Peter Plagens

  • Wayne Thiebaud

    How come a Norman Rockwell retrospective occasions gasps and sneers, but the upcoming Wayne Thiebaud survey (eighty works from the ‘50s on) provokes nary a hiccup? You say Norm's an “illustrator.” Thiebaud isn't? You say Rockwell's work is sentimental Americana. Well, take another gander at Thiebaud's pies, sundaes, and high-school football stars. You say Rockwell painted thin in antique-shop pales, while Thiebaud lays it on thick, creamy, and bright. Hmmm. And, you say, Thiebaud's timing was counterintuitively impeccable: After all, he did create his cuddly version of academic realism in the

  • Making Choices

    Nobody can figure out how—or why—the Museum of Modern Art cooked up such a delirious arabesque of shows to celebrate the millennium. But after “Modern Starts,” with its component parts, “People,” “Places,” and “Things,” it seemed like the institution would be hard-pressed to up the lame-title quotient—until, that is, the church-ladyish “Making Choices” came along. Twenty constituent exhibitions (arranged in three parts by an in-house team) will address, among other things, the battle between Surrealism and abstraction for early modernist supremacy, and conservative art reactions to the

  • Hans Hartung

    In the postwar ’40s and ’50s, arty American sophisticates liked Europe’s cute little cars, but we Yanks didn’t much appreciate the Continent’s cute little versions of Abstract Expressionism. When it came to brushy non-objectivity, we preferred muscle and scale to easel-convenience and lingering School of Paris perfume. Case in point: Franz Kline’s macho burnt timbers in black over Pierre Soulages’s careful viscosity and Hans Hartung’s designy nocturnes. To see if your revisionist muscle has limbered up over the last half-century, visit the Galleria Civica’s full-scale retrospective of Hartung’s

  • Peter Plagens

    The big bosses at Artforum asked for an annotated list of the ten best art thingies of the ’90s, and that’s exactly what they’re gonna get. No Greil Marcus/Ron Rosenbaum–style envelope-pushing to slip in a remaindered CD by Animal Logic or the best chopped liver on the Upper West Side. Oh all right, a little fudging here and there to wedge in a few extra items, but otherwise, straight down the pike.

    1. “Johannes Vermeer” (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Royal Cabinet of Paintings Maritshuis, The Hague, 1995–96) The sweetest words my editors at Newsweek ever said to me were, “You know, after all that pandemonium over the Vermeer show in Washington, it’d be good to have a story on how the Dutch feel about it when it comes back to Holland.” So I got to see the show a second time, in The Hague. Yes, as I wrote at the time, there were a couple of (comparative) dogs in the show; but just seeing The Lacemaker, ca. 1669–70, and View of Delft, ca. 1660–61, in the same exhibition was a

  • Marla Prather

    THE STANDARD art-world book on the Whitney Museum goes like this: a distant third in the New York contemporary museum sweepstakes (after august MoMA and flashy Guggenheim Inc.), stuck in a cramped, unrenovatable late-modernist bunker, limited in focus to an American art of fading importance in an increasingly global scene, and hobbled by uncertain, feckless administrators.

    That last alleged characteristic bears some unpacking. After video-savvy, suavely PC director David Ross departed in 1998 for the sunnier, cyberrich climes of the Bay Area, the Whitney—so the story goes—decided to retrench.

  • Charles and Ray Eames

    IN 1954, WHEN I WAS A PINK-CHEEKED lad of a mere thirteen years, our family—newly returned to Los Angeles from the aging, sooty confines of Cleveland—paid a visit to an old friend of my father’s who’d made it big at Capitol Records and built a house on Webster Drive, in LA’s Silver Lake district. The house was a simple box, half redwood and half glass, with a little stainless-steel trim. The far wall of the living room was entirely glass, looking out onto a sparse deck and, beyond, a spectacular view of the Silver Lake reservoir. Standing for the first time in the living room, I thought the home

  • “The American Century: Art & Culture 1950–2000”

