Peter Plagens

Stories by Peter Plagens

  • 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...
  • It's Izzard,

    In Toronto, on the opening night of his new North American tour, comedian Eddie Izzard stops his routine suddenly. He smiles broadly, straight out at the theaterful of people, and says, "I'm talking crap. Haven't done a gig in ages." Izzard, you see, does comedy the hard way: he doesn't write anything down, and he doesn't rehearse anything, either. During his surreal soliloquies with riffs on everything from cows ("They have rights... though not many") to a new Canadian national anthem ("Oh Canada, how many A's do we have?/Like 'banana,' only different"), he frequently pauses to gather himself to figure out what to say next. Among Izzardophiles--the hard-core fans who'll follow "Circle," his new show, to Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York--the moments when he says "Um, yes, ba-dum ba-dum... and that's all true" are the especially delicious trademarks of his style.Izzard--whom Monty Python legend John Cleese calls "the funniest stand-up around"--is a smallish man, with a big,...
  • Good God?

    In "City of God," the character who clearly speaks for author E. L. Doctorow says that if you believe in both God and reincarnation, "it may be reasonably assumed that a certain bacterium living in the anus of a particularly ancient hatchet-fish at the bottom of the ocean is the recycled and fully sentient soul of Adolf Hitler." Building a novel around such heavy moralizing isn't easy. First, you have to be able to write with this kind of vengeful elegance. Second, you have to lighten the load with a lot of literary inventiveness--diverse voices, jump-cuts, snippets from popular songs, etc. And third, hope that it all hangs together. In this novel, it does--brilliantly.The plot involves the disappearance of a brass crucifix from a down-at-the-heels Manhattan Episcopal church ministered by Thomas Pemberton, a doubting, ponytailed relic of the '60s. When the cross turns up on the roof of the Synagogue for Evolutionary Judaism, Pemberton sees solving the mystery of how it got there as...
  • Critical Moment

    MUSIC D'Angelo, 'Voodoo'(Cheeba Sounds) Despite that nude video, he's not faking the funk; "Voodoo" conjures up Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye. The result: pure black magic. V.C. (5 stars) ...
  • Hollywood's Big Art Deal

    Every Saturday afternoon, the fledgling contemporary-art dealers at 6150 Wilshire Boulevard--just west of the L.A. County Museum of Art on the old "Miracle Mile"--gather in the courtyard outside their cluster of tailored, track-lighted white boxes to enjoy a casual barbecue. These days too many potential customers come by to leave the galleries in the hands of weekend receptionists. There's a steady stream of hipsters and Saturday strollers, but often the sign-in books read like rosters of Hollywood power. As often as not, the black Mercedes of UPN network head Dean Valentine pulls into the adjacent parking lot, sometimes with power broker Michael Ovitz in tow. This is where the rubber meets the road in L.A.'s burgeoning art scene. It's a fusion of a new crop of weirdly clever young artists who've mustered out from the market-savvy art departments at UCLA, Art Center College of Design and the California Institute of the Arts and the showbiz billionaires and millionaires who are...
  • A Reunion For Velazquez

    Even in New York, with a raft of museums filled with masterpieces, it's surprising how long it can take to get works by a single great artist together in one room. In the case of the 17th-century Spanish painter Velazquez - one of the most soulfully dignified portraitists of all time - it was never. Until now. For the 400th anniversary of his birth, the Frick Collection has gathered together six portraits covering 30 years of his career. Three paintings (including the delicately austere "Portrait of a Little Girl") represent the first time in 90 years that the Hispanic Society of America has let any of its old masters out the door. Two others, including "Juan de Pareja," a movingly noble portrait of the black man who became the painter's assistant, come from the Met. Velazquez's final official portrait of King Philip IV of Spain is the Frick's own. ...
  • Norman Rockwell Revisited

    In pre-television times, Americans got their images from the printed page, where they could linger over them as long as they wanted. For both sentimental impact and delicious detail, there was no printed-page artist like Norman Rockwell. From 1916 to 1963 his homespun illustrations of heartwarming moments in everyday life graced the covers of 322 issues of The Saturday Evening Post. In 1943, prints of Rockwell's patriotic "Four Freedoms" paintings were bought by--and this is not a typo--25 million people. So why has it taken until now for somebody to mount a retrospective as comprehensive as "Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People," at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta through Jan. 30? (It then embarks on a six-stop tour culminating at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2001.)The first thing you need to know about Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) is that his paintings were intended primarily for reproduction. Rockwell's art is illustration; museums of fine arts don't usually...
  • Working With Words

