Peter Plagens

Stories by Peter Plagens

  • Big Man On Canvas

    ART CRITICS ARE A SPINSTERISH lot. We really are. We're either fastidious poetasters writing hairsplitting guides about rare paintings, or we're priggish deconstructivist wan-bringing up the intellectual rear of the P.C. parade. Sister Wendy Beckett, the former English nun who still dresses like one and gushes about the sensuousness of the old masters, is supposed to be unusual. On the outside, maybe. But the real walking contradiction in the profession is the ruddy, hard-drinking, hail-fellow-well-met Australian, Robert Hughes. He's written books about art and books about the history of Australia and Barcelona. Another, "Culture of Complaint," became a nationwide catch phrase. He lectures to overflow crowds and makes documentary mini-series about art. His newest, "American Visions," begins its run on PBS May 28. A companion volume, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (608 pages. Knopf $65), has just been published. Hughes, who's lived in the United States since...
  • Stuck In The Middle

    THE WHITNEY MUSEUM'S BIENNIAL exhibition of contemporary American art has turned into a peculiar mating dance with the critics. The museum fluffs its feathers and protests its being pecked to death for bringing the public up to speed on current art. The critics cluck that they're honor-bound to expose the Whitney's shallow trendiness. But the museum should hug the critics. The Biennial is always boffo at the box office, and it's the flap that brings people through the doors. (Ninety-eight thousand saw the 1995 show; the 1997 edition is up through June 1.) Likewise, critics should thank the Whitney. The Biennial gives them a dependable opportunity to prove their grasp of all that weird art that so mystifies regular folks. Risking dereliction of duty to my fellow critics, I have to say that this time I like the show. Parts of it. A little. ...
  • The Last Dutch Master

    WILLEM DE KOONING CALLED HIMSELF A ""SLIPPING glimpser'' because his pictures were never totally abstract. Early last Wednesday morning, he slipped from life at the age of 92. De Kooning had suffered from Alzheimer's disease since the early 1980s. Nevertheless, he kept on painting (an exhibition of what have become known, almost reverently, as ""the late paintings'' runs through April 29 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). The best of his 1980s works--with a whiplash line cutting through feathery planes of viscous white--make one think of the old Rembrandt applying paint to his late self-portraits with his fingers, or the nonagenarian Picasso's unquenchable eroticism. With de Kooning's death, the almost terminally Warholized American art world loses not only a link with its last heroic--indeed, its last sincere--grand style, but a living connection to the discipline of the old masters. Look at de Kooning and you see traces of Piero della Francesca--whose palette he consciously...
  • Exiles On Main St.

    HITLER WASTED NO TIME AT all. In 1933, his first year in power, he forced 20,000 Jews you to flee. He also founded the Reichskulturkammer to censor art. And his storm troopers invaded the visionary art school the Bauhaus on the ground that it was a hotbed of ""Jewishness'' and ""cultural bolshevism.'' In 1935 the Nazis enacted the infamous Nuremberg laws depriving Jews of their civil rights; by 1937, when they staged the biggest of their mocking ""Degenerate Art'' shows, most of Germany's giants of modern art had fled the country for other parts of Europe. Painter Max Beckmann went to Amsterdam. Author Thomas Mann chose Swiss exile at first. Some, like artists Josef Albers and George Grosz and conductor Otto Klemperer, headed directly for America. When Germany occupied France in 1940, the desperate migration overseas soared upward. Among the 100,000 Europeans who found transatlantic refuge before the U.S. entry into the war were about 8,000 academics and 1,500 people in the arts-...
  • Little Artists And Athletes

    Cradling a newborn, said playwright Sebastian Barry in "The Steward of Christendom," is like "holding a three-pound bag of loose corn": the baby has about as much motor control as the sack of kernels and is equally incapable of any intentional movement. Yet to many parents it seems like only an instant between this period of almost comic uncoordination and the moment their teenage violinist masters the precise fingering required for rapid arpeggios, or their adolescent jock musters all the coordination in her quadriceps to nail the triple jump. How much do these later feats owe to early-childhood practice and precocity? ...
  • Inflated Reputation