    If you thought the Whitney bit off more than it could chew with Part I (1900–1950) of its encyclopedic survey “The American Century,” wait till you see Part II. Instead of cozily sized, determinedly modernist paintings selected by one curator, the second act, chosen by a squadron led by now former Whitneyite Lisa Phillips, includes everything from a barnful of canvases by the AbExers short-shrifted in Part I to the last word in installation. In this post-“triumph” segment the artwork is complemented with sites that explore “American cultural, social and political developments from 1950 through

  • the Whitney Biennale

    REVIEWING THE WHITNEY BIENNIAL of American Art has gotten to be something like playing a round of golf just to get rid of pent-up aggression. Let’s see, which club will we whack the vulnerable little ball with this year? If the play is from the middle of the art-market fairway, as it was in Klaus Kertess’s 1995 show, we could reach for the “Chic Gallery Old Boys’ Network” wood and drive that sucker right through Matthew Marks’s plate glass window. If we’re in the politically correct rough (on the left, of course), as we were in 1993, we could grab the “Politics Make For Ugly Art” iron and enjoy

  • the MoMA/ P.S. 1 merger

    “HEY, THAT’S NICE,” quickly followed by “Uh-oh.” So goes the near-unanimous reaction of the art world to the probable merger of the august, hyper-institutional Museum of Modern Art and the capaciously funky P.S. I Contemporary Arts Center. To recapitulate, P.S. I—the recently renovated former public school in Long Island City, Queens, which has been nurtured and kept integrity-intense for more than twenty years by its founder, Alanna Heiss—signed a letter of intent to nestle itself under the protective umbrella of MoMA, that Manhattan bastion of black-tie vernissages and modernist correctness.

  • “Edward Ruscha: Editions 1958-1999”

    You want all of LA culture wrapped up in one convenient package? Try Ed Ruscha's ennui-ridden books of deadpan photographs, Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) and Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966). All right, that's two. It's three if you include the Oklahoma-born, Bob Mitchum-handsome artist himself, whose artistic persona is kind of “Marcel makes a guest appearance on Friends.” And in spite of some very early, very clever paintings, the essence of Ruscha really resides in his work in editions—those supremely witty books and delicious prints. Here, the Walker presents a complete

  • David Salle

    If any artist could use the boost of a major museum retrospective right now, it's David Salle. Stranded in the vast midcareer no-man's-land bounded by a jacked-up commercial gallery career on one side and by doubts about his art-historical gravitas on the other, Salle gets his (second) break as the Stedelijk's Dorine Mignot mounts a fifty-five-painting case for the former wunderkind's staying power. Fitting that the flagship institution of a country where you can fire up a joint in a “coffee shop” should take a chance on a hot potato grown a little cold.


    Simultaneous home-turf retrospectives for California native Sam Francis and west cast adoptee Bas Jan Ader provide the occasion for a pair of Artforum contributing editors to reassess the respective legacies of two central protagonists in the prehistory of LA’s current artistic flowering.

    As “SAM FRANCIS: Paintings 1947–1990” goes on view at LA MoCA’s Geffen Contemporary, PETER PLAGENS asks how Abstract Expressionism’s sunny sybarite will hold up in the long view.

    Alot of people still wonder whether or not Sam Francis was a bona fide Abstract Expressionist. Of course he was. His paintings are abstract, aren’t they? And they’re “expressionist”—at least in the evident sense that he applied paint in a loose, vigorous manner and left a lot of the details to chance. But if expressionism also implies some special access to raw emotion, particularly of the angsty, heart-of-darkness

  • the critics lineup

    SOON IT’LL BE SPRINGTIME WHEN, as everybody knows, the hickory meets the horsehide. But it’s also the time when on the playing fields of Chelsea and SoHo and in a few elegant old white cubes up on Fifty-seventh Street—the hermeneutics meet the horseshit. Yep, it’s the second half of the art season. Last fall, two blockbuster moves changed the critics’ lineup, and the effects are just starting to be felt around the league. Here’s our (somewhat belated) scouting report.


