Peter Plagens

Stories by Peter Plagens

  • Lichtenstein On The Line

    ROY LICHTENSTEIN ACTUALLY looks a little like Marcel Duchamp. The American artist is thin, fine-featured, evenhanded and soft-spoken. So was the late French dadaist. And both were accused of doing irreparable harm to art. At the time of World War I, Duchamp tried to bury art with one quick landslide of "ready-mades," including a urinal presented as sculpture. Not only did art not die, it reblossomed into surrealism in the 1920s and abstract expressionism in the 1940s. Then along came Lichtenstein and a few pals to do something almost as bad as killing off art-they made art indistinguishable from vulgar commercial culture. On the eve of his retrospective (which runs through Jan. 16) at the Guggenheim Museum, the 69-year-old painter sat at a back table in the museum's cafe and recalled how it all started. ...
  • The Soho Scene Lights Up

    EARLY FALL-WHEN THE TOURISTS have gone back home and pouty, would-be supermodels reappear in New York's Soho district - hasn't been kind to the art world in recent years. After a mid-decade boom, the contemporary art market hit bottom at the end of the '80s. The mood in the world's most esthetically influential neighborhood sank as low as the economy. Cognoscenti huddled in the sidewalk cafes, prattling less about the new season's art than about which galleries had folded over the summer. But a few weeks ago, on a balmy Saturday night, the streets of Soho were blocked off so that nearly 50 galleries could stage simultaneous openings. The turnout: a seething mass (some said 5,000 people) of black miniskirts, Doc Mar-tens and ponytails, so dense it had to snake single-file through most of the shows. Buzzing at cicada level, Soho seemed reborn. ...
  • Grand Master Of Aloofness

    The title of "World's Greatest living painter" is always suspect. Unlike, say, WBA junior welterweight champion, it's sweeping and subjective. Moreover, the unofficial belt always seems to go to a loner who doesn't subscribe to one of modern art's guiding "isms." At the middle of the century, Matisse was champ. When he died, the title eventually fell to Francis Bacon. With Bacon gone, some connoisseurs are looking to anoint Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, 85, better known simply as Balthus. His dreamily realistic pictures are the subject of a retrospective exhibition (running through Aug. 29), containing more than 150 paintings and drawings, at the Musee Cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne, Switzerland. ...
  • The Big Daddy Of Light And Space

    In art, Los Angeles is america's second city. Until the '60's, it had only one real museum (with modern art and dinosaur bones under the same roof), a few old movie stars who collected impressionism, and some second-rate expressionist painters. Then, suddenly, southern California's beach sunshine, car culture and showbiz savvy produced an art style--part pop sensibility and part aerospace neatness--that was known as the L.A. look. At the far edge of the look lay "fight and space art," and its Big Daddy (as the car customizers might have dubbed him) was Robert Irwin. He's the subject of an exhilarating, small retrospective at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art (through Aug. 15, then traveling to New York, Cologne, Paris and Madrid). ...
  • Life With The Proper Painter

    Out on the Eastern end of Long Island, the Hamptons have been summer home to a lot of New York artists. But a few painters have spent their entire careers amid the green potato fields, gentle harbors and quiet villages along the South Fork. Fairfield Porter (1907-1975), who moved to Southampton with his wife, the poet Ann Charming, and raised a large family there, was the best of them. A retrospective exhibition, "Fairfield Porter: An American Painter," runs through Sept. 12 at Southampton's Parrish Art Museum. (The show travels to Amherst, Mass.; South Bend, Ind.; Buffalo; Waterville, Maine, and Miami.) An excursion to see the 65 evocative paintings is a day trip to bountiful. ...
  • The Long Run To Venice

    As the odometer of art history turns toward 2000, it's apparent that we're nearing the end of something more than the century. Take the art world's version of the Cannes Film Festival, the Venice Biennale (open through Oct. 10), as a bellwether. While every form of expression from architectural models to baseball encyclopedias is now being turned into electronic images, visual artists are left holding a bag with all this real, physical stuff in it. They seem to feel behind the times, and some react by creating little scandals of morbidity. In the biennale's Aperto gallery, a section for hot young artists whose work is to varying degrees impolite, Britain's Damien Hirst exhibits "Mother and Child Divided." It consists of a real cow and calf longitudinally halved, each preserved in two giant vitrines, entrails pressed to the walls like a child making faces against a window. ...
  • Sculpture To The Point

