For some reason, there has been a spate of local exhibitions documenting in photographs the New York art and culture and social scene of the past several decades, from Amy Arbus’ street shots to the paparazzi of punk. Now comes the daddy of them all, Fred McDarrah, who from the mid-’50s on covered the downtown waterfront with a staggering thoroughness. He had to: As photo editor at the Village Voice for its first three decades, McDarrah had a broad beat to walk. This selection highlights McDarrah’s intimate relationship with New York’s visual artists at a time when all participants — even Warhol — were serious about what they were doing and (perhaps as a result) looked really good doing it. But McDarrah wasn’t glamming up the likes of Willem De Kooning, Eva Hesse or Roy Lichtenstein; he was capturing their native magnetism, the vibrant sexiness of inventive individuals immersed in their work and their worlds. And he conveyed the vivid color of such a crucial time in art history entirely in black and white. The selection here doesn’t even scratch the surface of McDarrah’s archives, but it does scratch the surface of his era. And it’s nice to see it out here, where these images are inspiring, rather than back there, where they seem to lament the diminution of New York from creative cauldron to commercial calculation.

The mental, not to mention physical, elbow grease Renée Petropoulos applies to her increasingly ambitious project would have done McDarrah’s New Yorkers proud — and surprised them to see such elaborate intellection driving a California painter. But Petropoulos clearly tunes in to the world with as fine a sense of analysis as of irony. She capitalizes on the multiple meanings of shapes and colors, sometimes resorting to a kind of abstract heraldry, sometimes to a kind of critical cartography, always reporting back to us with a restrained, studied exuberance. Petropoulos carefully conveys a lot of data in ways that at once sort, distill and penetrate it. Like McDarrah, Petropoulos has assumed the task of making sense of a huge swath of existence. Fred McDarrah at Kinkead Contemporary, 6029 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Wed.-Sat. 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; thru Aug. 18. (310) 838-7400. Renée Petropoulos at Rosamund Felsen, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica; Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; thru Aug. 18. (310) 828-8488.

—Peter Frank

LA Weekly