Peter Plagens

Stories by Peter Plagens

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    Artists as Reality-TV Stars

    Long before the American Idolization of every art form on the planet, the great humorist S. J. Perelman imagined a gnarly New York painter being asked by a vulgarian Hollywood movie producer: what exactly do you artists do in the studio when you get an idea? “I usually smite my forehead,” the painter replies sarcastically, “and shout ‘Eureka!’?”
  • The End of Political Art

    There's a double-gallery exhibition still up in New York called The Visible Vagina. It's another one of those didactic anthology shows purporting to bring some issue that artists think regular folk have either thought about incorrectly, or have repressed entirely, out into the open and, in the patois of today's art world, "address," "confront," "deconstruct," "unpack," and "interrogate" the hell out of it. Naturally, one of the galleries hosted a panel discussion. The participants included one male, Walter Robinson, an artist and editor of an online art magazine. (A few men, including Picasso and Robert Mapplethorpe, are represented in the show.) When his turn came to speak, Robinson said that, in the art world at least, the war with patriarchy is over, everybody knows all about vaginas—as well as penises—and nobody thinks anymore that women are mere sex objects subject to the infamous male gaze. From the audience—and this was a mild surprise—there arose only faint murmurs of...
  • Museums Suffer the Art World's Biggest Fallout

    When the art market collapsed along with everything else last year, the general public's first reaction was a resounding "Who cares?" After all, what skin was it off their noses if a Jeff Koons failed to sell at Sotheby's or some snooty London gallery shut its doors?Art museums, however, are another matter. People visit them by the tens of millions—often taking along the kids—and consider them markers of cultural cachet. When museums lay off staff, curtail hours, cancel shows, and start to look a little unkempt, people notice. The Great Museum Cutback is the second—but far worse—body blow delivered to art by the latest global recession.The most salient drama was played out in Los Angeles. The Museum of Contemporary Art dipped into its endowment's principal to pay expenses (the biggest no-no in the nonprofit world), flirted with closing or being absorbed by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and was temporarily rescued by $30 million from billionaire patron Eli Broad. But MOCA is...
  • Nauman's Own--Art

    Some people say that Bruce Nauman is the most influential American artist since Andy Warhol, but when Nauman arrived at art school way back in 1964, he had almost no idea where he was headed. Fresh from being a math and science student back in Wisconsin, the tall, laconic young Nauman painted the most mundane of subjects: landscapes. "I thought art was just something I'd learn how to do, and then I would just do it," he says. He'd landed almost by chance at the University of California, Davis, home to the most rebellious, irreverent artist-teachers around. (One of them, ceramist Robert Arneson, would have his officially commissioned monument to assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone rejected in 1981 because it depicted the Twinkies from the assassin's "Twinkies defense" right there on its pedestal.) The faculty gave Nauman an empty room in a temporary building and told him simply to go to work. "I knew then," he says, "that I'd have to start out every day and figure out...
  • Jeff Koons

    Art and culture in the Bush era.
  • Art: Kennedy’s New Frontier

    The main family business may be politics, but Robert's boy Chris is the art world's new favorite son.
  • Three Decades In Madrid

    If Antonio Lopez-Garcia's "Lucio's Balcony" were not a great painting on its own, then the circumstances of its creation would clinch the matter. It took the 72-year-old Spanish realist 28 years to complete, from 1962 to 1990. That's partly due to his painting method: on site, same time of day, same season for each session. But it's also because he began the picture—which is now on view in a retrospective of his work at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts—as the setting for a portrait of friends, who soon moved away. Then the apartment changed hands three times. The most recent owners allowed López-García to set up his easel in the same spot and, decades later, finish.The result is a brilliant combination of the artist's early "magic realism" and his mature style of planar symphonies dedicated to the architecture of his beloved Madrid. The work looks restrained, but López-García gets more chromatic melody out of his muted, chalky palette than most artists do from primary colors. When he...
  • Still Life with Beach Towel

    The gift shop at the new Museum of Contemporary Art in New York doesn't sell standard museum fare—no Monet neckties or Jackson Pollock jigsaw puzzles. Instead, the NCMA, which just opened its new building in November, carries much edgier stuff. There are $540 smocks from a pattern by Andrea Zittel, an artist known for living out in the desert in mobile survivalist cabins. You'll also find $30 canvas totes by pop-noir draftsman Richard Pettibon and $68 beach towels by fey portraitist Elizabeth Peyton. "I've always thought that every artist ought to have a cheap line," says conceptual artist John Baldessari, who has a coffee mug inscribed with his cheeky aphorism TIPS FOR ARTISTS WHO WANT TO SELL available at the new Broad Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.Artist-made museum merchandise is on the rise. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art are all getting into the act, striking deals with...
  • A Modern Master’s Modest Art

    Sometimes I find it's best not to pay too much attention to the label. The one for "Railway Tracks," for instance, in the wonderful "Georges Seurat: Drawings" exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art, on view through Jan. 7, touts the "deep perspective of a winding road" and the "sensation of the earth in upheaval." While there is a bit of road at the bottom, and the drawing does depict a changing suburban area outside late-19th-century Paris, the beauty of Seurat's art lies elsewhere. In a current art world filled (to invoke an old Little Richard lyric) with a lot of womp-bomp-a-loo-bomp installations and video, this little miracle is the most economically poetic combination of technique, composition and sense of "being there" I've ever seen. Poor Seurat, who died of diphtheria in 1891 at 31, was only 23 when he finished it.As the poet-critic Gustave Kahn put it, Seurat was "a young man crazy about drawing." He worked in conté crayon (a kind of greasy charcoal) on toothy...
  • Is Photography Dead?

