Peter Plagens

Stories by Peter Plagens

  • 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...
  • 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." ...