    THE SAME SHERIFF WHO charged Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center with obscenity over its 1990 Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition brought his own bagpipe band to play at Tim Hawkinson's opening there recently. Must be that a sculpture like ""Balloon Self-Portrait''--an anatomically correct, inflated latex cast of the artist's body--is too funny to censor. Hawkinson, 36, is self-effacingly likable, too. ""The L.A. art scene? I'm kind of the wrong person to ask,'' he says. ""I hole up in my studio and don't get out a lot.''Seclusion has yielded""Dorito Polyhedron'' (Buckminster Fuller meets Frito-Lay) and ""Shorts'' (an exten-sion cord woven into a pair of boxers). His new show (up through March 31 at L.A.'s Ace Gallery) features timepieces fashioned from some toothpaste and a hairbrush. What do they mean? How about: for Hawkinson, the future is now.
  • Tokyo Time For Vinoly

    TOKYO--TO UNDERSTATE THE OBVIOUS--is a vast, sprawling city infamous for its centerless semichaos. No single building could possibly give it an urbanist's bull's-eye. But the right project on the right site might go a long way toward it. For the last four years, architect Rafael ViNoly's $1.5 billion Tokyo International Forum has been under construction on a seven-acre plot of choice Tokyo real estate: within the vital Marunouchi business district and close to the chichi Ginza shopping area. Imagine a combination of Chicago's mammoth Merchandise Mart and New York's Lincoln Center in the same place; imagine four separate theaters (one of them, with 5,000 seats, Japan's largest), all in a row and all clad in Brazilian granite, and imagine a giant, elliptical, "Glass Hall" for conventions and trade shows rising 190 feet above a gardenlike plaza. When the ribbon on the Forum was cut last weekend, residents saw ViNoly's imagination become reality.Although ViNoly, 52, is the...
  • Life In The Virtual Year

    ONE MOMENT WE WERE popping bubbly on New Year's Eve 1995. Next thing we knew we were cracking a can of Old Milwaukee in front of the 1997 Outback Bowl. Nineteen ninety-six was a leap year, but did that mean you skipped it entirely? Was it like a 19th-century novel that takes place in the village of M-- and would be referred to as ""199-''? Then it came to us in a mouseclick: 1996 was a virtual year--one giant, computer-generated special effect. ...
  • Rally Round The Flag, Boys

    JASPER JOHNS'S AUSTERELY ELEGANT town house on Manhattan's Upper East Side is a little like a home, a little like a museum. The art on the walls--Cy Twombly, Kurt Schwitters, Picasso and a bit of Johns's own--has been astutely placed. In the spacious kitchen, a nicely arranged plate of biscotti accompanies the coffee. Johns, at 66, might have gotten plumper over the last few years, but his well-cut loose shirt hides it well. He tends to speak--unpretentiously--in kung fu- esque truths: ""The meanings of things aren't stable. Anything can mean almost anything.'' Which he leavens with self-effacement: ""I've always thought of myself as an artist who does too much that's too evenly the same thing. I'm envious of artists who don't have that hesitancy, that restraint, that I have.'' Then he flashes a wide but dignified smile, like the honorable Mr. Ambassador on his day off. An artist this much in control, with this much self-knowledge, and a retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern...
  • Lady Painters? Smile When You Say That.

