May Stevens' Big Daddy Paper Doll, 1969.
NEW YORK - Frisson is one of my favorite words—it’s that shuddery thrill that is scary and satisfying all at once. “Sinister Pop,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through March 31, is a show that gives good frisson. It looks at the darker side of Pop Art, which is present in many of the works of the 1960s and early 70s, but is sometimes overshadowed by their visual wit and ingenuity.
Plucked from the museum’s permanent collection, and part the Whitney’s long series of shows leading up to their future move to a Renzo Piano–designed building in the West Village, the works on view include many of the artists you’d hope for. Roy Lichtenstein is represented by the simple black-and-white painting Bathroom, 1961. It fits the bill of the show because its unsparing rendering of that common household space is a touch depressing—it’s almost an architectural line drawing of the daily blahs. Viewers also get Jasper Johns Flags, 1968–68, but this painting doesn't give off the same kind of vibrant vibe that came through in his earlier depictions of flags. The gray background—and the lighter gray shadow of a missing flag beneath a fully articulated one in the odd color combination of orange, black and green—leave a slightly bitter taste.
Judith Bernstein's L.B.J., 1967. © 1967 Judith Bernstein.
And any show that finds room for Jim Nutt is good by me. This Chicago-based artist, for decades a favorite of other artists but someone who hasn’t really penetrated the public’s consciousness in quite a while, was a pioneer of comic-based art. “Sinister Pop” features She’s Hit, 1967, one of Nutt’s scabrous, grotesque and quite funny early works, featuring a figure that is coming apart in every way possible. As the Whitney curator Carter Foster once put it to me, regarding the use of common old comics as inspiration, “The Pop artists in New York were more ironic about it. Chicago artists really embraced the medium, and Jim has his own slightly more sinister and humorous take on it.” True enough, and hence Nutt fits snugly into this clever, frisson-filled show.