Peter Plagens

Stories by Peter Plagens

  • Sculpture For The Soul

    You wouldn't think that, in times like these in New York City, the two most uplifting art exhibitions around would be of modern sculpture. (Looking at pictures tends to make us happier than looking at objects.)And not only are the shows of modern sculpture, but of objects of unpainted, unadorned, blackish and brownish metal. One show consists largely of very, very skinny figures (the word "emaciated" even comes to mind) cast in bronze, standing precariously amid the surrounding void. The other boasts huge, multi-ton walls of rusted steel that seem to threaten to tip over on the hapless spectator. Not exactly, one would think, the things to send our spirits soaring in the wake of heinous acts of mass murder and destruction. Of course no work of art--or movie or play or book or CD--can really accomplish that these days. If it could, it would have to come wrapped in amnesia. But the retrospective exhibition of the work of Alberto Giacometti (at the Museum of Modern Art) and the show of...
  • A True American Original

    When Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was finally awarded a gold medal in painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1904, he said to the academy president, "You've got a heap of impudence to give me a medal." (Eakins had been dismissed from the school's faculty in 1886.) He immediately bicycled down to the U.S. Mint where he redeemed the gold for $73. But that sort of cranky, principled practicality was no fluke. The painter had once said his purpose was "to peer deeper into the heart of American life," and he meant to do it with much more than the unaided eye. Eakins had long advocated an artist's using everything possible to make a realist painting better: anatomy (from observing dissections), perspective (plotted with an engineer's precision) and, above all, photography. Yes, Eakins often "cheated" by tracing projected photographs to start a painting. Nevertheless, the just-opened Eakins retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (through Jan. 6, then moving to the Musee...
  • Turning Tragedy Into Art

    Within minutes of the attacks on the World Trade Center, one artist-photographer, whose show of arctic landscapes sold out last year, rushed into the smoking ruins to take pictures of the hellish scene. His photographs will presumably find their way, for sale, onto gallery walls. A New York painter with an exhibition already on view worked through the night to produce a huge American-eagle banner to hang, patriotically, from his downtown building. And just two days later another artist--an abstract painter with a studio-window view of the horrific events--sent me a letter asking me to come see her "evolving" new series of paintings "expressing my response to this catastrophe."In these three instances--and perhaps countless more to come--you have the motivational range of the contemporary artists' response to carnage and tragedy: plying one's trade, making a public statement, jockeying for a higher place in the critical hierarchy and, of course, simply expressing oneself. Self...
  • New York Observed

    When the ancient poet Horace said, "You may drive out nature with a pitchfork, yet she will ever hurry back over your foolish contempt," he meant (at least in part) human nature. And human nature-at least the portion of it that includes getting and spending and searching for and maintaining the pleasures of daily life-is what both New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and President Bush have told us is the most useful thing in which we civilians can, after the attack of Sept. 11. But there are at least a couple of people in Manhattan for whom no "resumption of normal life" was ever an issue.Ivy Lappin, co-owner of the Lappin-Paoli hairdressing salon just a couple of blocks north of the militarily "frozen" disaster zone, says, "Some woman came in the day that it happened, when the first building was burning and everybody was hysterical, and said, 'Can I still get a trim?' We told her, 'I don't think so'." And NEWSWEEK's art critic received a letter, dated Sept. 14, from an artist who saw the...
  • Unimaginable Disaster, Next Door

    Day One: My wife and I live in a very comfortable loft, about 10 blocks north of where the World Trade Towers used to stand.We're "grandfathered" into the place in veritable perpetuity courtesy of New York City's loft laws, which were passed to protect artists who homesteaded formerly derelict light-manufacturing neighborhoods in lower Manhattan. (We're both painters.) And although we by no means qualify as rich, we were also "grandfathered" into an incredibly privileged life: art galleries, museums, restaurants, health-food stores and a beautiful riverside park, all within 10 minutes' walk of home.Last Tuesday, we went for our usual early morning run-through Hudson River Park, past the World Financial Center, to the little spiral pier (it's a work of public art) and back. We were joined by a painter friend of ours, Doug Hilson, who'd decided at the last minute not to go to his gym in the World Trade Center and to run with us instead. We waved goodbye to Doug a couple blocks from...
  • L.A.'S Master Of Colors