    THIS IS THE FIRST GENERATION TO DO what-the-hell, without having to wag a finger at somebody or make art about why one can't make art,' says London-born painter Nicola Tyson, 36, in her austere New York studio. She means the first generation since didactic political art started taking over the scene about o0 years ago. Now some of the best the craftiest, funniest and, in a dark way, sexiest-art around is being made by three women painters who've resurrected surrealism and given it a postfeminist twist. ...
  • There Goes The Neighborhood

    IN THE ART WORLD NOTHING EXCEEDS like success. Take New York's SoHo district, where airy galleries show cutting-edge art, where artists live and work in spacious lofts and where esthetes chow down together in local bistros. Well, that's what SoHo used to be, until Eurotourists, Japanese shoppers and a horde of suburbanites discovered it in the 1980s. Now SoHo (for ""south of Houston Street'') is home to as many espresso bars as expressionist painters. On Sept. 11, the neighborhood's first hotel, the 15-story SoHo Grand, will officially open with an 89th-birthday bash for Leo Castelli, the Godfather of New York art dealers, whose gallery has been a SoHo landmark for 22 years. Despite the tribute, many longtime residents think the hotel's opening marks the end of SoHo as a center of fine art and the beginning of unabated commercialism. They see SoHo's transformation as a tragedy that could befall any major city's art district. ...
  • Biting The Hand

    MOMMAS, DON'T LET YOUR BAbies grow up to be artists. They'll get sucked into a treacherous, black-clad SoHo demimonde, where elegantly cynical dealers manipulate egotistical painters.At least that's the gist of Kim Benabib's oddly affecting first novel, Obscene Bodies (256 pages. HarperCollins. $22). On the other hand, Olivia Goldsmith's delicious junk-food story of the publishing biz, The Bestseller (514 pages. HarperCollins. $25), is so hipped on the AbFabishness of its own sharky milieu that it throws in a handy index of the real-life authors, agents and editors peppered throughout the narrative and a contest in which you, dear reader, might get your own best seller published. Its glossydust jacket might as well say, ""We're looking for people who like to write!''Benabib, 27, is the son of a mother who painted and a father who dealt paintings. His is a cautionary tale concerning the fragile integrity of Stuart Finley, a sensitive junior curator of old-master drawings who...
  • Chicago's New Hope

    YOU HAVE TO HAND IT TO Chicagoans: they never tiptoe around anything. Take their huge new Museum of Contemporary Art building, which opens to the public with a 24-hour celebration on the summer solstice, June 21. When a plan to move the museum into larger quarters crystallized around 1990, art times were tough. A plunging market, a shrinking National Endowment for the Arts and the censorial specter of family-values politicians were a few of the potential whammies. Moreover, Chicago's art scene had always thumbed its nose at the avant-garde as defined in New York or Dsseldorf. It took its inspiration from outsider artists and went its own Second City way. So the easy solution would've been to hire a local architect to design a modest, playfully post-modern museum and open with a show of, say, the Hairy Who (a funky local artists group from the late 1960s). ...
  • A World Of Apples

    YOU MAY KNOW THE TYPE OF guy. He's bald, gruff and has grown a mountain man's beard. He works in his garage, perfecting some clumsy electrical devicethat doesn't seem likely to work. He keeps showing it to companies and gets nowhere, but still he keeps plugging away. The neighbors think he's a bit of a nut. Then his invention turns out to work. He's awarded a patent. Techies in AirWalks make skateboard pilgrimages to his garage and proclaim him their main dude. Now, imagine the backdrop is 19th-century France, change the garage seclusion to solitary outings in the countryside, substitute painting style for electronic gizmos, and you've got Paul Czanne (1839-1906), who influenced practically every major painter of this century. ...
  • Even A Kid Could Do It

    BEAUTIFUL ALEXANDRA NECHITA, age 10, puts on her paint-dappled "magic slippers" and hums a little tune. She ties an apron around her waist. Then -- oblivious to the sounds of the nearby freeway in Norwalk, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles -- she begins to paint. Not little Monopoly houses and trees that look like lollipops, but six-foot canvases packed with colorful cubisty images that call to mind the work of Picasso and Klee. Alexandra puts in two or three hours each school day in her studio -- a room in her parents' modest tract house -- and paints all day on weekends. Her pictures now bring up to $50,000 and have found their way into the homes of rocker Melissa Etheridge, comic Ellen DeGeneres and Lee Iacocca. Alexandra is the subject of a new coffee-table book, "Outside the Lines" (100 pages. Longstreet. $25). She'll have a big Beverly Hills exhibition in August. Her second European publicity tour starts this summer. She's appeared on CNN and "CBS Sunday Morning."...
  • Cows On The Cutting Edge

