Choreographer Merce Cunningham sits in a wheelchair, directing his dance troupe in the vast Craneway Pavilion, a former Ford assembly plant overlooking San Francisco Bay.
Enormous walls of windows look out toward the city, and the late-afternoon sun illumines his fuzzy arc of thin, curly, gray hair like a halo -- as if he were the source of light.
This is among many poignant moments in Tacita Dean’s 108-minute, 16mm film “Craneway Event” (2009), which chronicles Cunningham and his dance company as they rehearse over a three-day period.
It’s the most ambitious and compelling artwork in the New Museum’s “Tacita Dean: Five Americans,” an uneven exhibition of conceptual portraits that document and pay homage --sometimes in elegiac form -- to Cunningham and to artists Julie Mehretu, Claes Oldenburg, Cy Twombly and art historian Leo Steinberg.
Born in 1965, Dean emerged in the 1990s as one of the strongest of the Young British Artists, a group that included Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
“Five Americans” is the most substantial New York presentation of her work to date. In these intimate documentary films and photographs, primarily from 2011, Dean plays with the idea that watching an artist at work can be extremely boring.
In one over-the-shoulder, close-up-shot of Cunningham, faraway dancers appear to flutter just outside the choreographer’s head like images conjured in a thought balloon.
In other scenes, we hear the heavy, rhythmic pound and squeak of dancing feet off-camera, but all we see is the motionless choreographer, who in one instance naps in his wheelchair and in another contemplates a sailor on the dock and a pigeon scurrying across the dance floor.
The dancers, passing birds and boats and the changing light -- which turns walls and floor into liquid -- inspire Dean to take risks and let her wide-angle lens linger lovingly on the sidelines, as well as the action.
Not so successful works here include “More or Less,” a set of large minimalist prints resembling erased chalkboards and vaguely relating to Steinberg and Twombly.
“GDGDA” is a two-film installation which numbly follows Mehretu’s creation of an 80-foot-long abstract mural commissioned by Goldman Sachs.
The two other 16mm films, mundane though mildly interesting follow Oldenburg and Twombly as they dodder in their studios.
In the 16-minute film “Manhattan Mouse Museum,” Dean observes Oldenburg, wheeling noisily back-and-forth in his office chair, as he examines, dusts, fondles and rearranges his collection of hundreds of small artifacts -- rubber stamps, perfume bottles, figurines -- like someone rummaging through his childhood toy chest.
The 29-minute film “Edwin Parker,” titled after Twombly’s given name, documents the late artist in his storefront studio in Lexington, Virginia.
Twombly mumbles incoherently. He fidgets with artworks, books and his glasses. He and his two elderly assistants tape an abstract painting into an ornate, gilded frame.
And they go to a diner, where Twombly asks their waitress about the turkey: “Not dry, is it?”
“Dry” could be applied to some of Twombly’s work. But here, where Dean films unobtrusively from the wings, occasionally transforming shifting light and shadow into abstract pattern, his cluttered studio has probably never looked better.
Twombly’s artworks take on a magical air.
“Tacita Dean: Five Americans” runs through July 1 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery. Information: +1-212-219-1222; http://www.newmuseum.org.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include McCoy on wine and Gerard on theater.