    A big problem with sculpture these days is that practically anything can call itself sculpture and get away with it. The medium is spread thin all the way from Charles Ray's hyperreal but zombielike mannequins, through Cady Noland's stacks of beer cans surrounded by chain link, to tyro Christian Marclay's unwinding reels of audiotape. It's a form increasingly bereft of a convincing convention. (Painting, at least, turns into something else once it gets too far away from the hand-colored rectangle.) All the more remarkable-and welcome-then, when a sculptor of Magdalena Abakanowicz's deep talent and piercing vision revitalizes the free-standing, autonomous sculptural object. Two current exhibitions in New York, one called "War Games" at the P.S. I Museum in Queens (through June 20), and the other at Manhattan's Marlborough Gallery (through June 5), show what wonders an artist can perform when she works close to the bone. ...
  • Is The Barnes Noble?

    The controversy surrounding the quirky Barnes Foundation could have resulted in more than just the exhibition of 80 of its best paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., from May 2 until Aug. 15. It might have made a passable docudrama airing on, say, the mythical Arts & Litigation network, in the not-too-distant future. Call it "Clouded Tour: Showdown at the Barnes." And review it like this: ...
  • Through A Lens Early

    "Art," a certain painter once said, "is the only human endeavor where subsequent versions work the bugs in." He was right: the first cubist paintings were the best cubist paintings, and the first pop art the best pop art. It was likewise with the first 100 years of photography, when camera jockeys didn't have zoom lenses the size of Louisville Sluggers, exposures shorter than a neutrino's lifespan and computer chips that say "cheese" in 12 languages. In the century after the Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot was able to fix shadow configurations on pieces of salted paper in 1839 (his "Trees with Reflection" dates from just after that), photographers didn't grapple just with cumbersome equipment. They struggled to learn to see. Sometimes the result was a dazzling visual--indeed, almost moral--clarity, as unusual to us late moderns as a smogless August day in Los Angeles. ...
  • Making Book The Hard Way

    Being a bibliophile has its privileges. You might even be recommended for membership at the prestigious Grolier Club in Manhattan. (One does not simply join, old chap.) Founded in 1884 and snuggled into a Georgian-style town house in 1917, the club describes itself as "the mainstay of American book collecting." Its premises contain a 90,000-volume library of books about books and a large, decoratively correct hall for exhibitions on the ground floor. Named after the 16th-century bibliophile Jean Grolier, the club has put together hundreds of shows, ranging in subject from John Donne to Japanese prints. The latest is "The American Livre de Peintre," open to the public through May 15. Curated by two club members, Elizabeth Phillips and Tony Zwicker, it's as visually lively as anything in a Soho gallery. ...
  • Fade From White

    The Royal Academy in Paris sponsored the old official salons in the 18th and 19th centuries, where artists who wanted to get ahead contributed lots of heavily framed oil paintings and smooth bronze sculptures celebrating glorious moments in European history. New York's Whitney Museum of American Art sponsors the new, quasi-official salons called biennial exhibitions. The 1993 edition is on view through June 13. It contains lots of film, video, performance and installation art (that is, mixed-media environments built to fit the site) protesting sordid inequities in the American present. Although the 82 artists in the Biennial care to the point of apoplexy about what the museum calls "such dominant current issues as class, race, gender, sexuality, and the family," they also fill the bill of artist-as-victim increasingly demanded by the contemporary art scene. Shu Lea Cheang's "Those Fluttering Objects of Desire," for example (a video installation about lesbian eroticism within racial...
  • Even Mightier Than The Pen

    That lovable old German theoretician Gotthold Ephraim Lessing thought that painting was an art of spatial relationships and that the things depicted in it should have the good manners to stand still. Leave action and movement to the temporal art of poetry, Lessing argued in his 1766 essay "Laocoon" (translated into French in 1802 and known by every serious artist ever after). But Lessing had the sense to admit that there were exceptions. "How many things would seem incontestable in theory," he wrote, "had not genius succeeded in proving the opposite by fact." If Lessing hadn't penned that qualifier, the drawings and watercolors of Honore Daumier a century later would have compelled him to rise from his grave and add it. And the more than 100 examples in "Daumier Drawings" (at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 2) give us a wonderful chance to understand why. ...
  • A Matter Of Horsepower

