Peter Plagens

Stories by Peter Plagens

  • Snap Judgment

    THEY MARCHED INTO SUNLIGHTBy David MaranissPultizer Prize winner Maraniss reconstructs two days in 1967: in Vietnam, on the demonstration-torn campus of the University of Wisconsin and in the Johnson White House. The domestic conflicts--between students and administrators, and among the president's advisers--would seem more compelling if they didn't have to compete with Maraniss's moving, white-knuckle account of a deadly ambush: an American battalion destroyed on a pointless mission in a pointless war.--David GatesDISARMED: THE STORY OF THE VENUS DE MILOBy Gregory CurtisNever judge a book by its cover--or its groaner title. Curtis's story of the world's most famous statue is part thriller (smuggling her off the island of Melos in 1820), part art history (who carved her and when), part rumination on the Greeks (who wondered if it was beauty that lifted humankind above brute nature). Curtis, who first visited Melos this March, writes faster and better than just about any academic art...
  • Our Bilbao

    Build it, the cliche goes, and they will come. But if it's already built and you just gut it, slick it up a bit, fill it with gargantuan minimal and conceptual art, and persuade New York Gov. George Pataki (who can't really like this kind of sculpture and installation art, can he?) to attend the black-tie opening and give a podium-thumping welcoming speech--will they come and pay 10 bucks to get in? ...
  • Buying Into The Buzz

    However clever our alternative route, there's no way a seasoned art lover can avoid Paris, London or Rome this summer. Two Parisian standouts are "Leonardo da Vinci: Drawings and Manuscripts" (through July 14 at the Louvre), a rare chance to put the Mona Lisa in context, and "Arabian Icons: Christian Art of the Levant" at the Institute of the Arab World (through Aug. 17). What better time for some real ecumenism? Paris isn't Paris without fashion, so do check out Marlene Dietrich's costumes at the Palais Galliera through Oct. 12.For London headliners, we'll go with the big Ludwig Kirchner show at the Royal Academy of Arts because the German expressionist gets the full treatment and, because we want to keep up to speed with the Brit art scene, Damien Hirst at the new Saatchi Gallery. Kirchner's acidly colored, circa 1910 pictures can be seen June 28 to Sept. 21, and Hirst's new post-pickled-shark work is up through Aug. 31. Tate Britain gives "op art" doyenne Bridget Riley a...
  • The Celtic Alternative

    In any major city these days, you can encounter more neoconceptual artists--and their deceptively artless videos and installations-with-attitude--than you can shake a mahlstick at. What Europe offers is the same hyperhip contemporanea plus stacks and stacks of traditional great art to go along with it. Every two years, the Venice Biennale welcomes practically the whole contemporary-art world to share its precious space with palacefuls of Tiepolos and Bellinis. And every two years, thousands of art lovers descend on Venice to enjoy this cultural one-stop shopping. But as we see it, there's really no need to traipse all the way to the Biennale. (It'll be up all the way through Nov. 15, so you can make it an autumn destination.) This summer we're patching together our own sweet-and-spicy art menu by prowling some grittier--but quite art-nourishing--cities to the north: Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin. Call it the Celtic Option.Edinburgh is a beautiful town; the city center curls up...
  • The 'Greatest' Cliche

    Critics get paid to make judgments. And I'm fine with that. The most valuable service we critics can provide is starting arguments by saying that, Elizabeth Murray, for instance, is a better painter than Brice Marden.In fact, I wouldn't mind seeing a sentence like this appear in my favorite art magazine: "After the installation of 'North, East, South, West,' his crowd-pleasing series of steel-clad giant geometric holes in the floor at the newly opened DIA:Beacon museum an hour upriver from Manhattan, sculptor and earthworker Michael Heizer jumped to No. 13 in the ATPA (Association of Touring Professional Artists) rankings." I'd order another beer at Fanelli's in SoHo and growl to the guy on the stool next to me, "Yeah, well Bruce Nauman will kill 'em next summer on the European circuit."But we've really got to put a stop to this "greatest of his generation" thing.Most critics disguise that phrase as a "fact" of generally held opinion. Try dance critic R. M. Campbell in the Seattle...
  • Some Irony With That?

