Peter Plagens

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Far Side Of Eden

PETER PLAGENS The National Museum of American Art, in Washington, D.C., has reframed in period style three giant Thomas Moran landscape paintings from the late 19th century.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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? In the fevered '80s, Frida Kahlo's posthumous performance in the auction pit last week would have met with a resounding "Eh?" But this is the New Art World Order: recession.

Unsentimental Journey

The Studio Museum in Harlem kicks off a retrospective of the collagist Romare Bearden When Romare Bearden (191288) abruptly abandoned abstract painting in the early 1960s, he found not only a perfect match of subject (urban life in Harlem and memories of its rural Southern roots) and medium (collage).

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?

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.