    Ever since the advent of photography more than 150 years ago, painting has been getting periodic attacks of insecurity. It frantically gives itself mass-media face-lifts, enlists in political revolutions and spends a lot of time in the rare-book room prepping for dinner parties with French philosophers. When that happens, a talented, tough-minded Artist has to give painting a swift kick and remind it, "You've got the richest tradition, the most esthetic bang per square inch of gallery space and, if you'll notice, the most intelligent admirers. So let's stop whimpering and make some stupendous pictures." ...
  • Keeping A Stiff Upper Lip

    Gilbert is the shorter, younger fellow who looks like a vicar's assistant. George is bald, wears glasses and could be John Major's minister of modern art. They've been working as the single artistic entity "Gilbert & George" since they met in 1967 at St. Martin's School of Art in London. In the 20-odd years since they started making large "photo-pieces," they've become a mainstay among British cultural exports, a sort of Beatles for the smart set. ...
  • Summing Up Doom And Gloom

    If it were a movie, the poster line for the exhibition "Fever" would be: "If you see only one show this year, 'Fever' should be it." This exhibition might not make you laugh, cry or open your heart like never before, but its 200 pieces, by 47 artists, will give you a summary of art chic in the '90s. (The show is playing at the nonprofit Exit Art/The First World gallery in New York through Feb. 6.) If you're big on the New Alienation, it's a handy guide for further looking. If you're not, at least you can converse at artsy cocktail parties without having to see another contemporary art show until, say, the millennium. ...
  • The Bidder And The Sweet

    When the first caveperson artist put the last charcoal touch on a wall drawing of a six-legged beast, he probably turned to the crowd at the torchlit reception and said, "I'll let it go for five mastodon hides tonight, but it'll be worth at least 10 or 20 by the time the next solstice rolls around." ...
  • The Ghost In The Machine

    The phrase "kinetic sculpture" generally makes people's eyes glaze over. Good sculpture that's also mobile is usually a case of gilding the lily. Bad sculpture set in motion is, well, bad sculpture set in motion. Even the guys who were great at it seem a little tepid now. The slow, sweet, windblown dances of the work of Alexander Calder or George Rickey are met with, at best, affectionate little sighs. The complicated, motorized raucousness of Jean Tinguely or Dennis Oppenheim often gets a who-cares shrug. Maybe the natural state of sculpture is stillness. Or maybe what most kinetic sculpture needs is a little more expressiveness. ...
  • The Wonder Years

    In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg was already 27. He'd dropped out of pharmacy school in Texas, worked in a navy psychiatric hospital in California during the war, married, fathered a son and been divorced. He was living in a cold, cavernous New York loft near the Fulton Street fish market. But the face that looked into the camera in a contemporary photo was as impudent and peach-fuzzy as that of a high-school cub reporter, working on the big story that exposed substandard food in the cafeteria. ...
  • THE NEXT WAVE FROM HAVANA

    Here come the Cubans. Artists from that fading citadel of Soviet-style communism are everywhere these days in the most freebooting of all capitalist enterprises, the Western art world. Sculptor Ricardo Brey, 37, who lives in both Cuba and Europe, contributed a huge installation to last summer's Olympian Documenta IX exhibition in Germany. Jose Bedia, 33, who divides his time between Mexico City and New York, last week opened a show at the Frumkin-Adams Gallery in New York and made an installation for Paris's Hotel des Arts. Sculptor Florencio Gelabert, 32, and painters Arturo Cuenca, 37, and Tomas Esson, 29, have all recently survived the initiation rites for art-world trendies: they've each created an Absolut vodka ad. Like the German and Italian neoexpressionists who took over the scene in the '70s and '80s the Cuban artists may be on the brink of changing the face of contemporary art. And they are undergoing profound changes themselves. ...
  • Rivers Runs Through It

