Peter Plagens

Stories by Peter Plagens

  • It's A Wrap At The Reichstag

    Last Weekend Christo's Crew Of Rock climbers and construction workers was putting the finishing touches on the wrapped Reichstag. After lobbying the Bonn Parliament for 23 years for approval, after spending perhaps $10 million (being raised by the sale of the project's drawings and prints), the Bulgarian-born New York artist, 60, saw the once and future home of German democracy almost completely swathed in more than a million square feet of rippling silver polypropylene fabric. By the time the packaging comes off on July 6, an estimated 5 million people will have gazed at Christo's handiwork. Bookseller Ute Delius from Konstanz says, "It's beautiful. I wish it would stay mapped forever." Berlin pensioner Lieselotte Wiesner concurs: "We [Germans] get to enter the history books with something nice." Christo and his wife/collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, claim that the process of getting popular and official consent to cloak monuments is part and parcel of their art. "We're not just...
  • The Rap On Whistler

    An admirer once approached the American expatriate painter James McNeill Whistler (1884-1908) and told him, "There are only two great painters, you and Velazquez." "Madam," Whistler replied, "why drag in Velazquez?" Indeed. Or why drag in his contemporaries Gauguin, van Gogh and Cezanne, not to mention his fellow countryman Thomas Eakins? All of them were Whistler's betters, as is made clear by the Whistler exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, on view through Aug. 20. With more than 200 works, it is his biggest retrospective since the memorial shows of 190405. Concurrent exhibitions at the Freer Gallery ("Whistler & Japan") and the National Portrait Gallery ("Portraits of Whistler" by other artists) make it a Whistler summer in the capital.And he just about deserves it. Whistler is a pretty good artist --three pretty good artists, in fact. There's the portraitist: standing figures such as "Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl" (1862), a tour de force of-...
  • A Very Early Modern

    FOR A MEDIUM SO RESOLUTELY grounded in the particulars of the there and then-what was in front of the lens when the shutter clicked-photography can, in the hands of a master, remain eternally in the present. Take those mid-19th-century Parisians in the Nadar exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (through July 9). In his earthily warm and exquisitely detailed salted paper prints the antique becomes contemporary. The 20-year-old Sarah Bernhardt is as pensively beautiful as Winona Ryder about to play in "Little Women." The celebrated mime character Pierrot, captured in a state of "surprise," could have just discovered a parking ticket on his windshield. ...
  • The Curtain Goes Up On Lost Treasures

    Last week an unlikely international mob of museum directors, curators, critics and a few wistful heirs to vanished art collections descended on the old capital of czarist Russia, St. Petersburg. They hurried from their elegant hotels to the drafty Hermitage Museum for a no frills preview of the long-awaited and much-debated exhibition "Hidden Treasures Revealed." ...
  • The Impossible Exhibition

    One of these days, maybe in time for the 1997 Whitney Biennial exhibition, the O.J. trial will be over. People will feel an emptiness in their lives. And they'll also feel a little bit guilty about it. Well, last week at the opening of the 1995 Biennial (on view through June 4), the art world-always ahead of the times-was mumbling its own mea culpas. "I'm sorry," people were saying under their breath, "that I complained so much about the angry, political and anti-esthetic '93 show. I didn't realize that a return to a relatively normal exhibition could seem so dreary."Academic would be a better description. And that's not because curator Klaus Kertess has loaded the show with still lifes (there are a couple) and nudes (the show has tons, but hardly the kind you drew in art school). Rather, the Biennial has fallen into a formula ('93 was an aberration) of filling predictable slots. There's the requisite everything-but-the-kitchen-sink installation: this time, Jason Rhoades's roomful...
  • The Whitney Tries Again

    Slender, soft-spoken curator of drawings Klaus Kertess sure doesn't seem like the guy to straighten out the troubled Whitney Biennial exhibition. At 54, he's decidedly past the median age on the art world's hipness profile. He admits he has ""trouble working with people.'' The Bykert gallery he founded in 1966 was known for championing minimalism, currently the most unfashionable art this side of clown paintings. During 30 years in the business as a dealer/critic/curator and all-around presence, he's accumulated a coterie of artist-friends to whom he's assumed to be loyal to a fault. And he writes homoerotic fiction (""hairless boys with skin as flawless and smooth as translucent travertine'') the New York Post doesn't approve of. But the Biennial -- the only regular major-museum survey of contemporary American art -- has acquired a political-art stigma. (Remember those ""I Can't Imagine Ever Wanting to Be White'' admissions buttons in 1993?) Kertess's being named sole organizer of...
  • War And Remembrance

