Peter Plagens

Stories by Peter Plagens

  • The Surrealists' Sexy Side

    A long time ago--say about 1924, when the surrealists formally organized in Paris--sex was still considered a mysterious and powerful undercurrent in polite society. Oh, sure, there were flappers rolling down their hose and grainy stag films whose flickering chiaroscuro could easily be mistaken for newsreels of the Wright brothers. But there was nothing like today's glistening, nearly naked pop stars, paternity-test results revealed on television right in front of tearful, straying spouses, and race cars festooned with Viagra logos. The surrealist artists and poets of that bygone era could hardly be blamed for thinking that by suddenly releasing their uncensored sexual unconsciousnesses upon the canvas and page, they were really on to something. Of course, Freud's "Three Essays on Sexuality" weren't available in French to Andre Breton's little circle of avant-gardists until 20 years after their original publication in German. So the surrealists spent what art historians call their ...
  • A 'Sensation' About Nazis

    Here we go again. Last time around in 1999, the Brooklyn Museum of Art's "Sensation" show enraged many New Yorkers, including the then mayor Rudy Giuliani, by exhibiting a painting of the Virgin Mary with chunks of elephant dung attached. Giuliani threatened to close the museum and cut off its city funds. (None of that happened.) Now, it's the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, with an exhibition called "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," that's raising people's pulses. It's a rebellious show by a group of 13 international artists, mostly in their 40s. Four of them are Jewish. According to the catalog, the work tries to put the evil of Nazism in meaningful contemporary terms by shifting the focus from the tragic victims to ironic--and often tasteless--takes on the way the perpetrators have been endlessly and repeatedly fetishized in movies, toys and advertising. ...
  • Fashion Fumbles

    Back in the days before team sports uniforms started gravitating toward stock-car drivers' outfits (which is to say human billboards), somebody asked legendary Texas football coach Darryl Royal why the Longhorns' duds were so plain. ...
  • Bad Publicity

    Ahem! "As technological processes reflect back onto ourselves, altering our methods of perceiving and cataloging, we understand our world more and more in terms of patterns of information." That mucho profondo sentence occurs right at the beginning of the document I have in my hand, and this one follows soon after: "The play of pattern and randomness is seen as [a] main organizing principle of a new era." Are these statements something from an academic press about a new book from, say, that philosopher of consciousness, Daniel Dennett? No. Perhaps they're part of a pitch for an expensive computer program designed to help middle managers? No again. ...
  • A Global Tour Of 2001'S Best Art

    This strange year was even a little stranger in the art world. Its world capital was attacked by terrorists just as the important fall season began, and the last place people wanted to go for a few months was to an art gallery in lower Manhattan. A slew of new-artist shows fell into the black hole of the practically unseen. Museums all over the country--with planned exhibitions threatened by loans of artworks being cancelled for security reasons--suddenly had to start thinking about the safety of their visitors as well as their collections.But artists are a surprisingly hardy lot--many of them still work in unheated lofts and live off almost nothing in sales--and by the end of the year spirits, if not livelihoods, had returned to normal. Or at least close enough so we can look back and appreciate the genuine highlights of 2001:1. Richard Serra (Gagosian Gallery, New York, Oct. 18-Dec. 15)What can you say about a show of "torqued ellipses" and other elemental forms, made from about a...
  • Through A Lens Slyly

    The renowned English painter David Hockney says the a-ha! moment for him came during a visit to a 1999 Ingres exhibition at London's National Gallery. He was looking admiringly at a suite of portrait drawings the French academic master made around 1820. "It was the smallness and the speed of the drawings that got me," Hockney says. He started to wonder if Ingres hadn't used the recently invented camera lucida--a small glass prism that can be attached to the side of a drawing board. An artist looking down through the prism can see a projection of the thing he's trying to draw. "I also blew up a reproduction of one of Ingres's portrait drawings," Hockney says, "and thought, 'My God, that's Andy Warhol's line!' " (Warhol drew by quickly tracing projected photographs, rather than by drawing directly from life.) Of course, to most people tracing is a kind of cheating that reduces fine art to coloring-book activity.The Ingres epiphany sent Hockney careering off on some manic research that...
  • 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...