    How is that even remotely possible? The medium certainly looks alive, well and, if anything, overpopulated. There are hordes of photographers out there, working with back-to-basics pinhole cameras and pixeled images measured in gigabytes, with street photography taken by cell phones and massive photo "shoots" whose crews, complexity and expense resemble those of movie sets. Step into almost any serious art gallery in Chelsea, Santa Monica or Mayfair and you're likely to be greeted with breathtaking large-format color photographs, such as Andreas Gefeller's overhead views of parking lots digitally montaged from thousands of individual shots or Didier Massard's completely "fabricated photographs" of phantasmagoric landscapes. And the establishment's seal of approval for photography has been renewed in two current museum exhibitions. In "Depth of Field"— the first installation in the new contemporary-photography galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on display...
  • Unknown Modern Master: Gerald Murphy

    A few months after moving to Paris in 1921, Gerald Murphy happened to walk by the gallery of the pioneer modern-art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who was holding a kind of clearance sale of cubist paintings by Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and Georges Braque. Murphy was the heir to the ritzy Mark Cross luggage company, and he and his wife, Sara, had come to France to escape the doldrums of life in the States under Prohibition and Warren Harding's "return to normalcy" after World War I. Young and rich, they'd planned to soak up culture and enjoy the good life. But that fortuitous gallery drop-in changed Gerald's life. "If that's painting," he told Sara, "that's the kind of painting I would like to do." He studied for six months with Natalia Goncharova, the Russian-revolutionary expat abstract painter and set designer, and then plunged in, exhibiting in the famous Salon des Indépendants of the early '20s. All told, he produced 14 pictures. Only seven survive. And for only the second time...
  • Artist Slugs It Out With Museum

    The early-20th-century American critic Sadakichi Hartmann famously said, “If you think vaudeville is dead, look at modern art.” Hartmann wasn’t a reactionary. He just thought, about 75 years ago, that the game of avant-garde leapfrog had gotten pretty predictable. Hartmann was right, but in the years since, the gambit of an artist proving his chops by shocking—or at least inconveniencing—the bourgeoisie has worked, careerwise, like a charm.Take the current imbroglio involving Christoph Büchel, a Swiss installation artist, and that capacious reclamation of derelict industrial space, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (a.k.a. MASS MoCA) in North Adams, in the western part of the state. MASS MoCA invited  him to do a large installation piece called “Training Ground for Democracy.” The artist accepted, apparently on a handshake, and promptly asked the museum to fetch him, among a long list of things, a police car, a voting booth and a two-story house that could be disassembled...
  • 'The Dinner Party' Gets a Home

    Lots of people think that Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” is lousy art. Chicago (and a few hundred disciples/volunteers) made the restaurant-size work in the ’70s as a kind of feminist encyclopedia. The tables are decorated with elaborate place settings for 39 women, from an archetypal “Primordial Goddess” to Susan B. Anthony, and each plate is decorated with a motif deemed particular to that honoree—or at least to a part of her anatomy. If you only dimly suspect that Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings resemble female genitalia, then you ain’t seen these dishes yet. The whole thing looks like an R-rated banquet at an overdressed Trump hotel. All art, of course, is to some degree political. But can something this blatantly didactic still be any good?The fact is, “The Dinner Party” is one of the most influential pieces of the last 50 years. Without it, there would be no art-star Cindy Sherman, no “Vagina Monologues,” even, in a way, no Hillary Clinton. Chicago obviously wasn’t the...
  • 'Glitter and Doom': Art to Make You Wince

    In the first world war, Germany suffered 5 million dead. When the war was over, the country was left with 2 million orphans, a million widows and a million invalids. In the waning days of 1918, it underwent a revolution in which the kaiser abdicated and fled to Holland. Soon thereafter, the victorious Allies imposed a staggering reparations burden on Germany. Unemployment skyrocketed, and inflation reached such insane proportions that paper currency made better firewood than money. German cities became, simultaneously, pits of poverty, starvation and disease and dens of drug-fueled high life. The painter Max Beckmann, who’d been flung out of the Army and the war in 1915 by a nervous breakdown at the front, said, “We must take part in the whole misery that is to come.” He meant that he and his fellow artists mustn’t avoid the grotesque subject matter that history had placed in front of them. They must paint it with all the realism—emotional and psychological, as well as physical—at...
  • An Old-School Radical