    As the comedian Rodney Dangerfield might put it, Los Angeles don't get no respect... at least in terms of the history of modern art in America. The city has always been considered a distant second--maybe even third, after Chicago--to New York. Gotham hosted the groundbreaking Armory Show in 1913, enjoyed a whole Greenwich Villageful of avant-garde painters and poets in the 1920s and was the birthplace of abstract expressionism in the '40s. But do you know that L.A. was home to a painter (Knud Merrild) who dripped way before Jackson Pollock did? Or that Andy Warhol had his first gallery solo show in L.A., not New York? Or that the first American modern-art "ism" (synchromism) was the brainchild of an artist who--except for some neophyte years in Paris and a brief, disappointing layover in New York--spent his whole long, rich career in the Big Orange? You'll realize that last one--joyfully, in spades--if you can catch "Color, Myth, and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism"...
  • A Thoroughly Modern Man

    A pastel former Methodist church in a manicured, upscale village on Long Island, New York, is perhaps the last place you'd expect to find the painter Malcolm Morley living. As a youth in England, he ran away from the boys' naval school he'd been sent to during World War II. After a disastrous stint as a tugboat galley boy (he broke his leg and was unceremoniously shipped home), he stole a few things and did time in a reform school and in the infamous Wormwood Scrubs prison. Then at art school in 1950s London, Morley recalls, "most of the instructors drank a lot and most of the education was for students privileged enough to go drinking with them." Fortunately, Morley was one of the privileged. Later, as a college art professor in the United States during the 1970s, he was notorious for showing up for class in, well, seriously altered states. For about 20 years he did "carbon-dioxide-inhalation therapy" (which, Morley says, provides weird visions revealing one's innermost self) under...
  • Gray Matter

    William Kentridge's retrospective exhibition is currently on view at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. After that, the show goes to Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles. But even while traveling across the United States, Kentridge is never very far from his native South Africa."I have been unable to escape Johannesburg," the multimedia artist has said. "The four houses I have lived in, my school, studio, have all been within three kilometers of each other. And in the end all my work is rooted within this rather desperate provincial city." He is, nevertheless, an internationally renowned draftsman and filmmaker. And, in my opinion, his political art is among the world's most beautiful and moving.When Kentridge was a young artist somewhat taken with conceptualism in the early 1980s, abstract painting was still king of the hill in the almost totally white, behind-the-times South African art world. He was at loggerheads about what to do. As Kentridge told an interviewer, ...
  • The Art Of Summer

    Two centuries ago any serious European art tour's main destination was Rome: home to a couple of millennia of golden-stoned architecture, a lion's share of the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance and fresh and beautiful paintings by artists from everywhere else in Europe. By the 1880s Paris had become the destination to beat. No continental metropolis could come close to matching the heady combination of the treasures in the Louvre, the official salons of the French academy with their outsize history paintings and political infighting over choice hanging spots and the ongoing rebellion of absinthe- fueled modernists hurling postimpressionist challenges from their garrets. Paris managed to hang on to its reputation as the greatest art city in the Western world until World War II, when its best modern artists were sent into exile, or worse.Now, after half a century of Europe's having no obvious No. 1 art center, there's a clear winner--at least for the time being: London. The...
  • Blase At The Biennale

    The connecting flight from London to Venice is practically an art-world charter. It's filled with curators, dealers and a few art critics, and boasts a notable spike in all-black attire. Everyone on board is going to the Venice Biennale, the every-other-year art extravaganza established in 1895. (Just opened, it runs through Nov. 4.) In the interest of spotting art's next enfant terrible or an exhibition concept that might travel well, some of them may have subscribed to a free mobile-phone service, supplied by the art magazine Frieze, which promises to "text you 3 to 5 times a day between the 6th and 9th of June to let you know where you should be--the best show, the most splendid pavilion or party--and what's not worth bothering with." In today's fast, noisy world, art is apparently no longer material for quiet contemplation, let alone esthetic pleasure. It's breaking news.But like so much of the hype on round-the-clock radio stations, little of this news is genuinely breaking....
  • Our Man In Venice

    The sculptor Robert Gober is the sole U.S. representative at this year's edition of the art world's equivalent of the Oscars, the Venice Biennale. (It runs from June 10 to Nov. 4.) Being asked to occupy the American Pavilion--a nice little brick neoclassical building constructed in 1930--with a solo exhibition is like being named best artist. The likes of Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Bourgeois were previous representatives. But Gober's selection--while not entirely surprising given that he's been a steady presence on the high-end exhibition circuit since the mid-1980s--does have its question marks. In recent Biennales, the pavilion has been host to spectacular electronic installations such as Jenny Holzer's, Bill Viola's and Ann Hamilton's. Gober's specialty, on the other hand, is meticulously handcrafted, slightly irregular, eerily evocative copies of familiar objects. Although his work has a remarkable ability to fuse the mundane and the profound, the artificial and the real, in...
  • Arts Extra: Less Is Mueck

