Peter Plagens

  • 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.

  • 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

  • Alex Katz

    Does a painting by Alex Katz have an inner life? Silly question, you say: Of course it does. Any image by a bona fide modern artist has an inner life, and Katz’s credentials on that score are impeccable. The Brooklyn-born, seventy-four-year-old painter studied at places whose names are virtually synonymous with turpentine and canvas (Cooper Union, Skowhegan). Even the move to the flat, cool manner that became his signature proved his modernist chops: In the late ’50s, when Abstract Expressionism was the house style of serious, progressive American painting, Katz went bravely against the grain,

  • Alfred Jensen: Concordance

    Who was Alfred Jensen (1903–81)? A geometric abstractionist, you say?

    Who was Alfred Jensen (1903–81)? A geometric abstractionist, you say? But his trademark grids of tiny, brightly colored triangles and squares are so heavily impastoed that, from ten feet away, the geometry wiggles like a desert horizon. An atelier mystic, à la Mark Tobey or Morris Graves? Hardly: The “esoterica” on which Jensen draws includes math and physics as well as Chinese and Mayan calendrical systems. Perhaps Dia’s season-long dozen-painting exhibition—which includes the never-before-publicly-exhibited Great Pyramid, 1979, a twelve-panel masterpiece considered the artist’s last major

  • Roy Lichtenstein: Inside/Outside

    We’ve always suspected that Roy Lichtenstein was more than just a Pop artist. Isn’t all that “It’s . . . It’s Not an Engagement Ring, Is It?” banality only a cover for the weird shapes you get with blowups of undifferentiated front teeth, or the strange blue-black color combination in comic-book wavy hair? Now along comes a show that aims to prove it: “Roy Lichtenstein: Inside/Outside” marshals 120 works to demonstrate, in the words of MCA director Bonnie Clearwater, that “Lichtenstein studied how the human mind comprehends space in two and three dimensions . . . [his] methods in fact . . .

  • Art:21

    YOU CAN JUST HEAR 'EM at the story meeting: “Look, what we want to do here is demystify these artists. We gotta make them regular, friendly folks. None of this wrestling with art-historical forebears crap, none of that B.S. theory. And above all, no authoritarian narrator telling the audience what to think.” The silence of no basso profundo voice-over from Robert Hughes on Art:21—Art in the Twenty-First Century, PBS's four-episode look at twenty-one contemporary artists debuting September 21, is almost deafening.

    An opening segment—hosted by Steve Martin doing his patented mock-self

  • the Mori Art Museum

    COME OCTOBER, THE SWEDES take over the Japanese capital with a two-week cultural festival dubbed “Swedish Style in Tokyo.” Over in the Roppongi district, the Mori Arts Center Project Space will honor the event in an area called the “New Tokyo Life Style Roppongi Think Zone” while the nearby G'Martini's bar welcomes “the brave and sleepless.”

    If this doesn't pave the way for David Elliott, nothing will. The British cultural historian and director of the august Moderna Museet in Stockholm takes the reins at Tokyo's Mori Art Museum on November 1. The Richard Gluckman designed facility won't open to

  • Frank Gehry, Architect

    Frank Gehry, as we all know, is the guy who designed the absolutely fantabufuckingamazabulous Guggenheim Bilbao. The Gugg Bilbao, as we all know, is the fantabufuckingamazabulous melty building that instantly buried the pomo mall pastiche that buried the oppressive modernist steel-and-glass box. End of story? Not quite. While some feel Gehry’s sci-fi rococo will prove as lasting as ’59 Cadillac tail fins, his fans insist he’s just gotten started—witness the proposal for a new Guggenheim at the tip of Manhattan that’ll make Bilbao look like a Fotomat kiosk. To buttress the case for Gehry’s

  • Clyfford Still: Paintings, 1944–1960

    Nobody, but nobody, could cop attitude like Clyfford Still (1904–80): “I held it imperative to evolve an instrument of thought which would aid in cutting through all cultural opiates, past and present, so that a direct, immediate, and truly free vision could be achieved.” The question of whether Still’s abstract painting can shoulder such a megalomaniacal burden is raised by a modest thirty-nine-painting “reintroduction” exhibition organized by Hirshhorn director James Demetrion. That’ll have to do, because Still’s estate is as thorny as he was: It has hundreds of paintings—allegedly bound for

  • H.C. Westermann

    H.C. (“Cliff”) Westermann had everything a real artist needs: a taste of the dark side (as a marine in World War II and Korea), technical skills (carpentry, woodcarving, stone masonry), art-historical grounding (Surrealism), and an engaging, original style—think R. Crumb but less worked. Oh, and he had a great art-party shtick: He’d walk around—on his hands—chomping a cigar. Organized by the MCA’s own Lynne Warren and Michael Rooks, the first major Westermann show since his 1979 Whitney retrospective brings together 131 sculptures from the ’50s until the artist’s death in 1981.