    Last week -- with about as much notice as the German Wehrmacht gave the Soviet Union when itinvaded in June 1941 -- Moscow's Pushkin Museum opened an exhibition of art masterpieces. The 63 works -- including paintings by El Greco, Goya and Renoir -- were brought back as booty from Germany when the Russians won the Great Patriotic War in 1945. Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, the Hermitage Museum is putting the final touches on ""Hidden Treasures Revealed,'' featuring more than 70 impressionist and postimpressionist works liberated from a defeated Germany, to open March 30. Art lovers everywhere are relieved to know that these long-lost works weren't destroyed and can be seen in public again. But the shows have also prompted a nasty controversy over the issue of cultural repatriation. ...
  • When Freedom Was But A Promise

    As a poor kid in Detroit, Jackie Napoleon Wilson began haunting thrift shops, where he could buy a pair of shoes for a nickel. He also started collecting other things he found there. ""I consider it an honor to admire someone's forgotten treasures,'' says Wilson, an attorney and the grandson of a slave who lived to the age of 107. Now The J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif., is admiring some of Wilson's treasures in a moving exhibition, ""Hidden Witness: African Americans in Early Photography.'' It's comprised of 46 photographs from Wilson's collection and 22 images -- most never before shown -- from the museum's own archives. The show runs from Feb. 28 through June 18. ...
  • New Museum By The Bay

    SAN FRANCISCO'S MELLOW ART SCENE almost gives provincialism a good name. An alternative to New York's grimy infighting and Los Angeles's sunny air-kissing, it's proud of its beatnik assemblages, psychedelic rock posters and the slather-it-on painting school of David Park and Wayne Thiebaud. But its only modern museum was shoehorned into two floors of the Depression-era Memorial Veterans Building. Although the gutsy little museum gave Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock their first museum shows in the 1940s, San Francisco soon found itself of the circuit for major traveling shows needing climate control and tight security. Last week, while another city institution was whomping the Dallas Cowboys, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art opened its huge new $60 million building by Swiss architect Mario Botta. ...
  • Cool Hand Koolhaas

    FOR A LOT OF YOUNG ARCHITECTS, urbanophiles and art students, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, 50, is one hot deconstructivist dude. The tall, articulate former journalist and scriptwriter hops between Rotterdam, London and Cambridge, Mass., and drives a Maserati. His buildings are a cleaner, more lyrical version of the playful, tilty juxtapositions of volumes that have made Frank Gehry an international fave. Koolhaas throws in the occasional techno-wrinkle (a huge exterior metal wall becomes an electronic billboard at a multimedia center in Karlsruhe, Germany). And he has a taste for bigness. His firm, Office of Metropolitan Architecture (O.M.A.), is doing the master plan for the billion-dollar Euralille center in France, at the hub of the Chunnel and the TGV, the fast train. Koolhaas has designed the center's biggest building, the 200,000 square-foot Congrexpo convention hall. But more than his buildings (none have been built in America), it's Koolhaas's ideas about cities and...
  • Living On Tokyo Time

    The curator of "Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky" (at the Guggenheim Museum's Soho branch in New York through Jan. 8 and in San Francisco next May) is of two minds about the show. In her catalog essay, Alexandra Munroe concedes that "Modernism and the concept of avant-garde art are Western ideas that Japan received from abroad." But just before the exhibition opened last week she said, "In the last 10 years, however, we've begun to reconsider [the derivativeness of Japanese modern art]. A lot of the work in the show might seem to look like American abstract expressionism and conceptual art, but it really comes out of another culture." Well, which is it -- a Japanese-dubbed version of the Euro-American story or, as Monty Python might put it, something completely different? In this case, choose both. ...
  • The Way They Were, We Are

    August Sander's everyday folk if there's a word with a bad reputation around today, it's "stereotype." But without those invisible mental molds in which to slip specific images of people, to see how closely they fit, how else can we get a glimpse of universal human nature in pictures of the local butcher, coal hauler or policeman? August Sander (1876-1964) thought he could supply a visual database, so to speak, for such perceptions. From 1910 to 1929, this former commercial portraitist roamed German towns and countryside to photograph people from all walks of life. Sander planned hundreds of portraits for a project called "Man in the Twentieth Century," but in the end gathered only 60 for a volume entitled Antlitz der Zeit ("Face of Our Time"), published in 1929. Scientifically naive, yes -- but the photographs for the project are among the most quietly moving in the whole history of photography, as anyone fortunate enough to visit Manhattan's Robert Miller Gallery through Oct. 8...
  • Drawing On The Dark Side