    Tall and skinny in jeans and sneakers, Ron Mueck looks like he might be just another assistant helping out around the gallery, adjusting the lights on the work in somebody else's highly anticipated first solo show in America. You get the idea, in fact, that Mueck would almost rather be in the background while another artist gets the press attention. The sculptor, who was the quiet, artist's-artist sensation of the infamous 1999 "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (with "Dead Dad," a four-foot-long sculpture of a deceased old man with every pathetic anatomical and dermatological sign of lifelong wear faithfully rendered), still isn't comfortable with the public part of being an artist. He's extremely wary of people scribbling in notebooks and clicking switches on tape recorders. "I spent my whole childhood alone in a room making stuff," he says. "I'm still mainly doing that.... I try to put the ego into the work. If I have to put it into promoting myself, then the...
  • Harlem Goes 'Freestyle'

    Does contemporary art by African-Americans have a necessary "blackness" to it? "I'm not the person to come to for essentialist ideas about black culture," says Studio Museum in Harlem curator Thelma Golden. Indeed, at first glance the Golden-curated "Freestyle," a survey of 28 emerging black artists from across the nation at the museum (through June 24), looks a lot like a vest-pocket Whitney Biennial. There are a few deliberately offhand-looking paintings, some messed-with photography and some MTV-length videos playing in a viewing room in the back of the museum. And nearly every participant holds the de rigueur Master of Fine Arts degree from a big university or topflight art school. ...
  • State Of The Art

    As a glacial wind whipped off Lake Michigan, architect Santiago Calatrava side-stepped the ice-skimmed mud puddles to inspect his breathtaking new addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Even unfinished, with building cranes still hovering, the structure was startling: a white steel-and-glass pavilion jutted out over the edge of the lake like a ship's prow, while on the other side, a sleek white footbridge cantilevered toward the downtown skyline. The local response to the design surprised the museum's director, Russell Bowman. "I expected it to be controversial, but I was wrong," he says. "Within months people were saying, 'Oh, it's going to be our Sydney Opera House'." ...
  • Another Kind Of Mccarthy Era

    You know how one thing leads to another. First you're in art school in Utah in the late '60s and you do some all-black paintings using motor oil. After that, in L.A., you paint by just putting the stuff in your hair and smushing your head against the wall. Soon it occurs to you that paint--especially as mythologized by the likes of Jackson Pollock--is a thinly disguised stand-in for bodily effluences (blood, urine, semen, feces, saliva). Their yuckiness to most people, you believe, is part of the repressiveness and dysfunction of the Ozzie-'n'-Harriet-variety American family. (Think "American Beauty" without the beauty part.) So you venture into nude performance art, mimicking childbirth and sex-change surgery--with lots of ketchup, mayonnaise, chocolate syrup, hamburger and sausages symbolizing the yucky stuff. This is not very pleasant art to look at; it can actually be quite disgusting. Which is the reason that even for much of the art world, the performance artist and sculptor...
  • Arts Extra: The 'Censorship Drill Again? Yo Mama!'

    Almost all of the critical and press attention for "Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers" (at the Brooklyn Museum of Art through April 29) has been focused on one work: Renee Cox's "Yo Mama's Last Supper." We'll get to that in a bit. But any major museum exhibition with almost 200 works in it is obviously about more than the scandalousness of a single piece of art. If nothing else, it's about causing viewers to think about a few things. ...
  • Time Tripping

    Kathleen Cambor's meditative novel In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden(256 pages. Farrar Straus. $23) takes place during the 1889 Johnstown flood. The lyrical Cambor can get so dreamy with questions of love and loss that the pace crawls; when the dam finally bursts--thanks to rich folks who can't be bothered about poor folks--it kills 2,200 people but saves the book.Jeff GilesBlacks have been neglected in fiction about the Old West, and Gabriel's Story(304 pages. Doubleday. $23.95), by David Anthony Durham, is intended as a corrective. The story--half "Huck Finn," half "The Searchers"-- involves two black farm kids mixed up with white outlaws. Despite "Gabriel's" poetic language about race ("skin the color of the first earth"), the standard shoot-'em-up climax undermines the good intentions.Peter Plagens ...
  • Gone But Not Forgotten

    b. April 17, 1916Growing up in a wealthy family, she had no political aspirations. Then her husband, the prime minister, was assassinated in 1959. The "weeping widow" toured the country giving emotional campaign speeches that won her the 1960 Sri Lankan elections--making her the world's first female prime minister. She served three nonconsecutive terms, which spanned a total of four decades.One of the most passionate and outspoken advocates of Scottish devolution, Dewar saw his dream fulfilled in 1997 when his beloved nation's first independent Parliament in 300 years was approved by referendum. His crowning moment came in 1999, when Scotland held its own elections for the first time--and the longtime Labour Party member, often called "the father of the nation," was elected its first minister.The so-called Lion of Damascus took power in Syria in 1970, during a military coup. He held on until his death through several attempts to overthrow him; in 1982 his security forces killed some...
  • The Dearly Departed

