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by Walter Robinson
Philippe de Montebello, the patrician director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, admits to reading Captain Marvel comic books as a boy, according to Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton, speaking at the press preview for the museum’s latest blockbuster, "Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy," May 7-Sept. 1, 2008.

To give what is most likely an apocryphal story its resonance, Bolton noted that Captain Marvel’s cri de coeur, "Shazam," is formed from the initials of classical heroes, included for their virtues. The strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, and so on. Comics are connected to museum culture, after all. The "S" stands for the wisdom of Solomon, who is Biblical rather than Greco-Roman, but who’s counting?

The exhibition itself is quite the crowd-pleaser, some of the most outlandish fashions imaginable displayed along with movie costumes inspired by the same literary sources -- the Michele Pfeiffer Catwoman outfit, Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman costume, the suit from the new Robert Downey Jr. box-office hit Iron Man. The getups are displayed in a square-torus space alternatively decked with oversized movie posters and giant mirrors.

At first the show was ballyhooed as featuring actual high-performance athletic gear, and indeed, it does include aerodynamic race suits by Nike, Speedo and Ryder. But as the curators admit, they dropped that idea to concentrate on fashion as fantasy, and the result is all shiny surface, images of power for the frivolous rich. Missing, for instance, are the kind of hazmat suits and military gear documented by photographer Paul Shambroom in his celebrated "Security" series.

One also notices the absence of villains, who could have profitably been represented by mannequins of heads of state -- Dick Cheney, Vladimir Putin, Robert Mugabe. The comic-book hero who’s missing from the lineup, obviously enough, is G.I. Joe, but with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps that particular avatar is a little too close to contemporary reality to be "most effective as metaphor," in the words used to describe the show’s purpose.   

The well-armored normal guy is instead represented in "Superheroes" by Iron Man -- and as it happens the new movie has a bit of dialogue that is both an art-world inside joke and a depressing faux pas that reveals the psychic reality of what kind of money fuels the art market. An exchange between hard-driving, callow playboy arms profiteer Tony Stark (who becomes Iron Man, post-epiphany) and his devoted gal Friday Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) goes something like this:

Pepper: Larry wants an answer on the Pollock.
Tony: Is it any good?
Pepper: It’s good, but it’s overpriced.
Tony: Buy it, and put it in the vault.

Vogue magazine editor and Costume Institute patron (and Evil Ice Queen) Anna Wintour, who forbade her minions from speaking to anyone at all at the Costume Institute gala, according to the New York Times, thanked de Montebello for his steadfast support of her enterprise, though in fact you could claim that the Costume Institute and its silly shows are the primary blot on his otherwise distinguished tenure at the museum. Except for one nagging question: What makes real art different from haute couture?

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In the 1998 movie version of the television show The X-Files, the threat is not a man with superhuman powers but rather an extraterrestrial virus (plus an evil extra-governmental cabal). A notion of "viral sculpture" underlies a new work installed by the Bucharest-born New York artist Serge Spitzer at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., an interactive installation called Still Life and consisting of 70,000 green tennis balls distributed across the bucolic museum’s two-acre back lawn.

Over the four-month span of the show, Spitzer expects the balls to be moved, kicked, tossed and taken away (not to mention being gradually hidden by the growing grass, which won’t be mowed). In effect the work could spread throughout the world -- I did my bit, and brought one ball back to Manhattan, where it has already gotten lost. "It’s the great age of collecting," said Spitzer at the afternoon vernissage a few Sundays ago. "This piece is the most collectible of all, but not by collectors. Everybody is welcome to collect this piece." Spitzer expects to recycle the remaining balls once the show is over.

The tennis balls are the same but unique, like the ideological subject. Spitzer had them custom-made using felt printed in China with a camouflage pattern derived from a pixilated photo of the museum lawn itself. Still Life, according to curator Merrill Falkenberg, is kin to a work exhibited at a museum in Münster in 1995 called Reality Models, in which the gallery was divided by false walls and tennis balls were thrown over the space above the viewers heads, in trajectories that both began and ended out of their sight. As Falkenberg notes, we can only guess as to both origin and destination.  