    ENGLISH ARTIST DAMIEN HIRST SEEMS like a real nice, un-self-conscious guy. The day before his big debut at Larry Gagosian's SoHo gallery earlier this month, Hirst, 30, took a pull on a Heineken and said, "I think the moment you become your own idea of yourself, you've lost everything." So it wasn't a snarling, enigmatic artist's persona that packed Hirst's opening with black-clad artsies and such celebrities as David Bowie, John Waters and Anna Wintour. It was the cut-up cows in glass tanks of formaldehyde. ...
  • In A Spiral

    GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM DIRECTOR Thomas Krens leans back in his office chair and smiles. Krens, 49, is 6 feet 4, so it's a pretty impressive lean. ...
  • Here's Pablo!

    BIENVENUE SUR LE WEB DE PICASSO, the computer screen says. Last week Pablo began presiding over his own Web site (www.clubinternet.com/ picasso), while the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened yet another major exhibition, "Picasso and Portraiture" (through Sept. 17). This month "Picasso Paints a Portrait," a new book of photographs by David Douglas Duncan (Abrams. $19.95), hit the stores. Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," a hilarious play about a weirdly plausible meeting between the artist and Einstein, continues to pack 'em in off-Broadway. "Sesame Street" animates Picasso paintings to teach cooperation to 3-year-olds. Wait, we're not done yet. This fall Anthony Hopkins will star in Merchant-Ivory's film "Surviving Picasso." Next spring the National Gallery of Art debuts "Picasso: The Early Years." For a guy who died 23 years ago at 91, Picasso is making career moves Jerry Garcia must envy. ...
  • The Golden Hoard

    STARTING APRIL 16, THE FABLED "Gold of Troy" that Heinrich Schliemann excavated in Turkey will see the light of day for the first time since 1941. In 19 bulletproof-glass cases, 259 priceless objects will be put on public view for a year, in Moscow's Pushkin Museum. Among the small but impressive adornments are pins, pendants, earrings, bracelets, chokers and beads. One delicate pin is decorated with sculpted reliefs of six miniature vessels. All this comes from the recesses of what's called the Bronze Age. "They are in wonderful shape," says Vladimir Tolstikov, 50, the exhibition's curator. "They all have their original German numbers on them." German numbers? Thereby hangs a tale of, well, Homeric proportions. Since the Middle Ages map makers and travelers had tried to find the central site of the Iliad to discover whether perhaps the greatest work of literature the human race will ever produce is pure myth or grounded in reality. In 1878, at Hissarlik in Turkey, Sehliemann found...
  • The Great Assembler

    ED (NO EDWARD, PLEASE) KIENHOLZ was a bearded, big-bellied, self-taught artist who became famous in the 1960s for making angry assemblage sculpture in Los Angeles. When he died at the age of 66 in 1994, his body-along with his dog's ashes and a bottle of vintage Italian wine-was put into a shiny 1940 Packard and rolled into a grave in northern Utah. (Kienholz split his later years between there and Berlin, Germany.) Kienholz's raw, direct art has never been easy to take. He almost shut down the L.A. County Museum of Art in 1966 because the chicken-wire man making love to a plaster woman in "Back Seat Dodge '38" was thought obscene by politicians. With his best pieces sequestered in European collections, Kienholz is thought of, wrongly, by many people in the East Coast art establishment as merely an industrial-strength folk artist, a sort of Howard Finster with power tools. Kienholz's work is sometimes juvenile and mawkish, but he was really a great stylistic maverick-right up there...
  • Abstract Slant

    NEARLY 40 YEARS AGO, 21 MODERN artists--including Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline--signed an open letter protesting the Guggenheim Museum's plans for a new building by Frank Lloyd Wright. They contended that a "curvilinear slope . . . indicates a callous disregard for the fundamental rectilinear frame of reference." Wright telegraphed back: there is no such frame of reference, "except one raised by callous disregard of nature, all too common in your art." Back then, it seemed like the great white beehive on Fifth Avenue would never be the site of an exhibition called "Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline." Now, through May 12, it is. ...
  • The Font Of Youth

