Julie Mehretu’s Works on Paper Favor Cold Precision Over Depth

My students tell me the painter Julie Mehretu is hot stuff. Given the heft of her press packet, she must be: You can flip through its pages at the front desk of Projectile, a West 57th Street gallery that’s exhibiting Ms. Mehretu’s works on paper.

An impressive batch of clippings may signify a major reputation, but can it tell us about, you know, the art? The Mehretus I’ve come across have left only a vague impression; all my memory can scrabble up is that the pictures poach upon the scattershot aesthetic of the Information Age.

All of which could mean that I encountered Ms. Mehretu’s art on an off day and was unable to muster the attention it merited. Or it could mean that the pictures are neither here nor there, just white noise occupying valuable Manhattan real estate. The drawings at Projectile-churning, grayish dreamscapes that recall and combine Chinese landscape painting, Kandinsky at his spaciest, Abstract Expressionism and architectural renderings-lead me to believe that both of the above responses are the case.

Ms. Mehretu’s art has its moments. She’s adept, certainly, at varying the character and density of her marks. Ruled lines and clusters of stains; sharp pen pricks and cloudy forms; shapes that could be dragons or birds and hard-edged geometric punctuation-all of them co-exist within a fluid, encompassing cosmos suggestive of the Big Bang or a storm on the rise. That’s the problem: The drawings merely suggest; they don’t give body to the elemental forces, the drama and mystery, that Ms. Mehretu seeks to tap into.

Over the run of 30-some depressingly consistent drawings, you never feel that any one of them is real or meaningful or particular. Attractive, sure; expert, absolutely-but the primary aspect of the work is a discernible lack of core. Ms. Mehretu is a drawing machine. As such, collectors who consider a brand name the most reliable gauge of artistic merit can rest easy with their investment. The rest of us will rue yet another willing capitulation to the marketplace and seek our pleasures elsewhere.

Julie Mehretu: Drawings is at Projectile, 37 West 57th Street, until June 4.

Lover of Life

You wouldn’t know it from Woman, “the Sweetest Flower,” an exhibition dedicated primarily to the drawings and prints of the sculptor H.C. Westermann (1922-1981), on view at Lennon, Weinberg Inc., but he’s among the better American artists of the 20th century. You would get the idea that he’s among the most contrarian, as well as crude, cantankerous and randy. If you’ve guessed that makes him likable-you’re right. A seamless amalgamation of Elie Nadelman, Joseph Cornell, W.C. Fields and the folk artist round the bend, Westermann invested an immaculate sense of sculptural craft (no mean carpenter, he) with an infectiously ribald sense of humor.

The craft and, with it, Westermann’s significance is scarcely in evidence at Lennon, Weinberg: Three marooned sculptures don’t do either justice. The humor, however, is seen in abundance. The works-on-paper, with their cartoonish panoramas of the American landscape and moonlit docks, depict shaggy-dog stories brimming with true love, sad love, good sex, bad sex, inescapable mortality and-gracing the lot-a boundless appetite for that vulgar thing called life. See America first, Westermann counsels-but not before he’s pinched your wife’s ass and flipped you the bird. You’ll love him all the better for it just the same.

H.C. Westermann: Woman, “the Sweetest Flower” is at Lennon, Weinberg Inc., 514 West 25th Street, until June 18.

Johns at Marks

Do you know what a “catenary” is? I don’t know what a catenary is, and neither, I am convinced, does Jasper Johns. You certainly won’t be clued in by his recent paintings, drawings and prints-collectively titled, you guessed it, Catenary-on view at the 22nd Street branch of the Matthew Marks Gallery. The press release doesn’t help; it briefly mentions that a catenary is a kind of curve and leaves it at that.

Obfuscation is par for Mr. Johns’ course. He has, after all, made a not-insignificant career of trading in rebus-like conundrums. The flags, the targets, the stenciled letters, the biographical minutiae, all laid out with a patient disregard for clarity-you’re not supposed to get it; that’s the point. So forget definitions and listen to this: After the 1996 MoMA retrospective-the last time New Yorkers had a chance to see the artist’s work in any depth-Mr. Johns “retreated to his studio in Connecticut to wipe the slate clean, beginning a body of work that was a dramatic departure from anything he had made before.”

That might be true if Mr. Johns had taken up painting floral still lifes, the kind routinely sold for $29.95 in hotel chains across the nation. Yet the pictures at Marks are typically and utterly Johnsian-that is to say, stolid and sludgy, predictable in their pastichery and oh-so-dull.

The oddments of assemblage, the poorly painted trompe l’oeil passages, the constellations, the patterning, the dour pseudo-intellectualism of it all-this isn’t a dramatic departure; it’s cookie-cutter product, D.O.A. That’s about all anyone should expect from Mr. Johns, but that doesn’t answer the question: Can art galleries be held liable for false advertising? Contrary to the claims made for it, Mr. Johns’ slate remains consummately unwiped.

Jasper Johns: Catenary is at the Matthew Marks Gallery, 523 West 22nd Street, until June 25.