Peter Plagens

Stories by Peter Plagens

  • The Last Modernist

    Real human beings-certainly Parisian artgoers snuggled inside bright puffy parkas or with arms folded studiously across baggy sweaters-cut nice, wide, warm swaths through the world. Compared to them, the sculpted figures of the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) are almost nothing. They're razor thin, monochromatic, hollow-eyed, knobby and seemingly squeezed into near oblivion merely by the air around them. They appear to embed in a wiry human anatomy all the spiritual paralysis that we inhabitants of the 20th century have wrought upon ourselves. Any reasonable viewer would conclude that Giacometti is a pessimist, that the esthetic cup he presents to us is half empty. ...
  • The Rain Man Of Santa Monica

    Santa Monica is not a place where you think of people putting down roots. It's the western shore of Los Angeles, an edgeless city better known for alienated interlopers and crackpot visionaries like Aimee Semple McPherson and L. Ron Hubbard. But for Michael McMillen, 45, an artist who's supported himself in the past as a prop maker for such movies as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Blade Runner," it's practically ancestral turf. In the house where his grandparents raised him (his parents were divorced), he found toy soldiers he'd deployed as a kid still hiding behind the shrubbery 20 years later. McMillen hasn't changed that much himself: his current exhibition, "Michael C. McMillen: Habitats-Installations and Constructions" (through Feb. 9 at The Oakland Museum) is a big, melancholy playhouse. ...
  • Cubism, American Style

    Go to an Ella Fitzgerald concert, and you don't have to sit through a lecture before she sings some tunes. When a philharmonic plays Beethoven, a few brief program notes are the only barrier to esthetic pleasure. So why is modern art in a museum so subject to deadening didactics? Granted, lengthy wall labels and a definitive (as in thick) catalog are welcome in the case of a 17th-century Dutchman or ritual art from Oceania. But Stuart Davis (1892-1964) was a straightforward, doggedly inspired modernist whose best paintings have a bright, crackling proto-pop style. New York's august Metropolitan Museum of Art is giving him his first retrospective in 25 years (through Feb. 16, before traveling to San Francisco), and it should be an exhilarating exhibition. But it isn't. The show (175 works in 10 galleries and a catalog with seven separately authored you-take-a-wing, I'll-have-a-drumstick essays) is a tug of war between the artist's snappy workmanship and the museum's sapping...
  • The Young And The Tasteless

    What plays best in vanguardland these days is private life as public spectacle. Most of this is categorized, naturally, as performance art, but a few painters and sculptors have become quasi-actors, too. For the past several years, Jeff Koons, 36, has increasingly tailored his persona to match the cool, glitzy, vapid objects he makes. He's become a kind of bohemian Johnny Depp who recites paint-by-number bromides in the press like, "Revealing the truth within one's self is what makes art great." ...
  • Sculpture Like It Oughta Be

    Hardly anybody knows what sculpture is anymore. Unlike painting, which can be pushed only so far before it simply turns into something else, sculpture can be almost anything: a piece of industrial detritus, a fugue of TV monitors, a glorified ditch. These days, it's the exception when sculpture consists of cohesive, crafted objects whose primary purpose is esthetic. It's very rare indeed when the sculpture is as good as Martin Puryear's. And ordinarily, only 17 years' worth of work (1974-90) wouldn't make much of a retrospective exhibition. But Puryear, 50, is such a poetically consistent artist that a survey of his work (at the Art Institute of Chicago through Jan. 5 before traveling to Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Philadelphia) is not only sculpture at its most edifying, but also at its most satisfying. ...
  • A House Is Not A Home

    An old joke about photography goes like this: just back from a horribly impoverished country, a photographer tells of seeing an emaciated blind beggar holding a dying child. "My God," says the friend, "what did you do?" "Shot 'em at f/8 at 250," is the reply. Substitute some hapless residents o middle-class America for the peasants in the joke, and you've got an idea of the condescending exploitation of an exhibition called "Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort" (at New York's Museum of Modern Art through Dec. 31 before traveling to San Franciso, Baltimore and other cities). ...
  • Umbrellas In The Mist

    It's Christo time again. Every few years the world's best-known site-specific artist rolls out a few thousand bolts of bright, plasticky fabric and concocts a giant eye-catcher in some outdoor place you'd hardly expect to find art. In l971, he threw a big orange curtain across a valley in Rifle Gap, Colo. Five years later, it was the 24-mile "Running Fence" near Petaluma, Calif., and in 1983 he cast bright pink aureolae around some islands in Florida's Biscayne Bay. Every Christo project rolls along with tales of the Bulgarian-Parisian-New York artist, now 56, winning over skeptical Jaycee types with his regular-guyness. Each time it nears completion, heartwarming stories start rolling in about dedicated students working for minimum wage and maximum enlightenment. And erstwhile philistines start coming around to the idea that, Hey, this just might be art after all. ...
  • Dots, Stipplings And Daubs