    Comic books have gotten a lot less comic over the years. Today's typical readers -- skateboard adolescents and some Gen-Xers -- are interested in mesomorphic superheroes and fur-clad warlocks. Now comic books are taking a more serious step away from funny-ha-ha toward funny-peculiar. Neon Lit, an imprint of Avon Books founded by poet Bob Callahan, has just come out with a comic-book version of Paul Auster's sinisterly minimalist novel City of Glass (138 pages. $12). Comic books -- or "graphic novels," as they're called when aimed at readers who aren't kids -- have taken on literary fiction before. But those were the pictorial Cliffs Notes called Classics Illustrated. This is the first time the form has tried to interpret serious contemporary literature. ...
  • Thanks, But No Thanks

    It's almost a year now since Richard Oldenburg announced his res-ignation as director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, and no replacement has been found. At least one prominent director turned the job down, and four others have declined to be candidates -- although the head of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Anne d'Harnoncourt, is reported to be reconsidering after a second wooing. (D'Harnoncourt refused to comment.) We're not talking about the Municipal Tea and Picture Society in Podunk: this is il museo moderno dei tutti musei moderni. With the greatest collection of modern art ever, MoMA offers nearly 1.5 million visitors annually a genealogical tour of modernism from Monet to Warhol, and beyond. Why is it suddenly leaderless and lonely? All that megapatron and chairman of the board emeritus David Rockefeller can claim for the sputtering search is, "We've canvassed the field, and we have a sense of the field." ...
  • Surprise Sellers: Feline Fauves

    Why would 20,000 readers -- so far -- want to buy a book on the great cat painters of the world? (Not artists portraying felines, mind you, but cats who paint.) A spokesman for Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, Calif., guesses, "It panders to animal behaviorists, art historians and people who like Spy magazine." Sounds weird, but Ten Speed must know something. Why Cats Paint (96 pages. $14.95) is leaving bookstores at the rate of 5,000 copies a week. There are 30,000 copies in print, and a ship is on its way from Hong Kong with 50,000 more. ...
  • Maya Lin's Time For Light

    Maya lin works minor miracles. As a 21-year-old undergraduate architecture student at Yale in 1980, she submitted the winning design for the magnificently conciliatory Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Her simple, noble granite Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala. (1989), conveys both the uniqueness and universality of that struggle without compromising either. Now, in a purely apolitical sculpture called "Eclipsed Time," Lin will give some civilized relief to an ugly urban space -- the subterranean Penn Station in New York. ...
  • An Outlaw Painter From Down Under

    Ned Kelly's reputation as Australia's most infamous outlaw may vastly exceed his actual crime spree. But the renown of Sidney Nolan, the modern artist who chronicled Kelly's legend in paint, is far more modest than it should be. Kelly (1855-80) has been compared to Jesse James, even though his mere 20 months as a bandit hardly stack up against James's 15 years. On the other hand, nobody has ever called Nolan (1917-92) the "Down Under Philip Guston" or the "Aussie Malcolm Morley," even though his talent was big enough for both. "Sidney Nolan: The Ned Kelly Paintings," at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art through Sept. 4 (the show doesn't travel), should help gain him the regard he deserves north of the equator. ...
  • The Price Will Go Up Tamara

    "I liked to go out in the evenings and have a good-looking man tell me how beautiful I am or how great an artist I am," a biography quotes Tamara de Lempicka as saying. "And he touches my hand . . . I loved it! And I had many, many." This darling of the smart set in Paris in the '20s also had many patrons for her slick, mechanically sexy paintings of subjects like "Suzy Solidor" (1933), a lesbian nightclub owner. The Polish-born de Lempicka made a million dollars. But the fortunes of both life and art turned against her. When she fled Europe for America with her second husband, a baron, in 1939, she seemed to leave her flair on the Continent. She enjoyed a brief vogue in Hollywood (she was known as the "Baroness with a Brush") before moving to New York in 1943. With surrealism and abstract expressionism on the rise in the art world, she painted little -- and not very well. When she died in 1980, at 82, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, she was practically forgotten. ...
  • Smoke And Mirrors