    The lovers-and-friends-be-damned, tell-all autobiography is by now a cliche. There's hardly a fading celebrity at large these days whose every coitus and canker hasn't been admitted in print. Larry Rivers, who started out as a horny teenage saxophone player and ended up the horny old artist who helped pop art topple abstract expressionism as the house style of the New York avant-garde, tries to pass off his autobiography as a sex book that's really about art. The truth is, it's really about sex. It's also a pretty good read, if surprisingly depressing.Rivers, born Yizroch Loiza Grossberg in the Bronx in 1925, says he achieved sexual congress with a velvet chair in his mother's house, several male poets and critics, a student who told him not to stop when she told him to stop and a welfare mother who tethered her waiting child to a couch. He says he attempted carnal union with his dog, his mother-in-law and a woman who lived in an abandoned bus. All of this-as well as fathering four...
  • Painter In The Fast Lane

    The Village Voice discovered Jean-Michel Basquiat when he was 17, spraying epigrammatic graffiti on Soho buildings under the tag of SAMO. When he was 20-and already hot, hot, hot-the art dealer Annina Nosei let this self-taught painter and club-crawler use her gallery basement as his studio. ("I'd have to make eight paintings in a week, for the show the next week," Basquiat later complained.) In three years he went from sleeping on friends' couches to staying at L'Ermitage and dining at Mr. Chow's during frequent visits to L.A., his faux-primitive paintings selling for tens of thousands of dollars. And when Basquiat died, in 1988, at 27, from a cocaine-heroin overdose, it seemed to be an epitaph for the overheated '80s art world, already sinking in excess. Obviously, there's a pretty good movie here. But the immediate question is, what kind of retrospective exhibition does it make? Until Feb. 14, 1993, New York's Whitney Museum of American Art is trying to address that question ...
  • Comes The Revolution

    This fall in New York has been touted as the season, and the raft of museum exhibitions is spectacular indeed. "The most beautiful show in the world" (as we called it) of Matisse continues to beflower the Modern, and Magritte is still playing three-card monte with viewers at the Met. But-at the risk of overdoing the superlatives-the most important show in town is "The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932," which fills the angled ramps and new tower galleries of the Guggenheim Museum. The uptown, Frank Lloyd Wright branch, that is. ...
  • Ancient Splendors

    Reconstructing, in your mind's eye, the splendor of an ancient civilization from the artifacts in a museum is a little like building a life-size model of a brontosaurus based on some fossilized teeth. You peruse dozens of isolated objects, salvaged or stolen from dusty ruins-yet your imagination swims in images of golden thrones, spooky tombs and the prayer halls of faraway caliphates. If the show works, that is. Here are two that do: "Egypt's Dazzling Sun: Amenhotep Ill and His World" at The Cleveland Museum of Art (it will travel to Ft. Worth, Texas, and Paris) and "Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Both modestly scaled exhibitions run through Sept. 27. ...
  • The Artist As Stuntman

    Documenta, the big art exhibition that takes place once every four or five years in Germany, is an idea whose time has gone. The first one, back in 1955, had a noble purpose: to help rehabilitate German culture after the Nazi years. Gradually, the show overtook the Venice Biennale as the most important anthology of contemporary art. At its peak during 196476, Documenta was a big, boisterous celebration of the cutting edge, confirming the importance of pop art, minimalism, site-specific sculpture and video installations. It gave international prominence to Joseph Beuys, the political artist/moralist who stood until his death, in 1986, as a vital counterforce to the contagious entrepreneurial coyness of Andy Warhol. With the recent proliferation of commercial "art fairs" everywhere from Chicago to Yokohama, Documenta's earnestness in trying to figure out the meaning of what's going on, as opposed to just marketing it, has kept the exhibition a sentimental favorite. ...
  • The Absolut Magritte

    To most people, surrealism--the style that splashed the contents of the subconscious on the canvas--is inherently exotic and complicated. They think of Salvador Dali's rubbery, distorted dream pictures, in which tigers leap from the mouths of fish and pocket watches melt on tree branches. But the Belgian painter Rene Magritte (1898-1967) knew that all the weirdness anyone could want is available in everyday life. All that's needed to depict it is a few simple juxtapositions of ordinary things, reversals of transparent/opaque and maybe a switch in scale. A new retrospective exhibition proves not only that Magritte was as inventive as Dali or Max Ernst but also that his deadpan succinctness makes him the best surrealist of them all. (The show runs through Aug. 2 at London's Hayward Gallery, then travels to New York, Houston and Chicago.) ...
  • Hitler Knew What He Liked