    Ex-surfer David Carson is changing the way we read. Designing magazines and ads, he twists, shatters and blurs the type. Twentysomethings think he's the coolest. Others aren't so sure.
  • Miracle On Fifth Avenue

    ONE EVENING LAST FALL, ON HER daily walk home from New York's Institute of Fine Arts, Dr. Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt passed the French Embassy's cultural center on Fifth Avenue, near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On this night, there was a party going on in the usually dark mansion, built in 1906 for the Payne Whitney family by architect Stanford White. The place was ablaze with light. A three-foot statue of Cupid, which had stood for 90 years atop an interior courtyard fountain, looked strangely different. "I pressed my nose against the glass," says Brandt. "I felt like the Little Match Girl." Brandt could see the subtle shadows of delicately carved muscles, exquisitely rendered curls of hair, and the way the strap of a curious quiver cut into the youth's flesh. Goodness, what could have reduced a sophisticated professor to such schoolgirl tremors? She felt she was in the presence of a Michelangelo or, at the least, "an important sculpture of the 15th century, very probably by...
  • Click On A Canvas

    LET'S SAY THAT KENT AND CARLA Naif of Kansas City decide to start acquiring contemporary art. They've seen reproductions of big paintings by the current SoHo star Paolo Pomo, and they want one. They've heard that a new Pomo goes for around $50,000. Kent and Carla head for New York and Paolo's allegedly exclusive outlet, the Werner Kunsthustler Gallery. It turns out, however, that Paolo's already got a waiting list, that the next batch of pictures might cost $70,000 apiece and that the Naifs don't yet qualify for Werner's "serious" collectors' 10 percent discount (20 percent to museums and 30 percent to people who yell). Charming Werner sends them away with a stack of slick catalogs (containing no prices) and a promise to get in touch. But the Naifs also hear rumors that Paolo has a second dealer in Dallas, where his paintings are just $35,000 a pop, and that an early Pomo was recently put up for auction in Milan, where it failed to attract the minimum bid of $20,000 and didn't sell....
  • Peeling Paint

    PAINTING HAS HAD A ROUGH TIME since the end of the 1980s, when the market for neoexpressionism collapsed and ambitious young artists went back to making installation art. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., hasn't had it any easier. Attached to an art school filled with typically bumptious art students, it was -- in spite of a slightly frumpy collection -- long considered by artists to be their kind of open-minded place. In 1989, however, the museum caved in to political anxieties and canceled that Robert Mapplethorpe show. Censorship! cried artists. The Corcoran's reputation within the art world nose-dived and, as the brouhaha about nasty art in public museums played out, looked like it would never recover. A Corcoran rebound began when curator Terrie Sultan, who came from New York's trendy The New Museum in 1988, took over the museum's Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting in 1991. You might say painting and the Corcoran have tried to make a comeback...
  • Mussolini Over Miami

    WE'RE FUTURISTS," SAYS MITCHELL Wolfson Jr., who looks like a younger version of Schweppes's Commander Whitehead, of his brand-new museum and its staff. "If you want to know what we are, you have to go back to Marinetti." Really? Filippo Marinetti, the war-loving Italian poet who wrote of Mussolini: "Futurist eloquence, well masticated by teeth of steel, plastically sculpted by his intelligent hand that shaves off the useless clay of hostile opinions"? No, not really--we hope. Wolfson, the 56-year-old heir to an $84 million share of his late father's media fortune, is merely caught up with enthusiasm for The Wolfsonian (no "Museum," but the echo of "Smithsonian" intended), which opened last week in an elegantly renovated 1927 warehouse in Miami Beach. ...
  • Sex, Please, We're French