    Some artists speak. Others whisper. A few even sing. In her just-opened retrospective exhibition at The Geffen Contemporary (the Museum of Contemporary Art's giant retooled police car garage in downtown Los Angeles), Barbara Kruger mostly shouts. (The show runs through Feb. 13, after which it travels to New York). The once-upon-a-time Conde Nast graphic designer specializes in appropriating old, harsh black-and-white photographs. She crops them so tightly the image seems about to explode, then blows them up on vinyl to the size of huge paintings and adds overlaid captions in her trademark font, Futura Bold Italic. "I Shop Therefore I Am," "We Don't Need Another Hero" and "Your Comfort Is My Silence," she booms in her pictures.Kruger's colors are nearly always absolute black, white and red--perennial propagandists' favorites. Sometimes Kruger takes up a whole wall to instruct us. "All violence is the illustration of a pathetic stereotype," for instance, is sign-painted in enormous...
  • Expressionism Italian Style

    How can an artist appear both offhandedly hip and achingly sincere at the same time? If you're Francesco Clemente and famous for being a neoexpressionist painter, it's a matter of balancing "neo" stuff with the "expressionist" part. The fact that his just-opened retrospective is entitled simply "Clemente"--like a runway show might simply be called "Versace" --could give you the idea that Clemente comes down too far on the side of cleverness and fashion. True, he's not nearly as direct-from-the-gut as an original German expressionist from the 1910s like, say, the broodingly primitive Emil Nolde. But he's no totally coy Andy Warhol, either.Clemente was born in Naples in 1952. In 1970 he moved to Rome to study architecture but switched to art within a year. His early paintings returned bold, fleshy human figures to a modern art grown dry and theoretical under the rule of minimalism. Flushed with success at the Venice Biennale, he relocated to New York just in time for the go-go 1980s....
  • Holy Elephant Dung!

    Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, says the directive came as a complete surprise. "At 10:45 a.m. on Sept. 21, I got a call from the cultural-affairs commissioner with a message from Mayor Giuliani: cancel the exhibition or the city will terminate all funding for the museum. Boom, just like that."The Battle of Brooklyn is the latest skirmish in the culture wars that have raged ever since a 1990 show of Robert Mapplethorpe's X-rated photographs invited a fusillade that eventually gutted the National Endowment for the Arts. This time the target is "Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection," scheduled to open Oct. 2. One work in it particularly enraged the mayor: a semiabstract, Africanized image of the Virgin--surrounded by floating female buttocks and genitals clipped from porn magazines, and embellished with some resin-coated balls of elephant dung. Giuliani fumes that the painting is "sick" and "disgusting" and "desecrates somebody else's...
  • King Of Pop

    Leo Castelli wasn't contemporary art's biggest dealer--in either sense. He stood about 5 feet 4 inches, and such galleries as Gagosian and Pace/Wildenstein have been doing a lot more business in recent years. Still, when he died on Aug. 21, at the age of 91, it seemed like the art world had lost its emperor. Almost immediately its denizens started speculating about the post-Leo era at his legendary New York gallery.Castelli--an impeccable dresser who spoke five languages--was born in Trieste in 1907. He dealt art early on, in Paris. After he immigrated to the United States in 1943, his father-in-law set him up in the garment business, but Leo opened another gallery in 1957. The bigtime abstract expressionists were already taken, so Leo went out and discovered Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, and showed Andy Warhol. In effect, Castelli created the whole pop-art scene whose kitschy irony, instant fame and frantic big bucks are still with us--in spades--today....
  • Barney For Grown-Ups