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The New York art world’s own Austin Powers, Gavin Brown, gets credit along with wunderkünstler Urs Fischer for the most exciting show of the week, dubbed "Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns" and mounted as a tribute to longtime art dealer Tony Shafrazi at Shafrazi’s West 26th Street gallery in Chelsea. The group exhibition opens with Viagra Falls by Rob Pruitt, a mini-waterfall that cascades down the steps to the second-floor space. Pruitt has added $2,000 worth of Viagra to the water, and supplied plastic cups for anyone wishing to drink from his masculinist "fountain of youth."

More fun is found in the gallery proper, which is wall-papered with a life-sized photo-reproduction of the walls during the previous show, a seamless image including not only the artworks but also the guards standing at their posts. On top of this is installed a new exhibition of actual works by Francis Bacon, Malcolm Morley, Richard Prince (Spiritual America, his famous image of a nude Brooke Shields from Pretty Baby), Lawrence Weiner (a line of text reading "as long as it lasts"), Mike Bidlo (his Yo Picasso 1901 Not Picasso) and other artists with whom Shafrazi has worked.

Lily Van Der Stokker flew over from Holland to paint her cheerful doodles over parts of the wallpaper, adding a third level of representation. The floor is covered with a spotted white wall-to-wall carpet by Rudolf Stingel, while above our heads a new drop ceiling has been covered by a photograph of the original ceiling. Most uncanny is seeing a real-life guard standing beside his own photographic image, both equally dispassionate and immobile. The poster for the show is a photo from 1974, when the then-young artist Shafrazi was arrested by New York City police after he spray-painted "kill lies all" on Pablo Picasso’s Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art.

As a tribute to Shafrazi on his 60-something birthday, the show is full of amusing frat-house jabs (Viagra Falls? Yo Picasso?). As an art experience, the installation is refreshingly bizarre. "You get two shows for the price of one," said George Horner, Shafrazi’s longtime associate, who was wearing white art-handler’s gloves as he cheerfully pointed out highlights to visitors.

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In "Jasper Johns -- Black and White," Chelsea photo dealer James Danziger is selling a group of black-and-white 8 x 10 copy prints of paintings by Jasper Johns, rescued from the files of a defunct art magazine, for $1,500-$3,500. "These kinds of prints aren’t made any more," said Danzinger. Some were taken by Rudolph Burckhardt, working for hire. The first to go was an image of Johns’ thickly worked, all-white Figure 5, to a collector with connections to Chanel.

German artist Jonathan Meese shocked gallery-goers at his opening at Bortolami with a performance in which he sat on top of an abstract equestrian sculpture with a megaphone, manically speechifying about his new "Dictatorship of Art, Now," whose multi-page manifesto is posted on the gallery wall. "Art is total power," it maintains. Art is also "all milk and candies" and "total baby baby baby." Where do I sign up?

Peter Brant has bought Urs Fischer’s You, the hole in the ground Fischer dug at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise last December, for a new museum Brant is opening in his home state of Connecticut, insiders say. . . . West 23rd Street art dealer Leo Koenig sold Alexis Rockman’s masterful, mural-sized seven-panel painting of icebergs in Antarctica, complete with a tiny flock of penguins, for $130,000.

Kudos to Yvon Lambert New York, whose current exhibition, "Sotto Voce," presents paintings and other pictorial works that address "the idea of one color as object, subject, idea and ultimately, a presence." The show mixes contemporary U.S. artists (Christopher Wool, Brice Marden) with legendary European modernists like Enrico Castellani, Lucio Fontana, Francois Morellet, Pierre Soulages and Günther Uecker, whose works are too rarely seen in this town.

East Village artist Hope Sandrow’s art project Observational Findings features a rooster and his flock of hens, who produce eggs in "limited edition," and who can be watched streaming live online here

New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz once speculated that if art critics were doctors, they’d be proctologists. Well, now he’s getting an honorary doctorate from the Art Institute of Chicago -- so if he asks you to bend over, watch out!

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.