Peter Plagens

Stories by Peter Plagens

  • 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...
  • High Performance

    HERE'S A TWIST: SOMEBODY WHO MAKES AVANT-GARDE ART (videos and photographs) to sell in a New York gallery to support her career in performance art. But then, Claude Wampler, 33, is not your normal artist. After getting a degree in theater and ""meeting agents, going on auditions,'' says Wampler, ""I was disgusted with show business. I can't work with anybody whose product sucks.'' So what doesn't suck? Wampler's own performances, such as ""Cake Fur,'' in which the part-cute, part-hardball Wampler lip-syncs stilted film noir dialogue to her little pet dog. Or the infamous ""Blanket of Myself,'' in which she urinated--elegantly, of course--onstage. Her new work, ""Bucket,'' premiEres next week in SoHo. Wampler says, ""I can barely stand to go to see pieces labeled "performance' myself. That's the reason for wanting to be called just "artist'.'' Doesn't that stretch the definition of art? ""Definitions,'' she says, ""are my enemy.''
  • These Days, It's The 'Old Of The Shock'

    ARTISTS ARE KIND OF CRAZY-smart, like cats. They've got antennae--all right, whiskers--to help them make the right moves when conditions change. For example, when the market for cutting-edge art works such as David Salle's pomo paintings began to slide in the late '80s, a lot of old-masterish landscapes suddenly showed up in hip galleries. More recently, whiskers have been twitching at the conflation of fine art and vulgar low culture. No, not merely hanging comic-book paintings alongside Rembrandts on museum walls; that happened 30 years ago. Rather, it's been the revelation that contemporary art is just another branch of the entertainment industry, in which the art world's comparatively low-octane celebrities (quick: which name do you recognize, Brice Marden or Matt Damon?) have to hustle like hell for public attention. Of course, artists aren't trying to sell cheap tchotchkes to millions of people who stand in line at Auto Zone; they're trying to peddle expensive objects to a few...
  • Love Affair, With Paint

    IT'S DIFFICULT TO DECIDE WHICH IS more interesting: the poignantly absurd personal life of the artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) or his quirkily great paintings. The diminutive, sour-faced Spencer was one of those Englishmen for whom sex was a complete mystery and then a cataclysm that seemed like salvation itself. He went totally broke and considerably nuts trying to have relationships with two women--a wife who bore him daughters (Shirin and Unity) and a dilettante lesbian artist who lured him into an unconsummated marriage just to get her hands on his house, money and reputation-by-association. (The saga was turned into Pam Gems's provocative play ""Stanley,'' which enjoyed successful runs in London and New York in 1996.) Spencer also created some of the most oddly bombastic yet subtly beautiful pictures of the 20th century. Sixty-four of them are on view in a show called ""Stanley Spencer: An English Vision,'' at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., through Jan. 11. (It...
  • Charles And Harry, Meet Baby And Posh

    FIRST, THE PHOTO OP: SPICE GIRL HOLDING PRINCE HARry's hand. Charles kissing Spice Girl on the cheek. Spice Girl embraced by Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela? Well, Saturday's concert was in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Charles had taken Harry for some fun between school terms. And Mandela is on record as saying the SGs are among the people he admires most. Then the questions. Actually, there was just one, for Sporty Spice: ""Are you wearing those platform shoes?'' That wasn't exactly a hardball from Charles, but he's not one of those pushy tabloid journalists (who weren't allowed to ask questions). And Sporty Spice--who'd once fallen off her famous shoes--isn't an embattled cabinet minister, either. She politely pointed down at her feet and said no. Later, the princes were ushered into Johannesburg Athletic Stadium to enjoy the feisty, and just a little bit nasty, Spice Girls' sold-out show.No matter what the Spice Girls are doing for Great Britain's balance of payments, the...
  • Revenge Of The Britpack

    CLAUDE RAINS AS CAPT. LOUIS REnault was shocked--shocked--to find gambling going on at Rick's Place in ""Casablanca.'' He'd have been really shocked if he had walked into the Royal Academy of Arts (est. 1768) in London last week to find ""Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection'' opening there. But if Renault had recently toured the contemporary galleries in any major art city, he'd have found this coldly clever and manipulative ""VV'' (violent and vulgar) art--pioneered by young Brits in the late 1980s--pretty familiar. ...
  • Cutting To The Chase

    ONE NIGHT IN OCTOBER 1960, paparazzi pursued the voluptuous Swedish actress Anita Ekberg to her Roman villa. Ekberg stormed outside in her black sheath and stocking feet, carrying a bow and arrow. She let fly, wounding a photographer. Nobody got a picture of that, but one paparazzo, Marcello Geppetti, did get a shot of Ekberg kneeing one of his colleagues in the groin. Now, even back in those days nobody would have mistaken the work of Geppetti for that of Henri Cartier-Bresson (nor would anybody have attributed Ekberg's box-office appeal to her acting ability). But since 1958, when several photographers were paid molti lire for candid pictures of deposed Egyptian King Farouk partying in a cafE in Rome with two young women, celebrity-chasers like Geppetti have thrived. They know that newspapers often pay more for invasive, unposed pictures than they do for canned glam shots. And stars such as Ekberg--who must have known her assault would provide yet another photo opportunity--began...
  • Santa Fe Raises Its Sites

    ON THE INTERSTATE UP FROM ALBUquerque, things don't look promising: Indian-run casinos, factory outlets for handbags and drunk-driving lawyers. Can the traditionally artsy city of Santa Fe really lie just ahead? And could it really be the new international-contemporary-art mecca, as some people claim? Santa Fe art dealer Linda Durham says that an Eastern art critic who finally made a reluctant trip to the place asked her, ""And what do you show, little Indian angels floating up to heaven?'' Durham actually shows abstract paintings, but Santa Fe's reputation for ethnic kitsch is hard to shake. ...
  • The Odd Allure Of Movies Never Made

    CINDY SHERMAN IS THE NICEST SUCcessful artist in the whole art world. This isn't like saying Twiggy Ramirez is the nicest member of Marilyn Manson. She really is nice. She calls back to make sure the interview date is still convenient. She doesn't answer the phone while you chat. She keeps the coffee coming in her spectacular SoHo loft. And she hand-carries a tape of ""my bad movie'' (we'll get to that) to us at a museum opening for a fellow photographer so we can take it home and watch it. All this solicitousness comes from someone who reportedly sold the Museum of Modern Art a complete set of her ""Untitled Film Stills'' for more than $1 million. (MoMA is exhibiting them June 26- Sept. 2.) If Sherman possesses the art star's requisite spine of cold-rolled steel, she sure doesn't wear it on the outside. ...
  • Unholy Hades

    Hercules sure is strong. Fast, too. In less than 86 minutes, Here wins enough fights not only to prove he's a hero, but to realize that what's inside his heart counts more than winningfights. The movie's animation seems at least twice as fast. With no or genuine heart tugs like those in "The Lion King," "Hercules" ricochets around Mount Olympus, the underworld and points in between like Hermes on ambrosia. Classical- or classic-it's not.That's not to say "Hercules" isn't far more fun than the civics lessons of "Pocahontas" or the ponderousness of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Herc is the ultimate action hero. Smaller kids in the audience nay be frightened by the many-headed Hydra, whose metallic jaws snap like bullwhips. (That's what you get When you hire famously acidic English caricaturist Gerald Scarfe as production designer. Either that or the ancient Greeks had no word for "cuddly.") The voices are superb: Danny DeVito as a pugnacious satyr, Susan Egan as the sultry bad girl...
  • 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...