Lighter Than Air

Calder made toys for children, but all of his work—or, rather, his best work—are toys. The biggest difference between the early wire sculptures and the mobiles-to-come is that the latter lent themselves to public display; the former, to intimacy. “Hands-on” is the key to Calder’s winning and ineluctable genius. “The Paris Years” makes that distinction abundantly and delightfully clear.

“Alexander Calder: The Paris Years; 1926-1933” is at the Whitney Museum of American Art,  945 Madison Avenue, until Feb. 15.

Uncanny Concision

The Japanese tradition of shaping bamboo for baskets and floral displays dates back a thousand years, but it’s become a freestanding sculptural medium for contemporary artists. “New Bamboo” includes 23 artists, and while each possesses immaculate skill, not a few mistake fussiness for intricacy and self-aggrandizement for expertise. At their most astonishing—Nagakuri Ken’ichi’s unnerving effigies or Tanabe Mitsuko’s comical and primordial biomorphs—the artists render bamboo fluid and tensile, impossibly delicate. Natural forces—wind, sun, breathing and, er, UFOs—are embodied with uncanny concision.

“New Bamboo: Contemporary Japanese Masters” at the Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street, until Jan. 11, 2009.

Rueful Irony

Native American culture is the basis of “Identity by Design,” and ritual the fulcrum, but sensuality is its pleasure. Crafted for ceremonies specific to women, the dresses range in design and craft from ascetic to spectacular to gaudy—a little bit of rhinestone goes a long way. Subtle transitions between materials—fire-polished beads, cowrie shells, elk teeth and the irresistible nubble of animal hides—beg for our touch. A Lakota dress accented by tattered American flags begs for irony almost too rueful to consider.

“Identity By Design: Tradition, Change and Celebration in Native Women’s Dresses” at the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art, One Bowling Green, until September 2009.

Thrilling Anyway

Masterworks by Botticelli, Titian, Giorgione, Lorenzo Lotto, Tintoretto and Ghirlandaio—O.K., “Portrait of a Young Man” and “Portrait of a Young Woman” (ca. 1490) are just attributions, but who cares? They’re thrilling all the same, and are among the many reasons to visit “Art and Love in Renaissance Italy.”  Glassware, maiolica, sculpture and jewelry offer additional testimony to perennial commemorations of betrothal, marriage and birth. Don’t forget sex—the ridiculously vulgar The Triumph of the Phallus is an ornate priapic homage that could’ve been lifted from Monty Python.

“Art and Love in Renaissance Italy” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until Feb. 16.

mnaves@observer.com