There’s the famous image of a nude torso replacing a woman’s face: breasts for eyes, a navel for the nose and a triangle of pubic hair in place of her mouth.
That’s Rene Magritte’s “The Rape.”
I was surrounded by the artist’s signature oddball floating eyes, human limbs, the steaming locomotive flying out of a fireplace and witty, random bits of language (the picture of a pipe accompanied by “This is not a pipe”).
And then there are his ubiquitous men in bowler hats. Aren’t we past this sort of gesture, already tired when Magritte was doing it?
Tony Oursler’s winking eyeballs, Jenny Holzer’s neon phrases and Jake and Dinos Chapman’s pornographic, multi-limbed mannequins -- all of which add nothing new, really -- have brought Magritte’s weirdness-for-weirdness’s-sake imagery into the present day.
Much of this material was already stale when the Belgian artist hit the scene in the 1920s. But Surrealism continues to be safe territory.
The Museum of Modern Art has mounted the benign survey, “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938,” as a celebration of the irrational.
This show is exactly what you’d expect -- a clever commercial illustrator’s tongue-in-cheek, often erotic reductions of the truly mysterious yet ordinary world of dreams. These are illustrated jokes, cartoons and strategies that merely nod to peculiarity.
Magritte wanted to make “everyday objects shriek out loud,” but he finessed all the life out of these pictures. His deadpan surfaces are too mechanical and formless to speak, let alone shriek above the cacophony of present-day surrealist hangers-on.
In 1966, Robert Indiana’s brightly colored “LOVE” appeared and exploded into the public imagination.
The “O” in “LOVE” tilts forward, suggesting both aggressive admiration and unrequited love. It reminds me of a battering ram, the head of a fallen warrior from an ancient Greek pediment and the implied arrow within the 1994 FedEx logo.
A 6-foot-tall sculptural version, “The Electric Love” -- adorned with flashing Broadway lights -- ignites the lobby of the Whitney Museum of American Art to begin the retrospective “Robert Indiana: Beyond Love.”
The surprise here is that the Pop artist’s oeuvre is so often politically driven or fraught with Existential drama. He has taken on sex, death, racism and civil rights, and has paid homage to painters Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley and Joseph Stella.
Nothing else here has the calligraphic punch of “Love” -- especially not his own later “Art,” “Aids” and “Amor,” which feel like impersonations of a classic.
Indiana isn’t a one-hit wonder. At the Whitney, his bizarre, totemic wooden sculptures combining words, numbers, symbols and wheels merge carnival games, monuments and Roman chariots.
“Beyond Love” reveals that he is a strong graphic designer who is beyond his element at the easel.
“Robert Indiana: Beyond Love” runs through Jan. 5 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave. Information: +1-212-570-3600; http://www.whitney.org.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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