    The showbiz Leonardo da Vinci, Allen composed thousands of songs (including "This Could Be the Start of Something Big"), played Benny Goodman on film, wrote books and campaigned against sex and violence on TV. But his biggest legacy--as the first host of "The Tonight Show"--is America's habit of staying up late to watch funnymen sit behind desks and trade cracks with movie stars."My mother says I began rhyming at seven," Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in her autobiography. "Of course I would be a poet!" But it always bemused Brooks that she was better known for being the first African-American writer to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1950) than for the poems themselves--except perhaps for the much- anthologized 1960 lyric "We Real Cool," which ends: "We/Jazz June. We/Die soon."Nobody played matriarchs better than Nancy Marchand. As the widowed Los Angeles Tribune publisher on the late-'70s TV drama "Lou Grant," Marchand captured four Emmy Awards in five seasons. Then, in 1998, she electrified HBO...
  • Apocalypse Now

    The 1997 exhibition "Sensation" certainly was one. The show caused a big ruckus at the Royal Academy of Arts in London because of a giant painting of Myra Hindley, the infamous child-murderer, made with imprints of children's hands. Academicians resigned in protest, and the British press quivered with outrage. When "Sensation" traveled to the Brooklyn Museum of Art last year, Chris Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary (embellished with porn cutouts and balls of elephant dung) enraged local Roman Catholics--including New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who tried to shut down the BMA. Perhaps predictably, "Sensation" proved a huge publicity generator and ticket seller on both sides of the Atlantic. Now the Royal Academy--being no royal fool--has opened another festival of shock value called "Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art." And the question on everyone's mind is, will "Apocalypse" be another sensation, or will it end up an apocalypse--a fatal reach too far into what might...
  • It's A Knockout, Folks

    Kate Sekules's tough-but-tender book "The Boxer's Heart" follows a travel and food writer (Sekules herself) preparing for, and finally going through with, her first and only professional fight. (Her opponent is a wanna-be fashion model with the wonderful moniker "Raging Belle.") In the pages between, Sekules digresses on machismo, vanity and the history of women's boxing. While she does have the necessary mean streak (Sekules badly wants to land a big punch right where "all that blood is hiding"), her prose dances around the ring, flicking self-effacing jabs. Sekules may be the funniest fighter since Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom. "The Boxer's Heart" is a winner, on all cards.
  • Art Review: The Pluckiest Old Lady Of Them All

    We all love plucky old ladies: the one from Pasadena who drove a hot rod in the Jan & Dean song, Ruth Gordon in all those movies, and Clara Peller, who famously asked in a TV commercial, "Where's the beef?" The art world love them, too: Its reigning feisty senior is Louise Bourgeois, the diminuitive 89-year-old sculptor whose latest commission is a 30-foot metal spider in the new Tate Modern museum in London. But the pluckiest of them all was Alice Neel. Her paintings are the subject of a compact, refreshing retrospective which just opened at the Whitney Museum in New York. (It runs through Sept. 17, then travels to Andover, Mass., Philadelphia and Minneapolis.) Neel had to be plucky-perhaps "indomitable" or "heroic" are better adjectives-to get through the tumultuous life she lived and still manage to turn out some of the best American portraits of the past 50 years.Neel was born near Philadelphia in 1900 and mustered out of art school in the mid-1920s with some solid academic...
  • Seattle's Purple Haze

    When founder and benefactor Paul Allen, executive director Jody Allen Patton (Paul's sister) and a team of designers, curators, educators and techies open the $250 million Experience Music Project to the public in Seattle on June 23, it will undoubtedly be the most electronically glossy, groovily interactive museum-and-then-some on the face of the planet. But the institution started out in 1992 with a far more modest vision: to be just a little storefront museum about Allen's idol, the Seattle-born rock genius Jimi Hendrix. Patton recalls, "Sotheby's had an auction of rock memorabilia, and we bid on personal effects of Jimi's--some jewelry and a hat. We won, and the boxes were shipped to us. When we opened the tissue paper and the hat came out, well you could just feel the power in that artifact."Then Allen and Patton began to realize they wanted to tell a much bigger story--the whole story: how rock and roll started when 1950s white teenagers went nuts over derivatives of black...
  • True Value