    As an artist, Adolf Hitler was a hack watercolorist who nevertheless enjoyed a fairly good overall sense of design. He had a hand in the look of all those dramatic torchlight Nuremberg rallies, Gestapo uniforms and even the original Volkswagen. Hitler also collected cliched, sentimental paintings that were at least legit works of art. By comparison as an art collector, Saddam Hussein is a true vulgarian--a cross between a leering beer chugger and a pubescent videogamer. The half-dozen paintings--the work of fantasy artist Rowena Morrill, based in Coxsackie, N.Y.--recently unearthed from one of Saddam's safe houses resemble nothing so much as oily versions of PlayStation 2 still frames. There are buff guys menaced by reptiles, and a woman (is that a suicide bomber's packet of explosives on her military belt?) about to be shot with an arrow. Those must have appealed to Saddam's warrior side. A couple of the other pictures display a full moon and a swirling cosmos behind dreaming or...
  • In Defense Of High Art

    A few years back, I was driving through a Midwest university town, and I spied an old, oxidized and slightly rusty green Volvo wagon with a gaily colored kiddy seat in the back.The driver was a young guy with a Lincolnesque beard (no moustache), wire-rimmed glasses and a tweed duckbill cap--all of which just about shouted "junior faculty!" As he turned down a leafy, residential street, I could read the bumper sticker identifying his department and his artistic predicament: SERIOUS MUSIC ISN'T AS BAD AS IT SOUNDS.Actually, that's my artistic predicament, too. I write about fine art, old and new, and I also make modern art (abstract paintings). The general public's attitude toward them both--that is, when that great, alternately purring and snarling monster that is the mass audience is in a good mood--is something like "O.K., maybe they're not quite as bad as they look." Old fine art fares a little better because it appears in places like the Metropolitan Museum or the Louvre,...
  • Froufrous With 'Tude

    Don't expect to find America's very best-designed industrial products in the new show at New York's Cooper-Hewitt design museum: they've been dropped on Iraq. But the "National Design Triennial: Inside Design Now," which opens this week and will be up until early next year, has just about everything else, in an attempt to capture the current state of American design. There's "Cyberflora"-- fake flowers whose petals unfold electronically. A car with an LED-infused body. (Hit the brakes and the whole rear end lights up red.) A "Back-Pack Theater" that lets hikers screen movies in the wilderness. Even a no-nonsense typeface with what the catalog calls "working-class curves." Altogether, the show features the work of 80 designers, most of them born after 1960. We didn't actually see the kitchen sink, but we got only a sneak preview.A show with this sort of range is bound to seem like a smorgasbordy mess. Nevertheless, we thought we discerned a couple of themes among all the gewgaws...
  • Viewing The Unthinkable

    Talk about timing. Just as Tom Ridge's "Ready Campaign" of public-service ads is hitting TV screens, a show called "Images From the Atomic Front" has gone up at St. John's University in Queens, N.Y. (It continues until March 21.) This is a low-budget but highly relevant exhibit of paintings by World War II combat artists who covered Hiroshima and the Bikini atoll atomic tests. One of the few dull pictures in it is an official portrait of Rear Adm. William Sterling Parsons, who argued in 1948 that "neurotic" antibomb activists could cause "a war of the nerves that would make the Orson Welles Mercury Theater episode [the panic-inducing fictional invasion from Mars] pale by comparison." (Let's see, where did I put that duct tape?) According to polls at the time, Parsons succeeded somewhat in lessening the public's fears of nuclear attack. (Oh, right. I stowed it away because Ridge said to calm down.)But it's not just this creepy parallel of palliatives that gives this show its...
  • Friendship And Rivalry

