Peter Plagens

  • “Dan Christensen: Forty Years of Painting”

    Dan Christensen graduated in 1964 from the Kansas City Art Institute and began, well, painting about painting. And he was canny enough to narrow down his subject matter to composition, color, and—mais oui!—the way paint behaves on canvas.

    Dan Christensen was a painter. That is, he was a painter. Like, a P-A-I-N-T-E-R. Christensen graduated in 1964 from the Kansas City Art Institute and began, well, painting about painting. And he was canny enough to narrow down his subject matter to composition, color, and—mais oui!—the way paint behaves on canvas. He was also gutsy enough to try almost any way—from grids of muted color blocks to ropy, aerobatic, candy-color sprays—of combining those elements to arrive at some sort of visual poetry: He scraped, he stained, and his color ranged from tastefully

  • Jim Lutes

    Fittingly described as “protean,” Lutes’s oeuvre will be represented in this midcareer survey, which spans twenty-five years, by only twenty-six paintings.

    Depending on your perspective, fifty-three-year-old Chicago painter Jim Lutes can be many things: the most academically grounded of all slacker painters (he is a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago); a Willem de Kooning of the 1940s, but funnier and less anxious; or a Philip Guston of the ’70s, only weirder and less guilt ridden. Some say he’s Imagism, Part Deux. Fittingly described as “protean,” Lutes’s oeuvre will nevertheless be represented in this midcareer survey, which spans twenty-five years, by only twenty-six paintings. Will the spare selection

  • “Time & Place: Los Angeles 1957–1968”

    If you think the decade following the late 1950s in New York was the warp-speediest trip to the future, think again.

    If you think the decade following the late 1950s in New York was the warp-speediest trip to the future, think again. In Gotham, art progressed from Rauschenberg’s Combines to Flavin’s fluorescents to Heizer’s Earthworks. The West Coast, however, saw a shift from admittedly late-in-the-day AbEx works to Robert Irwin’s and James Turrell’s dematerializations-into-pure-light. That’s WHOOSH! to the East Coast’s whoosh. Along the way—as this exhibition featuring twenty-four LA-based artists should demonstrate—came bright, idealistic Minimalism (Larry Bell, John McCracken), smart

  • “BE-BOMB”

    This exhibition gathers together some four hundred works by approximately 150 artists and represents the period when modern art’s center moved from Paris to New York.

    Navigating French historian Serge Guilbaut’s theory that America swiped postwar modernism from war-ravaged Western Europe is like driving an old Citröen instead of a new Ford. The oddball design and hydraulics may take getting used to, but its concept is, well, interesting. For the test drive, Guilbaut’s 1983 book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art may be a bit ambitious; better just to see the theory realized. “BE-BOMB: The Transatlantic War of Images and All That Jazz, 1946–1956,” which gathers together some four hundred works by

  • diary February 19, 2007

    Class Reunion

    New York

    In the aftermath of one of those nasty snowstorms in which one’s face is pummeled with what feels like ground glass and every sidewalk becomes a slippery slope to oblivion, Thursday night was bitterly cold. The dignified but cramped lobby of the National Academy Museum—right up Fifth Avenue from where a candlelight ceremony at the Guggenheim was welcoming the stolen-and-recovered Goya canvas to its Spanish painting show—was filled with a comparatively grizzled crowd trying to unbundle itself of dark and puffy coats and get up the narrow, curving stone stairs to see the New York debut of “High

  • diary February 07, 2006

    Gray Tone

    New York

    At the Tuesday night opening of “John Szarkowski Photographs,” the Museum of Modern Art was cold. Not just temperature-wise, on the drizzly night fate provided for the event, but psychologically, too. There’s something a bit dark gray and businesslike about the high-end photography scene, I thought, as we ascended to the cavernous, fun-proof atrium—Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk presiding over the crush of sushi-feeding suits like a scolding exclamation point. As openings go (photography or otherwise), this one was older and richer than most, more like the Met or the Morgan, though with a few