    The greatest period in French painting consists, oddly enough, of sequels to its most original style, impressionism. Van Gogh extended its atmospheric paint strokes into the whorls of a violent struggle with his soul. Gauguin ran off to the South Seas to give impressionism's semiliberated color (and his own earthiness) free reign. Cdzanne stayed home, but he put bones back into landscape painting and pointed the way to the next great revolution, cubism. And then there was Georges Seurat, whom Degas called "the notary" because of his conservative dress and demeanor. ...
  • Max's Dinner With Andre

    What's an artist to do in the '90s? Modernism is dead, so forget about minimalism getting any more minimal. Postmodern ism's gambit of appropriating everything in sight is overused; it's impossible to tell-or care-how many generations of plagiarism are at work. Political art ends up preaching to the converted-and preaching is the key word here. Where to find inspiration? Well, there's always the old reliable, the seemingly bottomless pit of the psyche. Why not dredge up all the wonderfully fertile muck of the subconscious once again and splash it around? What about, in short, a revival of surrealism? That notion inevitably pops up while visiting the big retrospectives of two of surrealism's giants in Europe this summer. The antics of poet-provocateur Andre Breton, in a show called "La Beaute Convulsive," are on view at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris through Aug.26 and will make another stop in Madrid. The hallucinatory paintings and collages of Max Ernst have crisscrossed the...
  • Every Picture Tells

    Stepping from the transavantgardian mess of the contemporary art world into the Ad Reinhardt retrospective is like going from the streets of Hell's Kitchen in a hundred-degree August during a garbage strike, directly into a Sedona flotation tank. The pupils dilate, the mind clears, the spirit lifts, peace comes. This exhibition (at New York's Museum of Modern Art through Sept. 2, then traveling to its co-organizer, Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art) ought to be stored intact and brought out every 10 or 15 years, so we can see how far art has gone wrong again. OK, maybe that's a little heavy. But only a little. ...
  • Objects Of Affection

    When Robert Morris, one of the original honchos of minimal sculpture, appeared on a 1974 exhibition poster greasily bare chested, draped with a chain and wearing a Wehrmacht helmet, Lynda Benglis picked up the gauntlet. She placed a two-page ad in Artforum displaying herself nude, posing with a dildo. The idea, she said later, was to skewer everything from macho art, like Morris's, to the densely theoretical tone of the magazine that championed it. Editors fumed, angry letters rolled in, readers clucked, and Benglis won the battle of provocative publicity. But back in the studio and out in the gallery, where such "truth or dare" games don't carry much weight, did her art meet the challenge? And, since she began with such a strong reaction against sculpture with industrial right angles, could her art come up with an alternative for the long run? The answers, which can be seen in a traveling retrospective show, are mostly yes. This week the exhibition opens at the Contemporary Art...
  • Frida On Our Minds

    With a record sale at Christie's and a biography that keeps selling, the late Mexican painter ranks with the greats. Do we need a movie with Madonna? ...
  • Unsentimental Journey

    The Studio Museum in Harlem kicks off a retrospective of the collagist Romare Bearden ...
  • Violence In Our Culture

    If artists, as Ezra Pound said, are "the antennae of the race," they're picking up some plenty bad vibes these days. A few years ago, who would have imagined that one of this season's top-grossing films (no pun intended) would be about a psychopath who not only murders women but also skins them? Or that the actor who plays the film's helpful psychopath - his quirk is cannibalism, but he finally helps track down the nasty psychopath - would be introduced by Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" to a studio audience whose female contingent oohed and aahed as if he were Mel Gibson? Or that meanwhile, over in the world of letters, a young novelist would describe, in revolting detail, women (and, less notoriously, men, children and dogs) being tortured and butchered? Or that his novel, suppressed by its original publisher, boycotted by feminists and savaged by critics, would become a best seller? Or that the best mind in American musical theater would conceive a snappy show about the assassins...
  • Paint Misty For Me

    Although the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (born in 1774) worked mostly in the early 1800s, many of his pictures are about as 'fin de siecle' as you can get. End of the day, end of life and, maybe - if all these paintings about wandering through Gothic ruins and mountain aeries don't bring about communion with Nature itself - the end of civilization. Dead for 150 years, Friedrich is the perfect painter for these troubled times: he lets a few rays of hope shine through his portents of doom. ...
  • Clinkers To Clevers To Chance