    From the beginning, Andy Warhol's reputation as an artist might have been made of smoke and mirrors. So perhaps the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts was fated to be engulfed in a rancorous soap opera that's becoming the art world's version of ""Rashomon.'' After all, Andy first made the scene back in the 1960s by pass-ing off crude, hasty photo-silk-screens of Campbell's soup cans, car accidents and Jackie as paintings for serious collectors. Since Warhol cranked out so much art during his career, his death in 1987 created an estate worth, according to the most recent court estimate, more than half a billion dollars. The foundation was the beneficiary of nearly all of Warhol's assets, including a trove of his art that amounted to more than 700 paintings, 9,000 drawings, 19,000 prints and 66,000 photographs. But now the foundation stands accused from within and without of waste and mismanagement detouring it away from its mission of ""the advancement of the visual arts.'' ...
  • King Of The Urban Jungle

    DISNEY MOVIES SPEAK TO THE KID IN all of us. And since kids like the same healthful stuff-mother love, frolicking in the grass with other kids and pretending to be heroes - the Disney appeal is nearly universal. But when Walt was alive, the old Disney studio occasionally advocated as well as entertained. "Victory through Air Power" (1943) promoted strategic bombing of enemy cities as opposed to mere air support for ground troops. And a '50s TV documentary-cum-cartoon, "Our Friend the Atom," lobbied for atomic power. Now the new mega-Disney enterprise -on a roll from "The Little Mermaid" (1989), "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) and "Aladdin" (1992) -has released "The Lion King."...
  • Return of the Galisteo Kid

    IF THERE WERE EVER AN EXHIBITION TO provoke a museum guards' strike, the Bruce Nauman retrospective at Minneapolis's Walker Art Center is it. Day after day (through June 19), those laconic, uniformed heroes, without whom no museum could display its art, will not only have to field more questions than usual from a puzzled public, but they'll have to bear up under the dissonant din of Nauman's vid-eo installations. Into one ear will come the shouts of ""No! No! No!'' from ""Clown Torture'' (1987), while into the other will ricochet the racket of ""Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer)'' (1988). Guards could turn in their badges like Kojak being taken off a case. ...
  • Pop Goes to Pittsburgh

    ANDY WARHOL ACTED NICE about being bad. He made crude silk-screen paintings of fatal car accidents, shot movies with real sex and dope in them, and promoted the street hustlers and debauched debutantes who hung around his New York studio (called The Factory) as poets and "superstars." But Andy, who died in 1987 at the age of 58, also gladly signed autographs, went to church every day and ensconced his mother in a Manhattan town house. No wonder then that the new Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh-where the artist grew up-is a cross between a cathedral honoring a saint and a waxworks documenting the life of a sinner. ...
  • I Ought To Be In Pictures

    THE MOST DAMNING PHRASE IN THE art world these days is "the '80s." It calls up inflated prices, unreadable blather about "postmodernism" and "deconstructivism" and artists' egos big enough to fill a movie sound stage. But all excesses come to an end. Now, for many of the most successful artists of that decade, the glamorous roar of the crowd remains addictive-and sadly unavailable in the downsized '90s. Robert Longo, 40, had an epiphany: "If a movie succeeds, it's because a bunch of people paid seven bucks to see it. In the art world, success is because a few people paid a lot of money." For Longo and two of the biggest art stars of the '80s-painters Julian Schnabel, 42, and David Salle, 41 -there's only one way to keep on making big statements to rapt audiences: direct a feature film. ...
  • Invasion Of The Body Snatchers

    SCIENTISTS ARE HARD-LINE SKEPTICS. Only after failing to debunk, say, the big bang do they accept the evidence. But in Abduction: Human Encounters With Aliens (432 pages. Scribner's. $22), Harvard psychiatry professor John E. Mack makes only a cursory pass at disbelief before buying the idea that extraterrestrials are filching human sperm and ova in order to create better earthlings. Mack (who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for a biography of T. E. Lawrence) told NEWSWEEK in an interview, "I've racked my brains to discover an alternative explanation" for the accounts he heard of kinky kidnappings by aliens. He came up empty and boarded the interplanetary bandwagon at the first stop. ...
  • Drawing Political Fire

    SOCIALISM WAS BETRAYED," Sue Coe says with the matter-of-factness of stating that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius. "It was betrayed by people like Gorbachev." The artist, 42, makes this comment in the small, dark Manhattan apartment she occupies with two pet rats (which have tumors from lab-induced cancer) and a tuxedo cat who, she warns, just might scratch. The dilapidated brown walls are covered with dour social-protest art from the '20s and '30s; on a living-room easel stands (in progress) one of Coe's 100-and-counting excoriations of the meatpacking industry, replete with red splatters. Coe herself is dressed all in black, including a beret reminiscent of Patty Hearst in SLA garb. "There's a poem by this Polish poet," she muses. "When he was a young man, he'd go up in a Ferris wheel with his girlfriend. At the top, he'd see the Warsaw ghetto and the horror of it. But by the time he got to the bottom, he'd forgotten all about it. I'm interested in that mechanism in the human...
  • Stranger In The Night