  • Oscar Bluemner

    There are probably as few people around these days who remember Al Capp’s cartoon character Joe Btfsplk—so dogged by misfortune that he had his own personal raincloud hovering over him—as there are contemporary art scenesters who know who Oscar Bluemner was. Actually Btfsplk and Bluemner (1867–1938) could have been the same guy. The artist fled Germany (no, the Kaiser) in 1892; practiced as an architect but had credit for his best design snatched from him; saw his wife die from the effects of chronic poverty; and, crippled, blind, and insomniac after a car crash,

  • Sean Scully

    To some, Dublin-born Sean Scully is a profoundly joyful painter who, in spite of an obsession with cinder-block compositions and really big paintbrushes, almost manages to pull off greatness. To others, Scully is a rigorous abstractionist who, in spite of a persistent atmospheric romanticism in his work, almost manages to pull off greatness. While this show of the artist’s “Wall of Light” series (1998–2005) would seem to bode in favor of the latter, it’s still probably six to five, pick ’em. The odds of Scully eluding that nagging almost are a little longer.

  • diary February 27, 2005

    Gold Standard

    New York

    Wine, wine, everywhere, but not a drop to drink—such was the case Wednesday night at the benefit opening (for the Henry Street Settlement) of the ADAA’s seventeenth annual edition of the Art Show at the Seventh Regiment Armory in Manhattan. I was standing parched in a long line at one of the “main bars,” hoping to score a glass of San Pellegrino, when MoMA director Glenn Lowry passed by. He was wearing a bright red scarf with his sport jacket. I gave him a coy little Oliver Hardy finger wave by way of greeting and said, “You're not going to avoid anybody wearing that thing.”

    “I forgot to

  • the “Postartist”

    ON A PANEL IN THE EARLY ’90S, I said that art critics come in three types: goalies, cartographers, and evangelists. Goalies—most often reviewers for the popular press—play “defense,” preventing undeserving art from being considered good. While goalies are generally regarded by the art world as either congenital dyspeptics (like me) or political cranks (Hilton Kramer), the best ones aren’t trying to defeat artists. Rather, they encourage artists to raise their games. They defend not against success but against sloppy, indulgent, imitative, witless, and expedient art. Bad goalies, on the other

  • diary January 11, 2005

    Gray Days

    New York

    As with a lot of other New York liberals, my love/hate relationship with the New York Times has recently drifted toward active dislike. This discontent has nothing to do with the malfeasances of Jayson Blair, Rick Bragg or Howell Raines—it has to do with the fact that dull, over-considered centrism just pisses me off these days. I mean, I used to find the Times's ultramild leftism reassuring, but—given the current occupant of the White House and his dangerous follies—I now find it primly beside the point. Yeah, I know it's at least partly irrational, and for better or worse the

  • the Whitney’s new curators

    IS THE WHITNEY remaking itself—again? When Tom Armstrong left in 1990 after seventeen years at the helm and David A. Ross took over as director, the museum supposedly jettisoned its predilection for artists from blue-chip SoHo galleries in favor of a wide-open, video-empowering, emerging-artists pluralism. After Ross’s departure to SF MoMA in 1998, his successor, Maxwell L. Anderson, nominally terminated the Whitney’s trendiness and retrenched the museum in its inherent strength: solid American modernism and a collection to back it up. Both Ross and Anderson brought in new curators to implement

  • Romare Bearden

    Everybody knows Romare Bearden’s collages, but even those who delight in his trademark crisp edges, bang-on color, and iconographic witticisms might not be familiar with the man’s sculpture, album-cover designs, stage sets, and costumes.

    Everybody knows Romare Bearden’s collages, but even those who delight in his trademark crisp edges, bang-on color, and iconographic witticisms might not be familiar with the man’s sculpture, album-cover designs, stage sets, and costumes. It’s fitting, then, that the National Gallery should put together the most encyclopedic exhibition of his work ever. Oh yes, Bearden is an African-American artist; to mention that is both essential (his art constitutes one of the great chronicles of African-American life) and irrelevant (artistically the competition runs to Giotto, Cézanne, and Japanese prints).

  • Baja to Vancouver: The West Coast and Contemporary Art

    “Baja to Vancouver” sounds like the world’s longest motocross race, but it’s actually a “tightly focused survey of representational artworks that respond to and engage with the West Coast’s physical and social landscapes.”