    Squeezed into its MOMA-in-exile headquarters in a rehabilitated Queens, N.Y, factory, the Museum of Modern Art will permit fewer than 4,000 people a day to get a look at its blockbuster exhibition "Matisse Picasso." That'll mean a total audience of about 330,000 people--a lot, to be sure, but a whole lot fewer than the half million who saw it late last year in London and the 580,000 who saw it in Paris before it closed there just six weeks ago. That's a pity because this show is one for the ages. Yes, "Matisse Picasso" is unrelentingly didactic from the moment you check your coat, and you can get so caught up in the painting vs. painting matchups that the exhibition starts to feel like "Survivor: The South of France." But the art is so good that it doesn't matter. Right away you're hit with Picasso's eight-foot-high "Desmoiselles d'Avignon" (1907), arguably the single most important painting of the 20th century, right next to Matisse's huge "Bathers With a Turtle" (1908), arguably...
  • The Real Leonardo

    Do you remember that strange left-handed, long-haired kid in study hall, the one who could do that stupid backward "mirror handwriting" and drew all the time? The one whose father was a notary public and kept trying to set up his kid with apprenticeships and after-school jobs, the one whose mother wasn't married to his dad and lived outside of town on some farm? The one who could hardly read but who drew skulls and muscles and forts and dogs' feet, and wasted his time designing innovative crossbows and shields? The kid you're thinking of probably wasn't named Leonardo da Vinci. But the kid we're talking about was.Of course, the real Leonardo (1452- 1519) was far more than a case of nerdily arrested development. He was business-like enough to belong to the painters guild and run a workshop. He could charm kings and dukes into big commissions in spite of a reputation for never finishing them--sometimes because his experimental paint started peeling as soon as it was dry. And those...
  • Transition: The Line Kings Exit The Stage

    Al Hirschfeld, 99, was to the art of caricature what... Al Hirschfeld was to the art of caricature. The man who showed up at Broadway openings in a long black coat, black hat and Moses-like white beard to sit in the dark and draw was incomparable. His drawings (Hirschfeld thought "caricaturists" were people like Picasso and Matisse) of such luminaries as Carol Channing and Zero Mostel seem to us the real persons, with the celebrities themselves uncannily managing to resemble what Hirschfeld drew.The artistic prodigy arrived in New York City at the age of 11 so that he could get the proper training for his talent. But it was in Bali in the 1930s that Hirschfeld first encountered Asian art--particularly shadow puppets--that eliminated color and left, he once said, "the image of pure line." Back in the States Hirschfeld had a brief fling with political art. But he quickly realized that he had, as he put it, a much greater affinity for Groucho Marx than for Karl. In 1945 his daughter...
  • The Endless Show

    Call it "calendar creep" or simply "slow shows," but in Europe and America, art-museum exhibitions seem to be running longer and longer these days. The giant Aztec show at the Royal Academy in London, for example, will endure almost as long as that ancient civilization itself; it closes on April 11 after opening way back in November. In Dallas, a survey of modern design called "Boomerangs and Baby Boomers" debuted in August and won't pack up until March 18. New York's financially constricted Guggenheim Museum just pressed the zapper on its video anthology "Moving Pictures" after a run of almost seven months. Scotland's National Galleries won't disassemble its big exhibition of contemporary art, "Warhol to Koons," until it rivals that transition in length.What gives? Fifteen years ago, "exhibitions used to run for about six weeks," says Lars Nittve, director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. "Now the 'standard' is around 10 to 12 weeks... large museums run the exhibitions for...
  • Art: Staying For A While At A Museum Near You

    You might call it "calendar creep." Art-museum exhibitions in America and abroad are running longer and longer these days. New York's financially constricted Guggenheim Museum just closed its video show "Moving Pictures" after a run of almost seven months, Scotland's National Galleries won't take down its big exhibition of "Warhol to Koons" until it's been up almost as long and the St. Louis Art Museum is letting viewers see "The Art of African Cloth" (which opened last July) until March 2. What gives? According to Lars Nittve, director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, "The thinking is that it doesn't make sense to take down an exhibition if it still has pulling power." That pull, according to many museum people, is a result of a larger potential audience than there was a decade or two ago: more folks who'd just as soon hit a museum as the cineplex, and more cultural tourists wandering the streets. "These six- to 12-month exhibitions give the public the opportunity to come back,...
  • The Blob Strikes Again