    Matthew Barney, 32, was recruited by Yale to play football, but left the team to model for the Gap. Then he took up art. When he was 24, his first solo show in New York (which included a workout bench fashioned from vaseline, exhibited in a freezer) was a SoHo sensation. Barney's videos of himself as a satyr won the trendy Hugo Boss prize in 1995 and made him an international star before he turned 30. "I was a quarterback," Barney says. "I'm very comfortable working on a single thing with a group of people." His latest "Cremaster" film--fourth in a series of five--premiered recently at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Each is a feature-length, beautifully photographed, movingly scored and virtually dialogueless dream-with-a- capital-D. The new one chronicles, in an emphatically surreal manner, the last days of the executed murderer Gary Gilmore, played by Barney. Norman Mailer plays Harry Houdini. (Don't ask.)The series--the cremaster is a muscle connected to the testicles-...
  • A Visionary Hits Venice

    First, Ann Hamilton completely gutted the U.S. pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale exhibition of international contemporary art. Then she constructed a ripply glass wall across the courtyard. Seen through it, the building seems to dissolve. On the bare white walls inside, she's fashioned large Braille excerpts from Charles Reznikoff's "Testimony," a poetry epic recounting the sufferings of underclass Americans. To accentuate the text, fine, rosy-red powder continuously sifts down along the walls from above. The audio component--yes, there's a soundtrack--is a whispered rendition of Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural Address. The result is a stately, lyrical work of installation art entitled "myein" (from a Greek root meaning mystery).It's also the official U.S. entry in the big artfest (open through Nov. 7) and one of the most expensive--her New York dealer had to raise about $650,000 to complete it. That was possible because Hamilton, 43, is a former MacArthur "genius" grantee...
  • Talent Pool

    We're a little late, we admit. The way events were transpiring in Europe, art didn't seem such a high priority. But now that a few rays of sunshine are poking through the summer clouds, the idea of trotting around the continent to see some of the good things that humanity can come up with doesn't seem so, well, let-them-eat-cake-ish. ...
  • One Leonardo, To Stay

    Paintings come and paintings go--most of the time in super slo-mo. It's so slow, in fact, that we think they're not changing at all, that once the paint has dried, they'll be around in the same state forever. But like everything else in the universe, paintings deteriorate. Even in the most hushed and pristine museums, they darken, fade, crack and crumble. And when they're subjected to horses' being stabled in the same room, Napoleon's bored troops throwing bricks at them, the moist breath of huge crowds and the fumes of a million Fiats wafting in from the streets, they age a little faster. That's what happened to Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" (1494-98) in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. What to do? The first six restorations of the 30-foot mural consisted of ham-handed overpainting and, in 1953, a coat of rock-hard transparent glue. They were enough to keep the tourists coming, the souvenir T shirts printed and Andy Warhol supplied with parody material....
  • First Views Of The West

    What Mars is to all of us now, California and the West used to be--150 years ago--to folks back East. They heard stories about it, were skeptical and longed for concrete evidence of what it was like to be there. Say, a photograph. But early photography was as delicate, cumbersome and uncertain as space exploration is today. Taking a really good photograph of the West's awesome mountains and rivers required a pack mule; a specially constructed camera yielding huge, detailed, 18-by-20-inch negatives, and arduous treks over difficult terrain. At least, that's what the beautiful photographs of Carleton Watkins demonstrate in a new retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, through Sept. 7. ...
  • Have Pen, Will Amuse

    I am among the few who continue to draw after childhood," Saul Steinberg once said, "continuing and perfecting childhood drawing--without the traditional interruption of academic training." Steinberg, who died in New York last week at the age of 84, wielded a whimsically wicked pen, pencil and watercolor brush for 60 years. In fact, he was one of the greatest draftsmen of the 20th century. His graphic inventiveness was right up there with Picasso's, his visual conundra as eerily hilarious as M. C. Escher's, and his viewer-friendliness equal to Charles Schulz's. Steinberg's capacity for distilling a complex world down to its essence, with a quirky, poetic shorthand, was absolutely original. A little Steinberg calligraphy about New York in the summer can make you feel the spray from the open fireplug, hear the police sirens, and feel the heat from the asphalt.But he was hardly untrained, having earned a doctorate in architecture, which must have involved drawing classes. He was born...
  • Degas In New Orleans

