Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art

Special exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art through May 14.

Whenever I see Diego Rivera's distinctive art, my first thought is always to wonder once again why Nelson Rockefeller thought he'd be happy with one of Rivera's murals in Rockefeller Center. Not only were Rivera's socialist beliefs well known (he was a founding member of Mexico's Communist party!), they inform virtually all of his work, so why in the world would the scion of one of the United States' most famous capitalist families expect his own vision of "Man at the Crossroads" (the assigned subject) to be compatible with Rivera's?!*

Rockefeller's naïveté and arrogance become even funnier when you see the murals that brought Rivera to New York in the first place. Because so much of the internationally renowned artist's work was fixed to the site of its creation, the fledgling Museum of Modern Art invited Rivera to create relatively portable murals at the museum itself. When he arrived, he created five frescoes with Mexican subject matter and three directly inspired by his visit to New York, and all of them deal with revolution, laborers, or inequality.

In short, nothing about the murals screams, "I belong in your family's art deco temple of capitalism!"—except, of course, the fact that they're beautiful and striking and bold. And in that the murals exemplify Rivera. His artistry is such that any fair observer would have to recognize it, but that artistry cannot be separated from Rivera's political perspective any more than Bach's St. John Passion can be separated from its liturgical foundation. That impassioned point of view is part of what makes the art so affecting and meaningful in the first place.

The Avengers

In theaters.

The Marvel universe is so damn weird. I don't understand how mythical gods and aliens and ordinary assassin types are supposed to exist in the same universe on a reasonably level playing field. I don't understand what S.H.I.E.L.D. is or who, exactly, it's supposed to have jurisdiction over. I don't understand the logic of the interdimensional portals—if there is any logic. But whatever. Writer-director Joss Whedon finds exactly the right tone for this nonsense, neither acting above it nor trying to puff it into something more serious than it is but simply embracing it in all its goofiness.

He meanders a bit, perhaps inevitable in a story about how disparate individuals come to unite around a common cause, but the journey is colorful and clever and fun. Classic cinema it's not, but with its endearing sketches and witty banter, The Avengers is better than it has any right to be.


At the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday, May 3.

The Met's Engelhard Court, part of the newly expanded American Wing, is a roughly cube-shaped room, several stories high, all marble and glass and stone. It is an incredibly live space, so reverberant that sound takes five or six seconds to decay into silence. In other words, it's actually not ideal for a concert. The space swallows up finer points of articulation and enunciation, turning everything into a beautifully resonant but undeniably muddy wash of sound.

The singers in Chanticleer compensated as best they could like the pros they are. They must have been crisping every consonant to make the lyrics remotely legible and hitting some of the faster passages staccato to keep the line from running into one long gliss. That worked on some pieces more than others, but it was all still beautiful. And to be honest, an overly reverberant space can be a fun novelty. Hearing the music crescendo to fortissimo, cut abruptly, and then linger there, like perfume, for an impossibly long time can be downright magical, which is something I associate with Chanticleer anyway.

War Horse

Now playing at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater on Broadway.

Few theatrical experiences are as awkward as a tearjerker that fails to jerk tears from you. In the case of War Horse, a play that attempts to dramatize all the suffering of the First World War through the suffering of a single horse, I'm prepared to concede that my own discomfort around horses (they might be beautiful from a distance, but they're intimidating and off-puttingly alien up close) couldn't possibly give me much of an affinity for this material. But I still think the problem transcends my own prejudices because, ironically, the problem is not the horse. All of the animals in War Horse are represented onstage by life-size puppets so gracefully naturalistic and expressive that you needn't be one of those inexplicable horse-lovers to find them affecting.

No, the problem isn't the three-dimensional animals but the one-dimensional humans, particularly the horse-besotted hero who doesn't seem to care a whit about the death and anguish of any of the people he meets, not compared to the loss of his goddamn horse. His astonishing lack of empathy poisons everything. It makes me recoil from the play's human lead and instinctively resist the animal lead, so when that final lachrymose climax rolls around, I'm more annoyed than touched.

If it weren't for the puppetry, War Horse would be an utter failure. Instead, the puppetry of the production is so haunting and powerful that it redeems the play to a great extent. I don't know quite what to make of that, but there it is: the spectacle of the production is so artful that it makes a flat, treacly, ill-conceived play worth seeing.