Peter Plagens

Stories by Peter Plagens

  • 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,...

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