Humid August has settled in, and all through the city the body is on display. Even the art world has joined the exhibitionist spirit, with two notable photography exhibitions about hands and hairdos.
At its best, the Guggenheim Museum's "Speaking with Hands: Photographs from the Buhl Collection" is a fun, quirky show containing many outstanding images. Unfortunately, it is also a poorly edited sprawl that is sometimes too single-minded about its subject matter. Many uninteresting photographs seem to have been included only because a hand is prominent. In many others hands are as incidental as elbows or noses.
The hand has a rich tradition in art; it is second only to the face as the most-represented part of the body. Traditionally celebrated for its expressiveness, the hand in the modern age has recently acquired new status, in part due to fingerprinting, as a locus of identity. In addition, it has been made a synecdoche for the artist, since art-making begins with handmade craft. The photographs in "Speaking With Hands" pick up on all these themes.
The expressive range of the hand is seen in Donna Ferrato's "Injured Woman on the Street - McKeesport, Pennsylvania" (1983). As a bloodied woman points furiously at her attacker, a cop reaches toward her battered face with a comforting open palm. The heroically wrinkled hands of Dorothea Lange's "Migratory Cotton Picker, Elroy, Arizona" (1940) show the hand as locus of identity.
The flip side of this equation is shown in Gilles Peress's "French Hospital, Sarajevo, August-September, 1993," a haunting image of an anonymous victim of the Bosnian War. The photograph is cropped at the neck so that the subject's head is hidden from sight. His anonymity is driven home by his handless forearm stumps.
Some of the show's best images are those of artist's hands. In Robert Doisneau's "Picasso's Breads, Vallauris" (1952), the white-haired artist sits for a meal. His hands fall below the table, but two four-fingered loaves of bread are placed on either side of his plate, like fleshy paws about to grab whatever is served. The photo's visual pun is replicated in the original French title as "breads" (pains) rhymes with "hands" (mains).
Alexander Liberman's "The Hands of Marcel Duchamp" (1959) shows the artist's hands frantically playing chess. Duchamp, after winning notoriety in the 1910s, turned his attention from art to chess and was successful enough to play for the French national team. By emphasizing the manual aspect of chess, the most cerebral of games, Liberman commented ironically on Duchamp's conceptual art, which attempted to take the manual aspect out of art-making.
The hand's creative power is also the subject of Annette Lemieux's diptych "Transmitting Sound" (1984). Two flipbook-like sequences of images - set before black backgrounds in series that recall Eadweard Muybridge's 19th-century motion studies - show, first, the movements of an orchestra conductor's hands and, second, hands clapping: the initial and final moments of a musical performance. Both sequences relate the hand to sound, but the conductor merely implores others to make music, whereas the clapping hands make sound on their own.
Ms. Lemieux's intelligent work is exemplary of the kind of conceptual complexity that a pared-down version of "Speaking with Hands" might have explored.
"Do," an exhibition of 42 photographs of memorable heads of hair at Pace/MacGill Gallery, contains few images as outstanding as the best work in "Speaking with Hands." But it is a more successful show because of its light tone and clever curating.
Much of "Do's" pleasure derives from its over-the-top juxtapositions. Upon entering the gallery, one is confronted by an epic "Mohawk" (2001) on a signature William Wegman dog portrait. Hanging beside this is an image of a young punk couple making out in a dingy basement (Jim Goldberg's "Psycho and Wolfette," 1988-95) and a color postcard (by Mary Anne Fackelman, 1983) of Mr. T. wearing a Santa suit (though not the hat, of course). Sitting on Mr. T's lap is another 1980s icon, Nancy Reagan, who kisses him on the shaved side of his mohawked head.
Another funny threesome brings together Kiki Smith's "Daughter" (1999), a spooky image of the possible lovechild of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf, Loretta Lux's portrait of a little girl wearing a haunting blank expression ("Hidden Room 1," 2001) that recalls the ghost-children in "The Shining," and Hiro's portrait of the intense, young "Sean Penn" (1983).
But when it comes to hairdo, no photograph is more memorable than Joel Meyerowitz's "England" (1966). The subject is an older woman, who looks back at the camera with wary directness. The photographer, however, is clearly less interested in meeting her eyes than in her hair: a white mass that rises straight up from her forehead like a tidal wave at its peak, right before the break. Meyerowitz underscores the image's bizarreness by tilting his camera slightly, placing the woman in an unbalanced, off-centered world.