    (from The Village Voice to The New Yorker): 56 years old, 6’ 0", 165 lbs., living white male.



    THE THIRTY-THREE-YEAR-OLD performer/artist Claude Wampler boasts a résumé that reads like something out of one of those David Lodge novels about trendy, internationally peripatetic intellectuals: domestic studies in theater, dance, and opera; immersion in butoh in Tokyo; shows at places with such edgy-cutesy names as SlimFit and Fourth World A.W.O.W. Not surprisingly, Wampler is the kind of artist critics go on about glowingly without ever managing to put their fingers on what exactly she does. Kim Levin wrote in The Village Voice that Wampler’s work is “about primal relationships.” (Right. And

  • Sam Francis

    If your idea of a great painter is one who shoots for the stars at the expense of frequently falling flat on his face, then Sam Francis is the artist for you. When Francis was on—in big paintings such as The Whiteness of the Whale, 1958, and Blue Balls, 1961—the man was on. But when he was off. . . Let’s just hope that curator William Agee’s 100-plus-work retrospective, which the artist helped plan before his death in 1994, is able to sort major from minor from meaningless. Francis’s reputation might depend on it. Mar. 7–June 6; travel venues to be announced.

  • Peter Plagens

    1. “RECOGNIZING VAN EYCK” (Philadelphia Museum of Art) A painter friend of mine in Chicago who deejays on the side once explained to me the reason he had so many more old rock ’n’ roll records than new ones. “I like the best of the new,” he said, “and the best of the old, and it just so happens that there’s a lot more old.” In art, old really has the edge, but—given the way artists crank out stuff nowadays—it sometimes seems like there are fewer old works than new. So here I’m gonna go with old. Back when men were men and pictures were little and took a long time to make, Jan van Eyck

  • the MacArthur fellows

    My wife plays a little game whenever I telephone from the office and ask if there have been any calls. “Just the MACARTHUR FOUNDATION,” she deadpans. “I told them you weren’t here, so they moved on down the alphabet to Sylvia Plimack Mangold.” Or Rona Pondick. Or Alexis Rockman. I—like about 500,000 other American artists—entertain an inextinguishable, secret hope that someday I’ll get a tap on the shoulder from the MacArthur folks, collect $350,000, and be able to paint and write as I bloody well please for the subsequent five years.

    But my MacArthur envy has diminished. The cachet of the

  • Anish Kapoor

    When people at an art party, circa 1995, asked if there were anyone working in England you did like (after you had remarked that the whole Young British Art scene reminded you of extras from a Larry Clark movie), you could still answer “Anish Kapoor” without completely embarassing yourself. At the time, Kapoor was well on his way from being an establishment-radical artist (i.e., one whose work had street credibility as well as cachet in the high-end art world) to an outright national institution, an intensely chromatic Henry Moore for the ’90s. His sculptures were gracefully elegant without

  • Transformations: The Art of Joan Brown

    A case of too much too soon—and not enough until too late—is one way of looking at the career of the late Bay Area painter Joan Brown. In her early twenties, she made the cover of this magazine with a figurative AbEx-y picture that looked like loosened-up de Staël. Then she switched: to a flat, funny, sort of Bridget Jones’s Diary version of Northern California “funk”—a regional style so centripedal in force that only William Wiley achieved escape velocity to the national scene. Now we’ll see if a two-institution retrospective can provide the horsepower to finally launch Brown as well.

    Also on

  • Jo Baer

    If there’s a more thankless occupation than Minimalist painter, we’d like to know about it. Of course, if you hedge the reductivism with some “incomplete” lower edges to your canvases, then mutate back into a curvilinear romantic, you can carve out a rep as a “major” artist. It helps to be a guy. If you’re a woman whose work is severe enough to earn you but a single mention in Irving Sandler’s American Art of the 1960s (as a “conceptual” artist), and then you hie off to Holland to become a mystical “imagist,” chances are you’ll get forgotten. The Stedelijk will try to correct the situation for