    According to current art-world mythology, artists are no longer alienated loners surrounded by H. L. Mencken's hostile booboisie. The new, better-adjusted postmodern artist is a Master of the Universe, at home with a sophisticated public and different from an investment banker only in visual inventiveness and slyly subversive politics. A symptom of this alleged new health is an appetite for working in groups, and an exhibition called "Team Spirit" surveys some recent results. (Organized by New York's Independent Curators, Inc., the show debuted at the Neuberger Museum in Purchase, N. Y. It opens next on Feb. 8 at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art and then travels to Vancouver, Miami, Charlotte, N.C., Davenport, Iowa, and St. Louis.) ...
  • Back To The Future

    Rauschenberg's golden oldies at the Whitney inspire his new work in Florida ...
  • Homer's Where The Heart Is

    Hardly any consequential painters today are what one would properly call Tens of thousands of tourist-shop pictures and hours of televised lessons on palette-knife tricks have forced impasto'd pounding waves to break mostly over the hobbyist's couch. But in Winslow Homer's time (late 19th century) and place (the coast of Maine) seascapes could be magnificent hybrids of the motionless land a painter rendered from sight, and the churning, changing sea he essentially had to paint from imagination. The mature Homer--who'd been a public favorite his whole career but who resented things like jury duty and withdrew from city life--was drawn to the seascape's compositional simplicity: dulled white foam, slate sky, undulating bluegreen water. dark alistenine rocks. With these ingredients Homer painted a passion play of immutable force against abiding object, of humanity (albeit often offstage) against nature, and, as it turned out, of American pragmatism against the intellectualism of...
  • Say Goodbye, Mister Hip

    A generation ago at the contemporary art museum, Dad and Billy could admire the big, bright outdoor sculpture, Mom could bathe her eyes in color field painting and little Sue could buy a board game designed by a conceptual artist. Now the same institution is seen by many as a nuisance if not a menace. The art on display either hectors the viewer about social problems or baits the vice squad. Civic funding is being cut back, corporations are bailing out on controversial shows . . . so who wants the aggravation? ...
  • An American Original

    If Morgan Russell had been in the movies instead of modern art, he would have had one of those special-achievement Oscars named after him. After all, he was one of America's first two abstract painters, along with Stanton Macdonald-Wright. They roamed around avant-garde Paris on the eve of World War I, turning out full-spectrum color symphonies while Picasso was still figuring out how to put the front and back of a violin in the same painting. "Morgan Russell: A Retrospective," now at Chicago's Terra Museum, is an overdue tribute to one of the forgotten point men of modernism. (The Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey organized the exhibition, which also travels to Buffalo.) ...
  • When Once Is Not Enough

    Only a museum superpower like the Louvre would attempt a show as audacious as this: 69 paintings from seven centuries, with only a formal device to link them together. And only the Louvre--with its vast storehouses and borrowing muscle--could pull it off. "Polyptychs: Multi-panei Paintings from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century" (through July 23) traces a zigzag path from the Master of Cesi's gold-leafed triptych (circa 1300), showing scenes from the last days of the Madonna to Pierre Soulages's "Polyptyque J" (1987), an overly elegant slab of black paint articulated solely by furrows in the surface. The show's very premise is off the wall: that artists who work with double or triple panels must have something profound in common. (The Louvre is putting together another such roll-the-dice exhibition in 1992, intended to make connections between the old masters and moderns like Giacometti and Rauschenberg.) ...
  • The Venetian Carnival

    Jenny Holzer, the 4-year-old American "word artist," is the official sensation of this year's gathering of art-world tribes, the 44th Venice Biennale (through Sept. 30). Her spectacular display of deadpan "Truisms," blazing across rows of LED (light-emitting diode) signs, and her Roman-letter "Laments," carved into marble floors and benches, was awarded the grand prize for the best national pavilion. The unofficial rude-boy-in-church prize went to Jeff Koons, who displayed his work in the "Aperto"--or open--section for young artists, held farther down the canal in the cavernous old rope factory, the Corderie dell'Arsenale. Koons, who likes to tweak the nose of the art world, collaborated with Cicciolina, the former porn actress who's a member of the Italian Parliament. They posed naked for three big, soft-core photos and one unbearably unerotic sculpture. ...
  • Russia's Champagne Taste

    A historical irony pervades "From Poussin to Matisse: The Russian A Taste for French Painting" at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The old masters wound up in the Soviet Union largely because Russian noblemen, with the purchasing power of contemporary Japanese, prowled France to buy up art dispersed by the Revolution. The modern paintings in the exhibition came mostly from the collections of two turn-of-the-century bourgeois Muscovites who were ahead of the French themselves in appreciating the likes of van Gogh and Matisse. Then, in 1918, the Bolsheviks nationalized the lot--all of which they dismissed as decadent capitalist nonsense. The result? Splendid paintings, old and modern, preserved in two stately museums--the Hermitage in Leningrad and Moscow's Pushkin. This show, the latest in a series of art exchanges prompted by the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev summit, draws on the Soviet state collections to give a picture of the Russian passion for French culture. There is a great,...