    “Baja to Vancouver” sounds like the world’s longest motocross race, but it’s actually a “tightly focused survey of representational artworks that respond to and engage with the West Coast’s physical and social landscapes.” With such stars as Stan Douglas, Marcos Ramirez, and Larry Sultan, and a supporting cast of emerging artists selected by West Coast curators (Ralph Rugoff, Matthew Higgs, Toby Kamps, Lisa Corrin, Daina Augaitis), the show also has plenty of Pacific pizzazz. A couple sets of groovily garish motorcycle leathers, however, wouldn’t hurt.

    Oct. 9–Jan. 4; Museum of Contemporary Art,

  • CENTS AND SENSIBILITY: COLLECTING THE ’80s

    Obtainment of one more object does not bring an end to the longing. Instead, it is the recurrence of the experience that explains the collector’s mental attitude. . . . Obtainment in whatever way—bought, found, or even acquired by scheming or tricky means or thievery—works like a mood regulator and provides the owner with a potential sense of success or triumph, and occasionally of grandeur, as is the case with the winner at the gaming table or the astute buyer in the auction room.

    —Werner Muensterberger, Collecting: An Unruly Passion (1994)

    If the special status of art as a commodity whose

  • Elie Nadelman

    If there were ever an artist whose work is tuxedo urbanity disguised as bib-overalls folkiness, it’s Elie Nadelman (1882–1946). “Sophistication and primitivism collide,” says the press notice accompanying this two-hundred-work show curated by the Whitney’s Barbara Haskell. Primitivism, ha! There isn’t a scintilla of it in Nadelman’s deceptively simplified figures sculpted with right-on classical economy in wood, bronze, and plaster. Oh, sure, he went in for “vernacular” subject matter (there’s a rooster-weather-vane, Uncle Sam–penny-bank vibe to his art), but he was nothing if not coolly cerebral.

  • Adolf Wölfli

    There’s a requisite scene in monsters-from-outer-space movies in which frantic folks desperately trying to cope with the terrifying extraterrestrials suddenly confront the alien Big Mama, the ur-being ten times more frightening than her minions. Turn from the outsider-art fantasies of the Chicago recluse Henry Darger to those of the schizophrenic Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli (1864–1930) and there’s a similar exponential increase in weirdness—not to mention beauty, profundity, and just plain greatness. We’re talking twenty-five thousand pages of autobiography, prescriptions for a new world order,

  • “Ferus”

    The art of what used to be called (proudly by its fans, derisively by its detractors) the Ferus “boys club” is back. And it looks pretty damned good after the museum-quality exhibition of key work from Los Angeles’s breakthrough Ferus Gallery (1957–66) at Gagosian’s Chelsea branch. The show was curated by the former Ferus majordomo, kettledrum-voiced Cary Grant stunt double Irving Blum. The first thing you encountered, by way of introduction, was a spate of black-and-white photographs of young, raffish, ’60s-suave Ed Ruscha, Craig Kauffman, and Larry Bell, all looking as smart-ass elegant as

  • The Smiths: Tony, Kiki, Seton

    The Smiths—wasn’t that one of those “new romantic” pop groups back in the mid-’80s? Well, yes and no. This “The Smiths” is a show of work by architect-painter-sculptor Tony (1912–80) and his two daughters, sculptor-printmaker Kiki (née Chiara, in 1954) and the lesser-known photographer Seton, who was born a year after her sister and lives in Paris. Actually, in Europe Seton’s reputation—one earned from her big color photographs of hard-to-identify interiors—doesn’t lag that far behind her older sibling’s. The only thread linking the work of the three, admits curator

  • the new Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

    To us snotty east coast aesthetes, the designation “Texas’s oldest art museum” might have a ring equivalent to “Montana’s premiere mime troupe.” But hold on; the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (also known by the unfortunate acronym MAMFW, or “mam-fwuh”) was founded as the Fort Worth Public Library and Art Gallery way back in 1892, decades before many larger cities got their own robber-baron palaces turned public showplaces. A mere dozen years later, the institution made its first purchase for the permanent collection: Approaching Storm, 1875, by George Inness. Not bad. By 1954, the museum (by