    At 68, Brice Marden is still a trim, handsome man with knowing eyes. Which must be why--since abstract painters aren't usually celebrities--he's recently appeared in a Gap ad. Even while installing a show in black jeans, long-sleeved T shirt and stocking cap, there's an elegance to the man, and a boxer's looseness in the way he moves.But today he's nervous. This "show" is "Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings"--in the august Mu-seum of Modern Art, where it will be on view Oct. 29 through Jan. 15. True, he's long been represented by such top-o'-the-heap galleries as Pace, Mary Boone and Matthew Marks, and a drawing of his once fetched half a million dollars at auction. But he's never seen many of these 56 canvases and 50 drawings together before. Something might go wrong. Like what? "Someone will prick the bubble," he says, "and say it all looks like bulls--t."With this show, however, there's more than just an artist's reputation at stake. In an art world...
  • Mortality, Morbidity And More

    For someone with all the trappings of a severely intimidating modern artist--long, insane-asylum-gray hair, all-black garb and hieroglyphic tattoos--Kiki Smith is awfully considerate with an interviewer. She talks slowly, enunciates precisely (her mother was an opera singer and actress) and takes a genuinely noncombative view of art. "To me," she says, "it's like a wind. It's not something that should be about one thing or another. Different things are always moving you, or telling you to pay attention."That may sound hippie-ish--and Smith, 52, did drop out of art school when she was 21 and make for San Francisco, where she lived communally with a rock band called The Tubes. But she's an almost maniacally productive artist--"A Gathering," her retrospective of more than 200 works, just opened at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston and will arrive at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art in November. And she's one of the most important sculptors working today. In the 1980s,...
  • A Car You Could Frame

    While you’ve been shopping around for a fuel-efficient hybrid, a new Bugatti has hit the market. It’s called the Veyron, and costs $1.3 million. Its 1,001-horsepower engine can make the car go 250mph and get you a piddling 3mpg doing it. At slower speeds, the Veyron still gulps gas at 7mpg in the city, 10 on the highway. If you want to cruise at a mere 60mph, this particular Bugatti can get you there from a standing start in a little over three seconds. But none of this wretched excess really matters, of course, because the Bugatti Veyron is a work of art. As a matter of fact, it’s art precisely because of its wretched excess.First of all, the machine is beautiful, a piece of organically aerodynamic sculpture more good-looking—and a lot sexier—than most Henry Moores. The rear half of the Veyron embraces the front portion, cuddling it between crescent-shaped side air ducts while affectionately reaching (the gesture denoted by a lovely two-tone paint job) over the passenger cabin down...
  • Blockbusters: Mass Appeal

    While it's great to take the road less traveled, especially during the summer months, there are always a number of exhibits that are well worth their wait in line. Here are our top picks for the season's best and biggest draws: ...
  • East of the Louvre

    During the Cold War, it was called "Eastern" Europe. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, "Central" has become the designation of choice. Tourism marketers prefer "The Other Europe" to set off such countries as Poland, Slovakia and Hungary from heavily Americanized Western Europe. Save for the fact that spoken English is more common on the streets of Warsaw, Bratislava and Budapest than in, say, Paris, they have a point. As for art, it's here in abundance--familiar faces and startling discoveries--and more than reason enough to take this year's tour a bit off the beaten path.Since war, occupation and dictatorship ravaged the region through much of the 20th century, it's practically obligatory to start any visit with some serious historical grounding. Warsaw was 85 percent destroyed during World War II, but the salvaged artifacts in its History Museum give you a glimpse into the depth of the culture; the Warsaw Uprising Museum--interactive to a fault and punctuated with such unintended...
  • Hot Properties

    For the past few weeks, the smooth, ghostly and haunting face of Zhang Xiaogang's "Bloodline Series: Comrade No. 120" (1998) has been almost as ubiquitous in contemporary-art circles as, say, an Andy Warhol "Marilyn" or a Damien Hirst pickled shark. Gracing the cover of the catalog for Sotheby's recent New York auction of contemporary Asian art, the discreetly blemished portrait of a young party functionary in a Mao suit also found its way onto the pages of practically every periodical that so much as mentioned the sale. Which, by the way, raked in $13.2 million (against a presale estimate of $8 million). "Comrade No. 120" brought the gavel down at just under $1 million, more than three times the auctioneer's estimate. These sales are the latest proof that Chinese contemporary art is hot, hot, hot, and the latest must-have accessory for the cutting-edge elite.Why? Partly it's a function of China's growing liberalization, which has allowed visual artists in particular greater freedom...
  • An Irishman Goes Back to His Roots

    For more than 30 years Brian O'Doherty has lived just off New York's Central Park in a landmark building built about a century ago with sunlit two-story studios especially for artists. His wife is the renowned American art historian Barbara Novak, and he paints on an easel bequeathed to him by the pioneer American modernist Stuart Davis. So it's perhaps no surprise that when asked what his Irish roots have to do with his career as an artist, he answers, "Nothing, I hope." But O'Doherty was born in Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon, in 1934 to a mother whose family included the notorious rebels the Brennan boys. Sent off to boarding school "to become a man," he was initiated in the national pastimes of fighting bullies ("I got clobbered, but he didn't pick on my mates again") and rugby ("I was good at 12, so they sent me in against 15-year-olds, and I got beaten up there, too"). When British troops opened fire on Roman Catholic demonstrators on Bloody Sunday in 1972, O'Doherty...

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