Currently Hanging

Kentridge’s Charcoals: I Saw the Movie

The South African artist William Kentridge, whose first American retrospective is currently at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, describes his work as “an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings.” That it is also political art-or, as Mr. Kentridge specifies it by using the most cautionary of articles, “a political art”-is worthy of a raised eyebrow: We don’t expect nuance from that most didactic of genres. And the artist, who takes as his impetus apartheid and its uneasy legacy, doesn’t escape its limitations. Mr. Kentridge’s animated films, the work for which he is best known, tend to the maudlin and sometimes to the sensationalistic. (Mr. Kentridge also writes, works in the theater, creates puppets and draws.) His Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997), a cinematic collage that refers to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is unforgettable in its rage; each herk and jerk of this bitter diatribe bruises. Yet the film’s use of actual (and excruciating) newsreel footage only accentuates how cheap-how easy and platitudinous-art can be when it takes on inequities over which it has little practical bearing. There are few things as bootless as a heavy hand that’s incapable of bearing weight.

The polemical thrust of Mr. Kentridge’s art is, however, augmented by a lyricism that is as surprisingly fluent as it is unfortunately intermittent. His finest achievement is a series of six films that center around a character named Soho Eckstein, a greedy capitalist reminiscent of similar types found in the Social Realist art of painters like Jack Levine and William Gropper, and Eckstein’s alter ego Felix Teitlebaum, an artist who is always depicted naked. (“I couldn’t think of an outfit for him,” the artist has deadpanned.) The animated shorts were made through a process wherein the evolution of a single charcoal drawing-with its erasures, additions and alterations-was filmed by the artist. The resulting films flicker, stutter and swirl with a compelling, homemade smudginess and are sparked by moments of conflicted metaphor, surprising sympathies and startling subtlety-one could write a psychological profile of Soho Eckstein just by observing how he shifts his legs under his bed sheets. Still, the work’s spare and ghostly poetry is dulled, less by Mr. Kentridge’s pungent and often predictable symbolism than by his shortcomings as a draftsman.

The works on paper on display at the New Museum-often the final state of one of the films-evidence an artist for whom charcoal is an unwieldy and unwilling tool. It’s little wonder that viewers head straight to the movies and skim over the drawings: They’re unexceptional in their earnestness, marked by duty but not enlivened by it. The pictures are so drab that one begins to wonder if the power of the animated films lies in their ability to mask this interdisciplinary artist’s undisciplined talent. At which point, one might ask whether an amplitude of conscience-however righteous, however commendable-is capable of supplying ballast for a lack of hands-on fundamentals. Whereupon one concludes that Mr. Kentridge, while a gratifyingly atypical political artist, is not gratifyingly atypical enough. William Kentridge is at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 583 Broadway, until Sept. 16.

Red Grooms: Art With Shtick

The self-portrait by Red Grooms seen on the cover of the catalog accompanying Red Grooms: Selections from the Graphic Work, an exhibition currently at the National Academy of Design Museum, exemplifies everything we like about him: his genial, aw-shucks enthusiasm, his homey, can-do gumption. Seen sharpening a pencil and sticking out his tongue, Mr. Grooms depicts himself working-or preparing to work, anyway-with all the concentration of a boy putting together a model airplane. An all-American boyishness is, in fact, Mr. Grooms’ gift. The world is his toy box, and his favorite toys are the city and pop culture-the former for its variety, the latter for its vulgarity, both for their vitality.

The work is never without good cheer, but it’s a good cheer that skitters and glances instead of builds or deepens. Over the long haul, Mr. Grooms’ breezy bumptiousness elicits not so much a dizzying engagement as a bemused tolerance-in other words, the oeuvre annoys. Only in the barely containable romance of Coney Island (1978) and (maybe) the homage to Chuck Berry does he expand upon the so-glad-to-be-here Groomsian shtick. The only time he denies his shtick is in Self-Portrait with Mickey Mouse (1976), a picture so persuasively straight-from-the-hip that one wishes this funny man were a little less funny a little more of the time. Red Grooms: The Graphic Work is at the National Academy of Design Museum, 1083 Fifth Avenue, until Nov. 11.

Winters’ Traverse: Paintings to Prints

Terry Winters: Printed Works, an exhibition currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is instructive in that it displays one painter’s progression as a printmaker. Following Mr. Winters from his career-establishing biomorphs to his career-invigorating futurism, we see him initially regard printmaking as a handsome sideline, only to end up exploring it as an artistic pursuit. Comparing the subtleties of texture and space in a recent etching like Internal and External Values (1998) to the dead-as-a-doornail density of the early lithographs, one can’t help but applaud the distance, both artistic and technical, Mr. Winters has traversed. One can, however, help but applaud the artist himself.

Because it functions as a mini-retrospective, Printed Works underlines all too concisely Mr. Winters’ weaknesses: his penchant for the arty and the secondhand, his fumbling stabs at an information age profundity, his cluelessness with color. Consequently, we realize just how uninhabited his biomorphism was and how rambling his cyberspaces are. The exhibition doesn’t pretend to be definitive, but it hints at why Mr. Winters’ heavyweight rep is neither as heavy nor as weighty as his admirers would have it. If that’s not the upshot the Met was banking on, it only goes to show that this venerable institution is as fallible as the rest of us. Terry Winters: Printed Works is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until Jan. 6. Currently Hanging