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Art Reviews : Mixing Psychology, Sociology and Jazz

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If there was ever a doubt that jazz musicians are the pinnacle of cool, William Claxton’s black-and-white photographs at Fahey/Klein dispel it.

Here is a typical image: It’s the morning after in Times Square, in 1960. A man in a dressy black suit blows on his sax, which glints like gold in the sun. A smiling woman embraces him, seduced by the music. Oblivious to the early-morning traffic, the neon signs and the passersby, he is lost in the moment, in thrall to his own music.

Since the early ‘50s, when he began shooting album covers for Pacific Jazz Records, Claxton has distilled the fantasy of the jazzman--spontaneous, creative and sexually magnetic. Though he took photographs on both coasts, Claxton is best known for creating the iconography of California jazz--sets on the sand, nights in the convertible and good looks on tap. If the musicians seemed to be having a good time rather than laboring under their talents, all the better.

Claxton’s images of the notoriously chiseled trumpet player Chet Baker are among his most famous, especially since Bruce Weber appropriated their moody sexuality for his film “Let’s Get Lost.” Claxton’s shots, however, are less surface than Weber’s, and consequently more difficult: They capture the intensity of the performer and also the calculated charm of the man.

In an era in which MTV and the three-minute video define music and musicians, Claxton’s images are both premonitory and nostalgic. They incarnate personalities, but they also evoke an era when the instrument was everything. This becomes evident in a 1956 photograph of Art Pepper, posed by a thicket of trees, clutching his horn as if it were a security blanket, as if it alone could provide protection against the glamour conspiracy being perpetrated against him.

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Along with their psychological edge, there is a sociological dimension to these photographs. Claxton sketches out a harmonious community of musicians unconcerned with questions of black and white. Whether factual or imaginary, this image is seductive, and certainly the coolest aspect of Claxton’s vision of the jazz life.

* Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Ave., (213) 934-2250, through Jan. 13. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Black as Tar: Tomoharu Murakami has made a career painting what look like the last paintings possible. At Kiyo Higashi Gallery, he has made more of them, this time as dense and black as tar.

Relatively unknown in the United States, though he showed at the Guggenheim Museum as early as 1964, Murakami seems both to engage the postmodern rhetoric of exhaustion and to lose himself in the kinds of nuances that suggest that painting is inexhaustible even when purged of color and form.

There are only five works in the show and, as usual for this gallery, they are beautifully installed. In the front room, one painting is placed on each of three walls, a textbook study in contrasts: a black rectangle on a larger white one; a craggy surface--resembling ancient honeycomb, masses of caviar or volcanic ash--juxtaposed with something smooth.

The paintings are not exactly small, but neither are they large, which has the merit of distinguishing the works on paper, at least, from the Clyfford Still paintings they conjure. Like Still, Murakami layers and juxtaposes dark tones. Here, it is black over red and red over black, creating something quite frantic, a field of wild, unloosed pigment. Yet unlike Still’s huge, impassive canvases, these are coyly narrative; here, red seems to want to hide, and then, to make a dramatic return.

This makes the work seem precious, which it isn’t. Yet it is domestic in a way that endgame art rarely is. This says something about the artist’s intentions vis-a-vis late 20th century abstraction and more about the audience’s imperviousness to the endlessly bruited news of painting’s death.

* Kiyo Higashi Gallery, 8332 Melrose, (213) 655-2482, through Jan. 13. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Teen Life: John Patrick Salisbury’s black-and-white photographs at the Stephen Cohen Gallery of his teenage cousins Drew and Jimmy are intimate, disturbing and, in the end, ordinary--albeit in an unexpected way.

Shot in the Sacramento River Delta, in and around the small town that was founded by Salisbury’s grandfather’s great-grandfather and in which Salisbury’s family still lives, these images incarnate a Huck Finn kind of boyhood.

Here is the American ideal: two brothers traipsing around the woods, splashing in the water hole, wrestling, lying in the tall grass and killing time. And yet the innocence one anticipates is absent. The brothers never smile. They brood, stare off into the distance, turn their backs on each other. In one image, Drew poses against a wooden fence, his arms raised over his head like St. Sebastian. In another, one of the brothers spreads apart the wings of a dead bird, as if orchestrating a crucifixion.

The Gothic sensibility is appealing in its way, but the spiritualism is not deeply felt. It is a gloss, spread thickly across the surface. And yet this highly aestheticized double portraiture depends on it; so, too, does it depend upon a certain homoeroticism, which ties the work unavoidably to Bruce Weber’s many campaigns for Ralph Lauren. Here, then, a family history devolves into another essay on male beauty. Beauty is always welcome, to be sure; but in this case, it can be a bit anticlimactic.

* Stephen Cohen Gallery, 7358 Beverly Blvd., (213) 937-5525, through Jan. 13. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


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