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New York's freshest shows

From ancient sculpture to Van Gogh's night inspirations, the best of this season's art.

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•A contemporary artist who captures the ethereal beauty of light is photographer William Eggleston, whose retrospective "William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008" is at the Whitney Museum of American Art through Jan. 25. The Memphis photographer (born 1939) is credited with bringing respect for color to fine-art photography through his images of Southern Gothic scenes. Using a dye-transfer process that enriches some hues and makes the pictures almost pop off the walls, he achieves luscious colors that lend layers of psychological complexity to seemingly simple images. A poet of the banal, Eggleston makes the familiar seem deeply strange, like his shot of a bare light bulb against a cherry-red ceiling, crisscrossed by white electric cords ("Greenwood, Mississippi," 1973). The images are never conventionally pretty but are arresting in their originality, achieved through focusing on incongruous detail and his off-kilter point of view.

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More than 150 prints display Eggleston's seemingly improvisatory, snapshot aesthetic. The exhibition is like a road trip through the dusty, cobwebbed corners of a very quirky mind, the visual equivalent of a William Faulkner story or Eudora Welty on acid.

•The vibe from another show at the Whitney couldn't be more different: "Alexander Calder: The Paris Years, 1926-1933," through Feb. 15. Here, the circus is in town! You'll smile through the whole exhibition, even though it encompasses the formative period before Calder developed his signature, airy mobiles, kicking sculpture off its pedestal, reducing mass as its main feature, and making it dance in the wind.

The show deals with Calder's years in Paris where he hobnobbed with other modernist innovators like Mondrian and Duchamp, while indulging his love for line in fun (and funny) wire sculptures. His 1928 version of Jimmy Durante shows the comedian's oversized proboscis and bushy eyebrows. Although it consists of only a few twisted wires, the likeness is totally recognizable, for Calder was as brilliant as Matisse in evoking a whole image with a few lines.

A video shows Calder performing a toylike circus he created, inhabited by cute denizens fabricated from bits of string and fabric, like a lion with a yarn mane, ring master, knife-thrower, and trapeze artists. Marcel Duchamp described his friend's buoyant art as "pure joie de vivre." Calder never outgrew his inner child, and this exhibition is as jolly as a playground.

•For a completely different take on sculpture, the Japan Society presents an exciting fusion of old and new, tradition and innovation in "New Bamboo: Contemporary Japanese Masters" through Jan. 11. This is bamboo as you've never seen it before, woven and shaped into fanciful forms that are stunning in their complexity and daring.

More than 90 works by 23 artists show a "post-basket" aesthetic in which artisans trained in centuries-old techniques liberate themselves from formulae to create boldly inventive objects. "Non-functional" these exploded baskets may be, but they prove you can teach an old medium new tricks. Morigami Jin's "Reclining II" (2004) is like an open-weave Henry Moore sculpture, a web of bamboo strips that's no longer a literal container but which contains great promise for the future of a new art form.