Peter Plagens

Stories by Peter Plagens

  • 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. ...
  • 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...