    IF YOU THINK IT'S FINALLY TIME FOR OL' Blue Eyes to quit, you can dial 1-900-something and register your 75-cent vote in a New York Daily News poll. If you don't, make plans to be in Tulsa, Moline, Omaha, Wilmington, Syracuse or New York City after March 24 because that's where the 78-year-old Chairman of the Board will be belting out "My Way." The last time Frank Sinatra sang that darkly bravado anthem to a career's end (March 6, in Richmond, Va.), he collapsed. Five days before that, at the Grammys, rock star Bono of U2 presented him with a Legend award. Sinatra gave what some people called a "rambling" acceptance speech. CBS cut to a commercial in the middle of it, reigniting a controversy: what is a man, how old has he got, if people can tell his voice is all shot? ...
  • Bad Girls For Goodness' Sake

    FEMINISM HAS BEEN GOOD FOR THE ART world. And the art world has been relatively good to it. Historical reappraisals of painters from the baroque's Artemisia Gentileschi to the early modernism's Lyubov Popova and the emergence of new generations of important contemporary artists have benefited museums, galleries and alternative spaces. At the same time, those institutions have begun to exhibit women's art at a rate fast approaching equity. Much feminist art created over the last 25 years is, however, dour, strident, dense and homely in part because women artists had a lot of angry stuff on their minds, and in part because nearly everybody's art during that time has been dour, strident, dense and homely. ...
  • School Is Out, Far Out

    THE BORDER CAFE, AN ARTIST-owned restaurant-bar in Richmond, Va., is named after the nonexistent boundary between Texas and Wisconsin. To Paul Kosmas, a graduate painting student at Virginia Commonwealth University who's sipping a Rolling Rock, that makes about as much sense as anything about art. Next year, the strapping, ponytailed 28-year-old says, he'll stop painting and go to Saudi Arabia as an oilfield roustabout. At Yale University in New Haven, Conn., goateed graduate sculpture student Julian LaVerdiere, 22, sits confidently beneath an icy white vacuum-formed plastic sign he's had made bearing the name of RENULIFE, a defunct turn-of-the-century company that manufactured "electro-therapeutic" instruments. LaVerdiere bought the rights to the company's name so that he could eventually resuscitate it and have it manufacture--if that's the word--his conceptual art. ...
  • The Naked And The Dread

    LUCIAN FREUD, THE PAINTER grandson of Sigmund Freud, was said in his youth to have almost no natural ability to draw. In spite of that, Freud managed to develop a unique sensibility in rendering the human form. Many critics rank him as one of the great figurative artists of our time. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art agrees, and has just opened "Lucian Freud: Recent Work" (on view through March 13). If Freud's career amounts to less than absolute greatness, the 60 paintings in the Met show are still an intense, almost garish summation of what the tensions of 20th-century life have wrought upon the human body. ...
  • From Hopper To Hip-Hop

    IN THE ART WORLD, RICH patrons fresh from corporate boardrooms dance cheek to cheek with feisty young artists fresh from schools where everyone talks about "the contradictions of late capitalism." You'd think that with the clash of such opposites, political correctness would quickly melt away. But patrons, wanting to stay hip, suffer the artists' preachiness. The artists, not wanting to feel like sellouts, imagine their art work is morally uplifting. Nowhere in the art world is this P.C. tango choreographed with more passion than at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. And no bandleader gets more criticism for the music they all dance to than the Whitney's urbane young director, David Ross. ...
  • A Bright Bridge To Surrealism

    THERE'S A HEATED BATTLE of words currently raging Tin the art press between Spain's two most famous painters. Antoni Tapies, the country's establishment abstract artist, fumes that Antonio Lopez-Garcia, a consummate realist, should never have gotten a retrospective in the national modern art museum. Tapies calls Lopez-Garcia's work retro, the kind of meticulous copying of nature that every modern artist who's after a deeper reality has transcended. Lopez-Garcia retorts that Tapies should wake up and smell the paella, that it's a big, wide, pluralist world out there and realism is back in fashion. Besides, he hints, a child could paint like Tapies. Boys, boys! Take a couple of deep breaths--and book a flight to New York, for The Museum of Modern Art's Joan Miro retrospective (on view through Jan. 11). It's an encyclopedic, 400-work show of the one Spanish artist of the century who bridged not only the chasm between abstraction and representation, but almost closed the gap between...