Postcards From the Edge-Elegant Scribbled Nothings

You know it’s been one of those weeks when the most rewarding gallery exhibition you’ve seen features an artist who has been relegated to the sidelines. Not that Cy Twombly, who’s exhibiting six new paintings and one sculpture at the uptown branch of the Gagosian Gallery, hasn’t had his moments. His signature compendiums of scrawls, scribbles and erasures afford a certain rarefied pleasure, especially the work dating from the early 1960′s, when Mr. Twombly first hit upon the idea of transforming the notational into a species of painting. The excitement in these canvases is unmistakable. Of course, the transformation was never complete: Wise to the offhand charms of graffiti, Mr. Twombly is oblivious to the rigors of space, composition and color. His painting has always been a matter of frantic surfaces, gloppy impasto and a palette notable only for its rootlessness.

The new paintings succeed to the extent they do because Mr. Twombly succumbs to the louche elegance that is his forte. No historical or mythological pretensions here-just a shallow, soothing ease. Keyed to a bleached, minty green, each of the pictures is punctuated with flurried scrawls of white paint. Actually, “punctuated” is too strong a word-Mr. Twombly’s rosettes of white hang inertly upon the surface, pinned up as if they were so many entomological specimens. Drips, wipes and traces of yellow and red are in evidence, and Mr. Twombly fusses over all of it with a diligent haste. The result are pictures that insist on inconspicuousness; they’d make a great backdrop for a fashion shoot. As for the lone lump of sculpture, it wouldn’t make a great backdrop for anything.

Cy Twombly: A Gathering of Time is at the Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Avenue, until July 12.

Let My People Go

Leafing through the press materials at the front desk of the Brent Sikkema Gallery, where an exhibition of drawings by Kara Walker is on view, I came across an interview with the artist in which she states that her work was not shocking but provocative . The distinction between the two is, I think, pivotal. “Provocation” implies the beginning of informed debate; “shock” implies an affront and, most likely, an end to informed debate. Given that Ms. Walker is best known for cut-out paper silhouettes depicting American slavery, one is reminded of how artists are often the worst interpreters of their work. The lessons of the past always bear repeating, but what kind of lesson is Ms. Walker teaching? Maybe there are people out there who need to be reminded that slavery is a moral abomination; if so, our society is disgraced by their presence. I doubt, however, that those same clueless folk make regular visits to Chelsea’s upscale galleries.

In other words, Ms. Walker is preaching to the choir. Provocation is beside the point: The debate is over and done with. Which is why Ms. Walker, contrary to her protestations, relies on shock to put across her art. Coprophilia, rape, bestiality, “real nigger, fake negro” and Mammy as Hamlet-Ms. Walker’s images and words, calculated to pierce the conscience, deliver only a coy, cheapjack jolt. Ms. Walker doesn’t illuminate past injustices; she exploits them for political and artistic purposes, trivializing history in the process. And forget comparisons to Goya: Ms. Walker’s erasures, smears and collage fragments are the work of an artist who stands outside of style-she could do with some drawing lessons. She’s at her best in the one large silhouette, a medium that seems to suit her small, cruel gift.

Kara Walker: Drawings is at Brent Sikkema, 530 West 22nd Street, until July 25.

Senior Citizen

The art world’s infatuation with the sculptor Louise Bourgeois continues apace at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where an exhibition of drawings is on display in the museum’s Anna and Joel Ehren-Kranz Gallery. Ms. Bourgeois, at the age of 92, has reached a point in her career where coasting on the devotion of her fans is a luxury she can afford-one of the few benefits of longevity. Created during eight months of recurring insomnia, the pictures highlight Ms. Bourgeois’ temperament (sickly, creepy, feisty and sweet) and feature her telltale line (scratchy, artless and mostly red). In terms of imagery, they’re all over the place: waves, flowers, birds, mazes, the cosmos, New York City and, on a piece of stationery from the Pompidou Centre, a topless woman carrying a briefcase.

The ragged and at times infuriating character of the work does call to mind an artist pacing around the studio at 3 a.m., unable to get a good night’s rest. “An attempt at finding a kind of peace” is Ms. Bourgeois’ take on the drawings, a description that’s a lot more convincing than claiming all 220 pieces as “a single, unique work of art.” Betting that quantity obscures quality, the artist relies on biographical ambiance to put across what are basically an errant bunch of doodles. By my count, there’s only one good drawing: an abstraction in which Ms. Bourgeois’ line is contrasted with some wisps of blue and black. (For what it’s worth, it can be found on the bottom row of pictures hanging on the north wall, fifth from the right.) The Insomnia Drawings are another manifestation of the cult of personality; if they weren’t by Louise Bourgeois, few people would give them the time of day.

Louise Bourgeois: The Insomnia Drawings is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison at 75th Street, until Sept. 21.