    According to Dan Cameron, curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, no American artist of the past two decades "has treated the transformed cultural interaction of nature and humanity with anything approaching the intensity and depth of Carroll Dunham." Whoa, some statement! But Cameron isn't alone in his opinion. A lot of Manhattan art critics are wondering why it's taken so long for Dunham to get the art-star anointing given to such generational peers as Julian Schnabel, David Salle and Eric Fischl. As if to answer them, the NCMA now has up a concise, 40-painting Dunham retrospective.Dunham's wickedly cartoony semi-abstractions are tailor-made to let art writers strut their stuff. The New York Times's Hilarie Sheets, for example, says Dunham's figures come from "the sludge of the subconscious, feeling their way blind through the painterly terrain by means of phallic protuberances and bared teeth." In the show's catalog, novelist A. M. Holmes has contributed a...
  • A Quilting Bee Bounty

    America is a nation of quilters--20 million of them, in fact, which is probably more than the number of people who go to see exhibitions of modern art in museums. But quilters and modern-art fans need not be mutually exclusive groups, especially when they could be joyfully united by "The Quilts of Gee's Bend," an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York that opens next week. (There's also a gorgeous catalog from Tinwood Books.) The 70 quilts in the show are no less than the equals--in unconventional color, bold and surprising composition, and subtle visual invention--of just about any abstract painting made by any trained artist living in one of the world's great cities. Gee's Bend, Ala., on the contrary, is a remote, dirt-poor riverside farm town of fewer than 1,000 people. And its contemporary quilters are all African-American women with no art schooling. Maintaining a local tradition handed down from their great-grandmothers, they've made their art objects from salvaged cloth...
  • Hitler: A Gift For Evil--But Not For Art

    But why give him the wall space?" an art critic asked Deborah Rothschild, curator at the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts. "Him" is Adolf Hitler, and two of Hitler's watercolors are in the exhibition "Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics and Hitler's Early Years in Vienna, 1906-1913" (through Oct. 27). Rothchilds's answer was, "I grew up with questions about... what formed [Hitler], what shaped his esthetics, what was the art behind the Third Reich." Hitler went to Vienna at 17, wanted to be an artist, but flunked the Vienna Academy's admission test--twice. Soon he was living in a men's shelter, scraping for money, making art copied from postcards and nursing political grudges.One of the watercolors, "Mountain Chapel" (painted in 1909, when Hitler was 20), was--ironically--commissioned by a Jewish art dealer for a Jewish lawyer. The work violates practically every rule of Composition 101: don't put the spire dead center! Don't let the mountains and the clouds slant...
  • Flights Of Folly

    At the Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, it's an amazingly short walk from slot machines to Cezanne. Built right into opposite sides of the Venetian are two Guggenheim museums, both designed by avant-garde Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and neither yet a year old. The bigger one, a huge box filled since opening day with "The Art of the Motorcycle" (that is, a lot of snazzy motorcycles) is the Guggenheim Las Vegas, while the smaller one is the Guggenheim Hermitage (an offshoot of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia). It's been showing some stellar Picassos and Renoirs. "When I walk from the quiet jewel box of the Hermitage into the 'jingle-jingle' of the slots, it's almost surreal," says the Venetian's president, Rob Goldstein....
  • Hitler's Paintings

    "But why give him the wall space?" One of the art critics at the exhibition preview asked Deborah Rothschild, curator at the Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts. "Him" is none other than Adolf Hitler, and two of Hitler's watercolors are part of the exhibition "Prelude to a Nightmare: Art, Politics and Hitler's Early Years in Vienna 1906-1913" (through Oct. 27). Rothschild's personal answer was, "I grew up with questions about Hitler--what formed him, what shaped his esthetics, what was the art behind the Third Reich?" An adjacent wall text put it somewhat more bluntly: "... to call [Hitler] evil and end the discussion there explains nothing." Both responses beg the question, however, of why it was necessary to include a couple of art works--especially intimate little watercolors--wrought by the very hand of the 20th century's most infamous villain in what is a historical exhibition.The Williams show is the college's contribution to something Ludlumesquely titled "The...
  • What Andy Saw

