When he wrote about The Art-Work of the Future, Richard Wagner could hardly have envisioned the marriage of contemporary art and opera that has given us William Kentridges Magic Flute or Bill Viola and Peter Sellarss Tristan Project: productions in which moving images make for a spectacular (some say distracting) backdrop. The Argentine-born Guillermo Kuitca also makes art for and about opera, but he could never be accused of upstaging the singers: he peers out from their side of the curtain, taking in the intimidating arc of the audience.
Mr. Kuitca commands a big stage two stages, really at this years Venice Biennale, where he is exhibiting large-scale abstractions in the Argentine Pavilion, as well as a series of his Diarios paintings in the Biennale director Robert Storrs thematic group show.
The tiny, year-old Gallery Met at Lincoln Center (just off the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera) has a much lower profile, but its season-opening exhibition places Mr. Kuitcas meditations on the architecture of opera houses in intimate proximity to the real thing.
The show, Stage Fright, collapses Wagners Gesamtkunstwerk into two dimensions, a move that Wagner might not have approved of, but one that Peter Gelbs Met, with its live broadcasts in movie theaters and Times Square, has strategically embraced.
The central element of Stage Fright, a suite of letter-size works on paper called 32 Seating Plans, was made specifically for this exhibition. Mr. Kuitcas process is an elaborate, Surrealist-inspired hybrid of painting, printmaking and digital photography. Starting with a seating chart from an opera-house Web site, he first distorts the image in Photoshop. He then prints it on photographic paper and physically manipulates the emulsion by folding the printout or sprinkling it with hot or cold water. Finally he applies a layer of ink or watercolor.
The results have the feathery texture of a Max Ernst decalomania painting, in which sheets of paper or glass have been pressed to the surface and slowly peeled away.
The warped blueprints beneath, meanwhile, recall the architectural abstractions of Julie Mehretu. The Mussorgsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, tilts like Malevichs airplane; the orchestra level of the Opéra Bastille in Paris sprouts a pair of butterfly wings. Other charts are less fanciful; the aisle seats of the Brooklyn Academy of Music dissolve into an indigo pool, as if the theater had been hit by a hurricane.
Mr. Kuitcas art is often discussed as a textbook example of Latin American abstraction, linked to the Cubist works of Joaquín Torres García and the writings of Borges, his fellow Argentine. But this project is truly cosmopolitan. It has taken him to La Scala in Milan, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, the Vienna Staatsoper and many other renowned theaters. Mr. Kuitca has said that he was inspired by a visit to Covent Garden in London, where he first observed that the seating chart reflected the perspective of the performer.
I realized I could do a 180-degree turn and shift all the weight from the stage to the audience, he told The New York Times in June. It is a subtle distinction, but Mr. Kuitca has made it more profound with playful tweaks of form and intense floods of color.
With transparent but bright washes of magenta, yellow, orange and blue that loosely correspond to different sections of the audience, the reworked theaters suggest theories of sound and color explored by Kandinsky and Schoenberg. The British conductor Stephen Barlow, in his essay for a related catalog (published by Mr. Kuitcas New York gallery, Sperone Westwater), mentions Messiaens habit of color-coding his scores. He also likens Mr. Kuitcas seating charts to a gridlike form of musical notation that dates from the 11th century.
The exhibition at Gallery Met includes new drawings based on Mr. Kuitcas set designs for a 2003 production of Wagners Flying Dutchman (at Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires). Executed in washes of deep gray and midnight blue ink, these works are as subdued as the seating plans are fiery. The motif of an empty baggage carousel gives the operas story of the cursed, permanently adrift sea captain an existential update. Mr. Kuitca has too often used the baggage carousel as a symbol of frustration and alienation, diminishing its effect.
Older works on paper, including two loans from the Museum of Modern Art, demonstrate that Mr. Kuitca has been carving up theaters for several years. The best of these are three large black-and-white cut-paper collages, which slice, fray and redistribute seating in three houses: the Met, the Vienna Staatsoper and Covent Garden.
They could be drawings by the scatter-artist Barry Le Va, although an important difference suggests itself: seating charts may look just like other minimalist grids, but they have a rigid hierarchy. The quality of your experience will depend, at least in some part, on how much money you are willing to pay for a ticket.
You do not have to be swooning over Anna Netrebko from the center parterre, however, to appreciate the seductive qualities of Mr. Kuitcas latest work. While Stage Fright is hardly a stretch for him, or the gallery, it would make an excellent overture to a night at the opera. (Gallery Met stays open until 11 on the evenings of performances.) The tidy rows of the Mets actual theater will, inevitably, disappoint.
- Karen Rosenberg