  • EGG the arts show

    WAY BACK in the antediluvian ’70s, they shot parts of The Sting outside my studio in Pasadena, California. Until the novelty wore off, a few of us artists would stand around and watch. I remember overhearing a couple of extras talking. One asked, “And was that movie a good thing for you?” The other answered, “Sure was. I got two full faces and a profile,” Actors are grateful for small favors; they’ll find the one positive sentence in an otherwise excoriating review and rejoice over it. Artists, by contrast, will find the one hedging phrase in an otherwise glowing review and agonize over it.

  • BitStreams

    “Exploring the reverberations of digital technology in contemporary art and culture” is like counting the fish in the Mississippi: pointless unless there’s an insightful a priori focus to the project. Thus “BitStreams” is likely to be of interest as much for indicating the tastes of Lawrence Rinder, the new curator from Berkeley who came to the museum via his participation in the most recent Biennial, as for showing us what “new creative tools” artists are using these days. Rinder is considered a multimedia maven. He’s also been known to write rhymed verse for public consumption. We can’t wait

  • Daniel Birnbaum

    THEY DON’T MAKE ’EM LIKE KASPER KÖNIG anymore, and maybe for Daniel Birnbaum that’s a good thing. Asked about the choice of Birnbaum to succeed him as director of the Städelschule art academy in Frankfurt, König blithely remarks that he’d preferred some guy from Glasgow who went elsewhere, but that Birnbaum was perfectly fine. So much for the obligatory PR pribble (“the decision was absolutely unanimous, from the chairman of the board right down to the custodian’s assistant”). On the other hand, when it comes to effacingness (self- or otherwise), Birnbaum, thirty-seven, is no slouch either. “

  • Madelein Grynsztejn

    GIVE MADELEINE GRYNSZTEJN some credit for diplomatic consistency: She doesn't miss a beat when the subject of negative reviews of her 1999 Carnegie International comes up. “I would turn,” she says in response to my line of questioning, “to reviews by Steve Litt [Cleveland Plain Dealer], Katy Siegel [Artforum], and Graham Shearing [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review].” She adds: “A lot of the pieces were newly commissioned and allowed the artists to make leaps within their own work. This was the first time that Janet Cardiff could use video as well as audio, and the first time that Sarah Sze worked with

  • Open Ends

    Last time we checked, George Lucas was at work on Episode XIV of the fifth cycle in the forty-second Star Wars übertrilogy. He'd better hurry. Come September, credits roll on the first section of the third cycle of MoMA's year-and-a-half thematic rehanging of its collection: Curators Paola Antonelli and Joshua Siegel costar with leading man Kirk Varnedoe (cast against type in this contemporary episode). You won't find out whether Han Solo ever hooked up with Princess Leia, but you will learn about tensions between “private autonomies and a global culture” and “challenges to familiar notions of

  • Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900–2000

    How's this for an exhibition idea: “Touched by Human Hands: All the Art Ever Made by Anyone Anywhere, 30,000 B.C. to Just Last Tuesday”? OK, so I'm exaggerating: “Made in California,” organized by LACMA's Stephanie Barron and a team of curators, only surveys a century of painting, sculpture, photography, commercial art, couture, and—mais oui—video. Oh, and throw in a bit of cultural detritus (tourist brochures, labor pamphlets) to boot. Sound overwhelming? Don't worry. As you leave “Section Five” (the '80s and '90s), you'll be treated to “a transition space free of visual images”—where

  • Celebrating Modern Art: The Anderson Collection

    Long before software entrepreneur Peter Norton discovered his passion for slick-but-socially-conscious art (e.g., Carrie Mae Weems) or UPN mogul Dean Valentine began scooping up the work of art-school debutantes, California collecting was defined by the Andersons (“Hunk” and “Moo”) of Atherton. The crew-cut food-service baron and his wife may look American Gothic, but their art is mostly American great—Sam Francis, Scott Burton, Martin Puryear, Elizabeth Murray—and California cool, from David Park to Deborah Oropallo. Their holdings (started in 1964 and still growing) will constitute


    In anticipation of the dual surveys being mounted this summer—“EDWARD RUSCHA” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and “WAYNE THIEBAUD: a paintings retrospective” at the palace of the legion of honor in San Francisco—we asked PETER PLAGENS to reexamine the careers of these California Pops.

    IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT, SHOULDN’T POSTWAR California—which sprouted hamburger stands, supermarkets, and vapid celebrities like kudzu and was largely unencumbered by a history of serious modern art—have produced all the big-time Pop artists, just as easily and unthinkingly as it gouged freeways into the