    Most art created during the Nazi regime in Germany wound up in the ashes of World War II. What survived molders mostly not in art museums but in places like the customhouse in Munich. Hardly anybody will exhibit the stuff, but-maybe because of the Nazi book burnings of the early 19308-no one is willing to destroy it, either. Even scholars shy away; the great architecture historian Nikolaus Pevsner said, "Every word about it is too much." Peter Adam, a half-Jewish ex-BBC producer who was raised in Hitler's Berlin, thinks different. He has sifted through the repositories of Nazi art to produce. Art of the Third Reich (332 pages. Abrams. $39.95), a somewhat informal history (he doesn't date about half the works he cites) of a brief but sorry period in the history of art. ...
  • A Short, Amazing Life

    The work of Eva Hesse in the mid-1960s was crucial in leading sculpture out of the minimal forest of grids and boxes and back to the free-flowing river of intuition. Using flexible materials like latex and vinyl tubing to make constant allusions to female anatomy, Hesse successfully challenged the art world's macho derring-do. Because she died tragically (of a brain tumor in 1970, at 34), her sculpture resonates with a kind of heroism. A new retrospective of more than 100 pieces at the Yale University Art Gallery (through July 31, then traveling to Washington, D.C.) proves that the best of her work is also eccentrically beautiful. ...
  • Man Of La Mantua

    The Italian Renaissance was more than a mere reinvigoration of the arts. It was the reawakening of the ancient Greek and Roman views of life that saw science, art and morality as inseparable parts of a whole. Renaissance artists who were real Renaissance men knew Plato and Pliny as well as paint. For them, beauty was no less objective than a fact of, say, botany. Andrea Mantegna (circa 1430-1506), who grew up and began his artistic career in Padua, near Venice, was the quintessential Renaissance man: he could draw with the precision of a surgeon, play with perspective like a computer animator and paint with the sensuousness of a diva. ...
  • Of Hopelessness And Hope

    Francis Bacon, who died in Spain of a heart attack at 82 last week, made ugliness beautiful. And vice versa. Bacon, who almost singlehandedly kept figure painting alive as an important expressive vehicle during the Pollock-to-pop 1950s and '60s, specialized in twisted, translucent human bodies that nevertheless seem eerily realistic. And his portraits, which resemble Spielberg Gremlins being frappeed in Cuisinarts, somehow look remarkably like their subjects. Bacon combined these glutinous forms with an elegant sense of composition and a great painter's touch. He painted on the unprimed side of linen, favored background areas of acid pink and hangover orange, and could rake a gob of red or white across a face or forearm as well as Goya. His oeuvre, one long memento mori, makes Rembrandt's late self-portraits look like teddy bears. In short, Francis Bacon was a modern master. ...
  • The Heart Of The Matter

    Anne Truitt is an artist of the old school. That she was born into genteel circumstance in Baltimore in 1921 and graduated from Bryn Mawr during World War II are only indirectly connected. Yes, Truitt is a grandmother who lives and works not in Soho but in Washington, D.C., reads the classics, and is given to saying things like "I have a friend in Horace." ("I like to smoke when I talk," is about as downtown as she gets.) Of course she writes well, having published two critically praised memoirs, "Daybook" (1982) and "Turn" (1986). But what really marks her as an orphan of the current cacophonous scene is her beautiful sculpture. Fifteen examples of it, dating from 1961 to 1988, are the subject of a jewel-like exhibition, "Anne Truitt: A Life in Art," at The Baltimore Museum of Art through April 19. ...
  • No More Show Time

    Magic Johnson's MVP farewell in the 1992 All-Star game ended an era. With his selfless game and transcendent smile gone, the real action in pro basketball will increasingly take place off the court, in the form of salary wrangles, endorsement deals and racial squabbles. What's happening to the fast-break favorite of the last decade? Six new books tell-sometimes inadvertently-how the game is transforming itself from America's glitziest athletic show into the vengeful, megamoney-grubbing Sport of the '90s. ...