. Let’s hope finds like the modello keep coming his way-exhibitions as superlative as these, New Yorkers could get used to.

Bernini: The Modello for the Fountain of the Moor and Italian Sculpture: From the Gothic to the Baroque are at Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, until Feb. 1.