    Great artists make the familiar seem astonishing. Really great artists turn around and make the astonishing seem familiar again. In the big, 250-work retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (up through Aug. 18), Andy Warhol does both--and then some. His paintings of electric chairs and gangsters, and replica-sculptures of Brillo boxes, remind you what an astute eye Warhol had for exactly what in our stockpile of popular-culture artifacts might be truly iconic. His harsh, acidic silk-screen images of tragic Marilyn Monroe and grieving Jackie Kennedy exude a strange reassuring quality, perhaps from having graced the covers of half the coffee-table books on contemporary art published during the past 40 years. And Warhol's sly but perfected sense of scale, color and modulated crudity of image-making lets you understand just how, at the beginning of the 1960s, pop art's ironic immediacy managed to overthrow abstract expressionism's melodramatic paint-flinging for...
  • Doubts At Documenta

    When a contemporary art extravaganza announces that it's not limited to art but includes everything from the social sciences to architecture, you know it's going to be a pretty conventional show. At least conventional by today's standards, where art exhibitions are a kind of county fair for intellectuals, and catalogs resemble UNESCO reports on pressing global problems. Documenta 11--the latest edition of what's often called "the Olympics of contemporary art," held once every five years in Kassel, Germany--is no exception. In fact, it might have stretched the convention to the breaking point.Documenta's artistic director this time out is 39-year-old Okwui Enwezor, a passionate, globe-trotting Nigerian-born curator who lives mostly in the United States. He's got a fairly plausible theory that the current artistic climate is one of postcolonialism--in which, he says, "globalization means the terrible nearness of distant places." In his Documenta, just under half the 116 artists come...
  • Art: Kitsch As Kitsch Can

    If there's anything that scares the pants off the avant-garde art world, it's kitsch. Plastic statues of saints and garden Pietas, say. Or tropical landscapes spray-painted on the sides of vans. But if museums and galleries genuinely believe that anything goes--if they think a row of bricks on the floor can be art, and so can a painting of the Madonna festooned with balls of elephant dung--then how can they justify keeping out kitsch? Traditionally, they don't justify it. They just keep it out. That's why the "Black Romantic" exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem is, in a way, a very gutsy show.Deputy director Thelma Golden has gathered together 87 paintings and drawings by 30 African-American artists in order to figure out--as she puts it in the exhibition's catalog--"where the 'real' 'black art' that spoke to the 'community' fit in my cosmology of aesthetic production." Translation: why has the SMH, which was founded in 1968 because black artists seemed to be excluded from...
  • Schizophrenic Scribe

    Peter Plagens has been NEWSWEEK's art critic since 1989. Now he's retiring as a full-time staffer to spend more time in his painting studio. Recently, he sat down with himself-or, rather, his two selves-for a conversation on the vicissitudes of being both an art critic and an artist.Let's get right to it: how does it feel to be retiring?ARTIST & CRITIC (in unison): I'm not. Most people think I'm kind of loud and overbearing. Sorry, bad joke.But seriously ...CRITIC: It feels a little weird, frankly. My wife and I were once told when our daughter was early on in grade school that she didn't "accept transition well." When the class was cutting little fishies out of colored paper and it was time to move on to something else, she wanted to keep on with the fishies. Maybe that was genetic, from me. A big part of me wants to keep on with the fishies, which means being a staffer. Also, the word "retiring" has a certain unsalutory ring to it. It implies that everything in your...
  • A Radical's Work Grows Old--Not So Gracefully

    You can almost imagine old Barnett Newman doing stand-up. Monocle attached to his mustached, Gene Hackmanesque face, the belt line of his heavy suit hovering just under his armpits, a short biblike necktie adding a little color, he begins, "Seriously, folks, there is no such thing as a good painting about nothing." And sculpture? "That's something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting." (Rimshot.) "Hey, I gotta tell ya, an artist paints so that he will have something to look at." (Ba-doom.) Newman did say all those things (albeit without the shtik), but he was deadly serious. In fact, Newman (1905-70) was one of the most insufferably serious artists who ever lived. He is known primarily for large abstract paintings consisting of fields of flat color punctuated by vertical stripes (which he called "zips") of contrasting hues, to which he attached inordinately deep meaning. Take, for example, "If my work were properly understood, it would be the end of state capitalism...
  • THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF SEEING AND KNOWING