    Celestine Musson, the mother of the great French impressionist painter Edgar Degas, was born in New Orleans. And thereby hangs a tale. In France Celestine married a banker, Auguste De Gas (he favored the pseudo-aristocratic spelling of his last name), and bore him three sons: Edgar and his two younger brothers, Rene and Achille. By 1870, when Edgar was just beginning to find his style as an artist, Rene and Achille had moved to New Orleans where, they believed, "men with nerve" could make fortunes in the cotton business. Rene encouraged Degas to come visit him. In October 1872, with Paris still recovering from the German occupation during the Franco-Prussian War, Degas set out for America.What he painted during his five-month visit is the subject of a superb little exhibition, "Degas and New Orleans," at the New Orleans Museum of Art. His sister-in-law Estelle Musson, who was going blind, became his favorite subject. Troubled by his own weakened eyesight, he painted her again and...
  • Millennial Biennial

    Doing the impossible is as American as it gets. We've put a man on the moon and the Dow over the 10,000 mark. Next, we might even create an art exhibition that tells the story of the whole incredible 20th century. Everyone seems to be trying. The Museum of Modern Art in New York will roll out a standard set of great art themes--"People, Places and Things"--starting next year. The Art Institute of Chicago opens a new installation of its modern-art collection on May 7. But first out of the blocks is Manhattan's Whitney Museum, with "The American Century," part one (1900-1950). It fills the museum's strangely shaped Marcel Breuer fortress through Aug. 22.The Whitney has a lot going for it. The first is a trove of American modernism, rich in such beloved artists as Edward Hopper (yes, "Early Sunday Morning," 1930, is in the show) and Georgia O'Keeffe. The second is new director Maxwell Anderson, 42, who appears rededicated to playing to the strength of the Whitney: its collection. ...
  • Millennial Biennial

    Doing the impossible is as American as it gets. We've put a man on the moon and the Dow over the 10,000 mark. Next, we might even create an art exhibition that tells the story of the whole incredible 20th century. Everyone seems to be trying. The Museum of Modern Art in New York will roll out a standard set of great art themes--"People, Places and Things"--starting next year. The Art Institute of Chicago opens a new installation of its modern-art collection on May 7. But first out of the blocks is Manhattan's Whitney Museum, with "The American Century," part one (1900-1950). It fills the museum's strangely shaped Marcel Breuer fortress through Aug. 22.The Whitney has a lot going for it. The first is a trove of American modernism, rich in such beloved artists as Edward Hopper (yes, "Early Sunday Morning," 1930, is in the show) and Georgia O'Keeffe. The second is new director Maxwell Anderson, 42, who appears rededicated to playing to the strength of the Whitney: its collection. ...
  • Metropolitan Gentleman

    At a fancy Parisian hotel not long ago, an American journalist told Philippe de Montebello he was "heartbroken" over a Renaissance painting by Dosso Dossi in a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Why didn't the Met buy it and keep it in America? De Montebello, who has been the museum's director since 1978, sipped his drink, smiled and boomed, "Because it's a dog!" In the hypertouchy big-time museum world, an outburst like that could collapse delicate relationships--with wealthy patrons, helpful scholars and other directors--on whom the getting and showing of major works of art depend. But de Montebello is riding high these days. While Thomas Krens expands the Guggenheim and Maxwell Anderson tries to right the listing Whitney, the Met steamrollers on.Never mind that the museum spent $1.5 million more last year than the $115 million it took in, and just kicked up its "suggested" adult admission (you can pay a penny if you want) from $8.50 to $10. De Montebello says it...
  • A Yankee Portraitist In London

    The fact that John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was a Yank didn't hinder his entree into London society. At the height of his career--about 1880 to 1907--Sargent was the most sought-after portraitist in England. His natural facility with paint was right up there with masters like Rubens, Hals and Manet--as the Sargent retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (through May 31), makes clear. (The show then travels to Boston.) Although born in Italy, the son of Philadelphians who'd moved abroad, Sargent always declared himself a true American. He returned to the United States for commissions, painting John D. Rockefeller and Isabella Stewart Gardner with the same oily meringue and flair for elongation that he lavished on the likes of the foppish Lord Dalhousie and the wincingly wasp-waisted "Madame X." Actually, "Madame X" (1884) was painted in Paris, where Sargent had studied. "X" was really Virginie Gautreau, and Sargent painted her in a low-cut gown with a thin...