    The French didn't actually invent sex, but they sure know how to make a big deal out of it. They've given us the Folies Bergere, French postcards, French kissing and, of course, vive la difference itself. So if anybody's qualified to put on a big museum show about sex and modern art (which was actually invented in France) it's the Parisians. "Feminin-Masculin, The Sex of Art," at the Centre Georges Pompidou through Feb. 12, contains 500 works by 100 artists--famous, infamous and unknown--that run the gamut from symbolic to explicit, tender to tough, and hetero to omnisexual. Walking into "Feminin-Masculin" (yes, the words are in that order; it's part of the show's point) is like entering a strange, rubbery Bloomingdale's of copulation. The walls and floors of the Pompidou's Grand Galerie are festooned with pictures and objects in which just about anything that protrudes stands for a penis and any concavity connotes a vagina. It's hard to tell whether we're looking at art or...
  • When Less Was More

    These days, a relentless IMpulse to throw everything lying around the studio floor into contemporary art seems to dictate that a giant-size, interactive photo-text installation with video monitors and Dolby sound is inherently better than a plain old painting or sculpture. Early modernism's heroic attempt to distill visual art down to its absolute essentials--to create transcendently beautiful works that held their own amid skyscrapers and automobiles--has been largely, and conveniently, forgotten. Two magnificent retrospectives--one of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), and the other of the Dutch painter Pict Mondrian (1872-1944)--not only resuscitate the glories of reductive abstraction, but also aspire to act as esthetic consciences in today's fragmented, junkyard scene. After a couple of hours with Brancusi (at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Dec. 31) and Mondrian (at New York's Museum of Modern Art until Jan. 25), you can almost hear the two masters...
  • What A Life She Red

    Tina Modotti's life (1896-1942) is the stuff that mini-series are made of. That may not he the reason "Tina Modotti: Photographs," on view through Nov. 26 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is, according to a sign on the wall just inside the show's entrance, "made possible by a generous gift from Madonna." Still, it's nice to see showfolk stepping into an arena--museum exhibitions with a little grit to them--where government and corporate funds fear to tread. ...
  • Beauty And Beats

    The Last Few Years Have Been Hard On visual art. To folks in the malls and on Capitol Hill, art is about as welcome as Calvin Klein at a PTA meeting. Hassles over Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley and Ron Athey have taken their toll on the art world. Kathy Halbreich, director of Minneapolis's hip Walker Art Center, says, "It's obviously a more conservative time. The experimental is suddenly taboo." At the stupendously rich (and not dependent on public money) Getty Museum, director John Walsh concurs: "I don't doubt there's a chill in the air." But "the big general art museums haven't been in the forefront of shocking the public with what's new." Whatever, the autumn exhibition menu favors gold-plated art with a capital A. ...
  • Alfred Eisenstaedt 1898-1995

    Alfred Eisenstaedt said his famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square,was "accidental, no more preplanned than any of the 1 million pictures he estimated he took during a 68-year career. Actually, on VJ Day in 1945, Eisenstaedt noticed a swabbie smoothing his way through the crowd. He tagged along until a woman in white--in contrast to the sailor's near black-- came along. Persistence, luck, click: one of the great news photographs of all time. ...
  • The Video Vibes Of Venice

    On a balmy june night in venice, hundreds of fashionably stubbled men and spandexed women crowded around video artist Bill Viola. San Pellegrino spritzers in hand, they shouted congratulations for his show at the current Biennale (open through Oct. 15). This kind of reception used to be reserved for blue-chip painters or sculptors whose flashy work boasted the kind of visual and emotional impact that kept obscure, cheesy video art confined to the cultural fringe.But the 44-year-old Viola--the U.S. representative at the current Biennale and a MacArthur "genius" fellow--has changed all that. His David Lean-like sense of cinematic grandeur (and a technical proficiency a CNN engineer would envy) have allowed him to free video art from intellectual pretense and small-screen constriction. You step into one of his room-size projections and the subtle poetry of his sequences of images and soundtracks washes over you.Back in the '60s and '70s, when conceptual art was in its heyday and...