Peter Plagens

Stories by Peter Plagens

  • 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...
  • 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. ...