Art: Small shows, great rewards

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"Jitterbugs" by William Henry Johnson: All dance, no eyes.

W hen it comes to viewing art, it's not always the biggest show that makes the greatest impression. The best moments come when the crowds aren't jostling, and you are able to have an intimate encounter with a work you didn't quite expect.

Right now, the Art Museum is crowded with visitors to "Discovering the Impressionists," and for good reason. There are great paintings there, some from far away. But I found that the works I most enjoyed seeing were old friends that I had met before under quieter circumstances.

Still, even amid the current hubbub, private discoveries are possible at the Art Museum. Currently, there are half a dozen special shows, most featuring works from the permanent collection salted with key loans. They are not groundbreaking, but the three I saw recently offer plenty to catch the eye.

William Henry Johnson's 1941 series of screen prints, Jitterbugs, truly has become an old friend, since I have seen images from it in four shows in less than a year, and I liked them every time. The series is on view again in "Dance: Movement, Rhythm, Spectacle," an engaging show mostly of works on paper, documenting dance from the late 19th century to the mid-20th.

Johnson's dancers, which appear to be made of cutout shapes in primary colors, are funny and energetic and jazzy, even as they anticipate the later work of Matisse. Like a number of the people depicted in this show, they have no eyes; it's all about the body.

Some other works, new to me, illuminated legendary dance pioneers. I have seen a film of Loie Fuller, the American dancer whose use of flowing costume and colored lighting wowed Paris at the turn of the 20th century. But though I could understand what the fuss was about, technically, she looked awkward and a little silly. Some books on display, with images of the dancer molded into the paper and hand inked, evoke the theatrical effects that made her an art nouveau icon and multimedia pioneer.

Similarly, Abraham Walkowitz's watercolors of Isadora Duncan seem to embody the spontaneity that so excited those who saw her dance in person. Every re-creation I have seen - including a video in this show - makes her work look self-indulgent and mannered. She was always reaching for something, and though Walkowitz's draftsmanship borders on the Thurberesque, he makes us feel her relentless urgency.

There are also some Toulouse-Lautrecs, a terrific Leon Bakst costume, and if you insist, a Renoir etching of The Dance in the Country.

The liberating thing about a show like "Into Dust: Traces of the Fragile in Contemporary Art," in the museum's Perlman Building, is that you needn't feel any obligation to understand the works on view, let alone admire them. Many deal with matters of life and death, some explore the nature of soil, and others don't really seem to have much to do with these ideas at all. The labels consist entirely of quotations from the artists, which more or less guarantees that nothing will be too clear.

Alan Sonfist's four Earth Paintings (1968-69) are literally dirt on canvas, but the earth has been taken from different locations. We see the dull black of Florida, tannish Indiana, rich brown New York, and black, crystalline, almost gemlike Hawaii. They open our eyes to what we see every day, though it's understandable if what you really like is Hawaii.

Projection 4 (P) (1997) by the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, is a two-projector hour-long slide show that, during the time I watched, showed images of colorful, beautiful, and probably poisonous mushrooms, which apparently dissolve into one another. It shows dead things metamorphosing into flashy fungi, and finally into the soil that will nourish more life.

The earliest piece in the show, Portrait of Jean-Louis (1947-49) is one of the most mysterious. It looks sort of like a squid, sort of like a tooth, and sort of like an apartment building whose blue windows are all empty. One of the most recent, Great Transformation, the Object (after Naum Gabo's Construction in Space: Two Cones of 1927/37), a 2014 work by the Danish artist Marianne Vierø, shows an iconic constructivist sculpture destroyed. Actually, the work was destroyed, along with a replica Gabo made to replace it, because the plastic material he used deteriorated. The new work re-creates the piece in its broken state, through the use of a three-dimensional printer.

The literal centerpiece of the show is another recent work, Gabriel Orozco's 2012 sculpture Roiseau 8. Described by the artist as a "bridge between control and abandon," it is a curving bamboo rod from which feathers branch, making a sort of cross between bird and tree. It hangs from the ceiling and twists entrancingly in the air-conditioning's currents. Unfortunately, a nearby work, Alfredo Jaar's 1981 Opus 1981/Andante Desesperato is an endlessly repeating video of a man making ungodly squeaks as he incompetently plays the clarinet. It was so painful to be in its presence, I yearned to kick in the video screen, putting a stop to the noise and giving the show another ruined sculpture.

For me, "Northern Lights: Scandinavian Design," also in the Perelman, probably has too many old friends. Scandinavian design is a well-plowed field, but the Art Museum has an outstanding collection, so there is little need to justify putting it on show from time to time. The exhibition begins with a romantic, thronelike chair in the early-20th-century, Viking-revival "dragon" style, and it ends with the video game Minecraft. But most of it dates from the decades after World War II, when the fusion of clean modern lines with natural materials was exactly what a generation of educated young Americans wanted in their houses.

I bonded once again with Alvar Aalto's majestically flowing bent-plywood armchair, focusing on the leather-strap headrest that reminds us that this is not an abstract sculpture but a place to sit. And I rediscovered a piece I'd forgotten - a cast-iron casserole designed in 1959 by Timo Sarpaneva, a Finn best known for his designs in glass. Its lid has a wooden handle that is not permanently attached, but placed through slots. The handsome handle makes this primal pot look a bit dressy, though I worry about its stability.

But the best discovery at this show was made by a small boy who could barely contain his excitement as he dragged his mother across the gallery to see an object in a vitrine. "Mom," he cried, "there's your scissors!" Soon, the entire family was gathered around the pair, designed by Olaf Backstrom for Fiskars in 1963, obviously amazed to discover something so familiar.

The boy had learned a lesson. What you go to the museum to see is not nearly as important as what you find.


Art: A TASTY THREESOME

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th and the Parkway.

Dance: Movement, Rhythm, Spectacle, through Aug. 2.

Into Dust: Traces of the Fragile in Contemporary Art, through Oct. 25.

Northern Lights: Scandinavian Design, through Oct. 4.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday.

Information: 215-763-8100 or philamuseum.org.


tom@thomashine.com.