Peter Plagens

  • Romare Bearden, Profile/Part I, The Twenties: Pittsburgh Memories, Farewell Eugene, 1978.

    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).

  • Liz Magor, Hollow, 1999.

    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

  • Resting Stag, 1916-17.

    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 Der Zion-Wasser-Fall (The waterfall in Zion), 1914, pencil and colored pencil on newsprint, 39 1/2 x 28 1/4".

    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

  • Seton Smith, Cabinet & Table from Chez P.S. series, 2001.

    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

  • Tadao Ando, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2002, digital rendering.

    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

  • Untitled, 1957.

    Joan Mitchell

    “Why have there been no great women artists?” Linda Nochlin asked famously—and a bit rhetorically—three decades ago. The standard reply usually involves male oppression and old-boy institutional bias. Add to that those relatively benign accidents of fate—if you’re Joan Mitchell, being in the wrong place at the wrong time (e.g., France during the heyday of American abstraction), not to mention being an ornery person—and the deck is decidedly stacked. With a sixty-picture retrospective and a full-scale catalogue, the Whitney and freelance curator Jane Livingston aim to make the case for Mitchell.

  • Dutch Masters I, 1963.

    Larry Rivers

    A quiz: (1) Who was originally considered (with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg) one of the big three breakaway-from-AbEx figures? (2) What American artist admitted to adolescent carnal knowledge of an overstuffed chair? (3) Who was the best artist ever at charcoal variations on stenciled lettering? (4) Which artist—among those whose last names begin with the letter R, please—is a better jazz musician than Woody Allen? The answers to these questions, not to mention a chance to review the artist’s output from the past five decades, can be found in this sixty-work

  • Safe and Sound: Peter Plagens on Neal Benezra

    The first thing you need to know about the wonderful world of art museums is that everything that happens in them or with them or to them is not only always perfectly normal but also going exactly according to plan. (God forbid anybody connected with an art museum should ever make a mistake, be surprised, or have to scramble to fix something. Never happens. Couldn’t happen.) So when, for instance, the director of a major art museum—who came to the job a scant three years before with a lot of flash and filigree from another major museum where he was rumored to be in hot water—precipitously “

  • Peter Plagens on John Baldessari

    Peter Plagens looks back on John Baldessari's first one-man shows in Los Angeles (Molly Barnes) and New York (Feigen) in 1968

    JOHN BALDESSARI—“the world's tallest leprechaun,” as denizens of an earlier LA art world used to call him affectionately has been so prominent, so wry, so even-tempered, and so unselfish a presence on the scene for so long that it's difficult to realize that even he needed a break to get his career off the ground. Back in the late ‘60s, Baldessari recalls,“I was teaching at Southwest Community College in Chula Vista, but I still had to have other 'odd jobs,’ and