In Chelsea, a darkened exhibition space usually portends a video. But this summer the Chelsea Art Museum's entire third floor is dimmed to protect art of a more vintage sort: A 1799 edition of Goya's "Los Caprichos," the only one produced under the artist's personal supervision. These 80 etchings, on loan from the Museo Fundacion Cristobal Gabarron in Valladolid, Spain, depict all kinds of macabre vices, both personal and institutional.
The single row of Goya prints winds along wall after dimmed wall, intriguingly interspersed with the work of 10 contemporary mid-career artists from various parts of the world. Even though "Los Caprichos" and "Here Comes the Bogey-Man" are separately titled, their installations commingle; the genial audacity of this concept is its most appealing aspect. Curator Elga Wimmer has a point - if Goya were untouchable, wouldn't that make him less accessible, too? It is refreshing to see the unabashed presentation of artists who, according to the wall text, "pay tribute to Goya and carry his spirit, evoking global issues, into the 21st century."
Some of these artists' work would intrigue in any context. Yun-Fei Ji busily combines modern themes with the motifs and stylized space of traditional Chinese paintings. His two color etchings gain intensity from odd, delicate descriptions and unexpected leaps of subject matter. Masami Teraoka's two jewel-like oil paintings update the genre of early Italian altarpiece panels with sensuous strokes and hues.
Artists working in formats similar to Goya's, on the other hand, suffer from the comparison. Carlos de los Rios and Ray Smith have both produced small drawings with provocative images (human mutations in abstracted spaces, in Mr. de los Rios's case, tumbling spotted dogs, in Mr. Smith's). These might hold up in a contemporary drawing show, but here it's apparent that neither artist locates these motifs with Goya's brilliant incisiveness.
The least effective contemporary works rely on Goya-esque props. Flapping bats, inscribed with lists of NATO and U.S. armaments, populate Conrad Atkinson's large piece of wall-mounted canvas cutouts. The obviousness of sentiment and formal laxness reduce it to political disputation. Yasumasa Morimura's huge C-print features digital insertions of the artist's likeness into a staged re-creation of the Goya print titled "She Prays for Her." It's not clear what meaning one is supposed to glean from a Japanese man posing as three women of various ages and social classes in a late 18th-century Spanish print.
Consider the original "She Prays for Her," which depicts a young woman carelessly baring a leg. Goya's tones and contours powerfully shape her form, so that the torso extends muscularly toward one corner and the legs toward another. Her attendant's fingers jut menacingly behind her neck (though only intent on combing her hair); an old woman, a glowering, knotted mass, clutches at rosary beads. At the print's center, the young woman's eyes, tight dots in an impassive orb, stare evenly back at us. The effect of vulnerable indifference is riveting. While Goya's command of his medium is sublime - indeed, untouchable - his intentions can be intimately felt, and they're infinitely more stirring than sermons, puns, or the merely picturesque.
The experience of viewing 80 such prints overwhelms the conceptual intrigues of the installation. The 10 contemporary artists all "subvert the status quo" convincingly enough; the problem is that Goya subverts the plan to enlist him as standard-bearer.
Whereas the National Academy's Jean Helion retrospective, reviewed July 14 in these pages, provides a remarkable survey of the French Modernist's key paintings, this gem of a show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery offers a glimpse at another side of the Helion's work: the first drafts and rough edges of his thinking.
Helion's early abstractions are among the few to rival Mondrian's in formal intensity. His 1932 watercolor "Abstract Orthogonel" (a sketch for the painting "Tensions" now at the Academy) uses quick outlines to visualize a rigorous poem. Above a sturdy rectangle, the space becomes thick with competing verticals; one emits a brisk horizontal, from which dangles a denser, smaller rectangle challenging the first. Simple? Yes and no: The shapes are basic, but they gather and release in richly nuanced sequences.
The 1937 watercolor "Untitled (Abstract Figures)" shows the artist drifting toward representation. Here, three figures appear as geometric presences rather than simple compilations of detail. Impressions are specific, however: You feel the jostling breadth of shoulders, the elevated self-containment of faces, even the objects behind in a storefront window.
A female nude in an untitled gouache from 1944 lengthens powerfully across the sheet's diagonal, anticipating Helion's postwar representational work. The figure glows with the artist's distinctive palette - those tart contrasts of hue and intensity that convey the weight of illumination.
Elsewhere, the gestures of prison camp inmates in a 1942 watercolor echo the elbowing shapes in a 1931 abstraction that hangs alongside. It's an inspired juxtaposition, emphasizing the synthetic means by which the artist converted every experience - momentous and incidental - into expansive, organic truths.
Goya/Bogey-Man until September 24 (556 W. 22nd Street, at Eleventh Avenue, 212-255-0719).
Helion until August 12 (724 Fifth Avenue, between 56th and 57th Streets, 212-262-5050). Prices: $16,500-$38,000.