    This year, no fads, no fancy stuff, no journalistic conceits and no padding (except this introduction). We know there's a surplus of the new and the clever in the world. We, too, are worn out trying to figure out whether all those dot-com companies are beef or bubble. Certainly, we're more than fatigued with punny names for online pizza-delivery services and head-hunting agencies. And we don't really want real-time videostreaming to deliver a holographic rock musical based on "War and Peace" to our computers, absolutely free, next Tuesday. What the art lover in Europe needs this summer is simply a return to the old-fashioned guidebook, a comfortable pair of shoes and a straight top 10 of the best things to see. As usual, these are our own personal picks, and they may be a bit quirky. But it's guaranteed that--in brick-and-mortar reality--they won't be dull. ...
  • Human Colors

    Jacob Lawrence was only 24 when he completed his greatest work, and one of American art's true epics: the 60 small paintings celebrating "The Migration of the American Negro." But he stayed with his trademark style--bright colors, stark darks and lights, and an unwavering figurative humanism--through a long, distinguished career. He died at 82.Although they first caught the art world's eye as part of pop art in the early 1960s, the ghostly plaster figures of George Segal, 75, always seemed more profound. In later decades he created moving memorials to Holocaust victims and FDR.
  • New Bid On The Block

    What do you get by combining Louis Vuitton, a rented museum, a famous abstract painting of two rectangles, the Justice Department and Sharon Stone? Answer: a toehold in the snobby world of New York art auctions. But barely.Last week Phillips--an English auction house with only a small, old salesroom in New York, but recently acquired by the French luxury-goods billionaire Bernard Arnault--held its first modern-art sale at the American Craft Museum in Manhattan. The place was packed and crackling with expectation. Could the upstart firm make itself a player in a business long dominated by the venerable duopoly of Sotheby's and Christie's?The timing certainly seemed right for a fresh alternative. Until now, the august No. 1 and 2 houses had evenly split 95 percent of the $5 billion art-auction business worldwide. But last Christmas, the CEO of Christie's (acquired in 1998 by Arnault's longtime rival, Francois Pinault, owner of Gucci) was forced to resign. Embittered, he told U.S....
  • Britannia Rules The Wave

    Here's the way Tate director Nick Serota says it happened back in the early '90s: "I got a key and went in. There was rain dripping through the skylight into this huge room onto a great mass of rusting boilers and turbines, and a great pool of water below. I said to myself, 'This is it'." It was the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art, to be fashioned from the enormous brick, oil-fed power station at Bankside, on the south side of the River Thames in London. Designed in 1947, the station shut down in 1981. A generation and $200 million later, it's the Tate Modern, filled with Picassos, Matisses and arguably the best collection of 20th-century art in Europe. (The older British works remain at the original, re-christened Tate Britain across the river.)The Tate Modern is part of the booming British art world. Suddenly London has a museum, the galleries, the collectors and the hot artists to rival New York for the top spot. The blocks around Cork Street in the Mayfair district brim with...
  • When Art Was Truly Nouveau

    In December 1895, a parisian art dealer named Siegfried Bing opened a gallery called L'Art Nouveau, thereby giving a name to a kind of federation of related art styles that swept the Western world at the turn of the last century. That esthetic conglomerate is the subject of a quirkily fascinating exhibition, "Art Nouveau 1890-1914," at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. (It's on view through July 30.) Art nouveau posted no manifesto and had no particular leader--as cubism later enjoyed in Picasso, or surrealism in Dali. But it drew on exotic sources (Celtic, Viking, Oriental and Islamic art) and enthusiastically adopted what mass-production techniques were available at the time. Forms of art nouveau quickly appeared everywhere from Budapest to New York, on everything from biscuit boxes to subway stations. Its objects ranged from the ornate Viennese posters of Alphonse Mucha, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh's elegant Glasgow furniture, to Louis Comfort Tiffany's famous glass...
  • Art In The Fast Lane

    Cutting-edge artists come along all the time. But only once in a while do more than a couple seem like real contenders, and rarely do you see a half dozen who benchmark a new sensibility. That's happening right now in two big New York museum shows. The Whitney Biennial exhibition (which runs through June 4) and a show called "Greater New York" (through May 16 at PS 1 in Queens) are lively without being angry, and inventive without being esoteric. Among their more than 230 artists, we've found six--whose work ranges from traditional painting to digital video--to keep an eye on in the future. And perhaps it's only a coincidence, but just as their work went on view, peace returned to the New York art world. Mayor Rudy Giuliani dropped his effort to cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which he had threatened to withhold after the "Sensation" exhibition. So it's springtime in New York--and the artists are once again in bloom.This much is indisputable: Essenhigh can draw like a...