    The 70-year-old German painter Gerhard Richter is one of those artists whose exhibitions prompt more discussion about the rationale behind the work than what the art looks like. Richter, you see, deliberately paints in a variety of styles. He does a lot of large, squeegeed abstractions--250 of them between 1993 and 1998. But he's a figurative artist, too, who paints from photographs: landscapes, portraits, self-portraits, aerial cityscapes and the odd still life. Perhaps it's this postmodernist multiplicity itself that makes him such an oft-cited influence on ambitious younger painters; they can paint practically anything and still claim a link to the master. And perhaps it's Richter's cachet--rather than the 188 paintings, which seem pretty cold and dry, now on view at New York's Museum of Modern Art--that prompted more than 500 art-world insiders to show up at a black-tie preview dinner.MoMA's brochure says the question of whether a painter who veers back and forth between...
  • Newsmakers

    Jordan Shows His AgeIt looks like Michael Jordan may be human after all. Jordan's latest comeback--this time with the Washington Wizards--stalled last week when he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. The good news, oddly, was the discovery of torn cartilage, a condition that theoretically could heal in two weeks--except that Jordan is 39, so the more pessimistic prognosis of six weeks is more likely. He hasn't missed this many games due to injury since he broke his foot in 1985. In any event, the Jordan-less Wizards--who haven't made the playoffs since 1997, when they were still called the Washington Bullets--will need a magic potion to make the postseason now. They've already lost the vast majority of the games they've played without Jordan this season, and they're barely holding on to the final playoff spot. That won't please the team's owners--one of whom is Jordan.Who Needs Mike Tyson?TastelessHistory LessonsSorkin's New Drama
  • THIS MAN WILL DECIDE WHAT ART IS

    One night last Spring after trying to track down some artists on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Larry Rinder managed to find lodging at a farmhouse. During dinner the farmer asked Rinder if he was "one of those New York liberals." "Shush," said the farmer's wife, "let the young man eat." Well, Rinder is one of those New York liberals and then some: he's the chief curator of contemporary art at Manhattan's Whitney Museum. He told me this story last August in Austin, Texas, when he was in the midst of one of the most complicated and controversial jobs in the arts: putting together the Whitney's Biennial Exhibition. (The 2002 edition opens March 7.) For Rinder, the task has included making three-week trips, driving rental cars into practically every corner of the country to visit artists' studios. All told, he figures, he looked at the work of about 500 artists. That and his unabashed enthusiasm for stuff that's way outside the fine-arts box mean that Rinder's...
  • Where's The Light?

    As Gene Kelly said in the old movie musical "An American in Paris," "Brother, if you can't paint in Paris, you'd better give up and marry the boss's daughter." From the mid-18th century on, the City of Light's powerful Academy and magnificent Louvre Museum were command central for traditional art. When Edouard Manet outraged the academicians with his peasant-and-nude painting "Luncheon on the Grass" in 1863, Paris assumed leadership of rebellious modernism, too. Even if he had to get to Rome to draw the classical ruins or sell work to an English aristocrat, no young artist could take himself seriously unless he put in time in Paris. As portrayed in the current London exhibition "Paris: Capital of the Arts, 1900-1968" (at the Royal Academy of Arts through April 19), artists were fascinated not so much by Paris's Baroque artiness, but by its electric lights, steam trains and--mais oui!--Eiffel Tower. In the 1920s, Paris was perhaps the most happenin' city of all time; it bubbled with...
  • Looking Back At Richter

    The 70-year-old German painter Gerhard Richter is one of those artists whose every exhibition prompts more discussion about the rationale behind the work than whether the art looks good or not. ...