Marlene Dumas:

James Gaddy

Marlene Dumas' portraits do more than merely look back at you—they're fully formed ghosts. Based on photographs of terrorists, strippers and the deceased, the Dutch artist's challenging (but rewarding) work is now on display at the Museum of Modern Art—and the mid-career retrospective lives up to its name. Measuring Your Own Grave consists of about 70 paintings and 35 drawings spanning Dumas' career from the late 1970s to the present day, including 2008's standout Self Portrait at Noon (pictured), a tribute to the artist’s mother, who died at noon in 2007, two months before Dumas’ first solo exhibition in South Africa. While a majority of the collection is on MoMA’s sixth floor, some of Dumas’ pieces are on the third floor as well.

The exhibition, Dumas' first retrospective in the United States, is organized around the theme of portraiture—but even the show's title can't prepare viewers for its visceral power. (It comes from a 2003 painting of the same name, in which a figure bows forward, its arms outstretched to the edge of the canvas.) Straitjacket, an opening salvo on the third floor that is wreathed in Lynchian mystery, is a portrait that lacks human features; it is followed by the bleak Black Drawings around the corner, a collection of 111 ink and watercolor portraits that hang next to a horrific 2003 quartet of monochrome paintings of the dead.

If you're not afraid of ghosts, turn the corner: the ghoulish face of a nude, rear-end up, is offset by a woman facedown in water across the room. Keep going: a blast of afterbirth is followed by a beatific portrait of Osama bin Laden. The collective effect? Claustrophobic, repulsive and irresistible—a rubbernecker's fantasy.

By happy coincidence, the show's polar opposite is nearby in the museum's second-floor atrium. Peer down from the third floor for a view of video artist Pipilotti Rist's installation Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters), a combination of lush video, pink curtains, gurgling soundtrack and carpeted architecture that will get your blood circulating again. Once there, take off your shoes, step over the reclining bodies and listen to the soft murmur of conversation in this truly immersive environment. Until the latter show closes on February 2, the womb and the grave are within walking distance.

Measuring Your Own Grave runs through February 16; Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters) runs through February 2.