Peter Plagens

  • Norman Lewis

    The poignant yet somewhat quaint announced purpose of “Norman Lewis: Black Paintings, 1946–77” is to explore the artist’s “aesthetic and metaphoric uses of black.” Of the two, “aesthetic” goes down more easily, since Lewis was more or less an Abstract Expressionist and, as with his stylistic brethren, whatever he put down on canvas was there first and foremost for aesthetic reasons—primarily those having to do with how best to make a painting in the middle years of the twentieth century. But of course it’s the “metaphorical” usage that gives the exhibition title its raison d’être, and this is

  • the Hugo Boss Prize

    THE $50,000 PRIZE MONEY is nothing to sneeze at, and the six finalists—Bul Lee (Korea), Douglas Gordon (Scotland), William Kentridge (South Africa), Huang Yong Ping (China), Pipilotti Rist (Switzerland), and Lorna Simpson (US)—whose work goes up at Guggenheim SoHo on June 24 in anticipation of a July decision, are serious, provocative artists. So how come nobody gives a patootie about the Hugo Boss Prize, the biennial award underwritten by the German haberdasher and administered by the Guggenheim Museum? The Turner Prize—about $30,000, handed out annually since 1984 to a UK artist—generates much

  • John Wesley

    In the rear of Jessica Fredericks’ semi-basement Chelsea space, there hangs—or hung, during the gallery’s John Wesley miniretrospective this winter—a modest-size painting from 1976 entitled Princess Sacajawea Crossing the Snake. It depicts, in Wesley’s never-varying technique of flat shapes, delicate black outline, and matte, chalky color, a female in a leotard or bathing suit, seen in midair from behind, doing the splits, her arms extended groundward. The background consists of five horizontal bands: pale blue sky at top, then green distant “forest” (its upper edge is ragged, hinting at faraway

  • The Art of the Motorcycle

    The good news is that, come this summer, there will be motorcycles on the ramps of the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright building. The bad news is, no, they won’t be smoking, screaming, and leaving skid marks on those nice white walls at 140 mph in the first annual motordrome Gran Prix de Thomas Krens (although the Guggenheim’s director, a motorcycle enthusiast and curator of the show, probably did entertain the thought for a tenth of a second or so). Instead, the likes of a very early bike, a Hildebrand & Wolfmuller 1500cc manufactured in Germany in 1894, the beautiful Ducati 916, and the ’50s

  • Arthur Dove

    Arthur Dove is not—thank God—the kind of artist whose retrospective provokes in a critic the desire either to (a) rehearse a long, drawn-out chronology of the various ebbs and flows in his stylistic development or to (b) mount an argumentative, academic brief for his being an underrated or overrated early American Modernist. The eighty or so modest-size paintings, collages, and drawings at the Whitney Museum are simply—and I mean “simply” in perhaps the most favorable sense I’ve ever used the word—there, on the wall, to be looked at, absorbed, appreciated, enjoyed, and

  • Richard Pousette-Dart

    The painter Richard Pousette-Dart (1916-92) once said, in all sincerity, “I am an artist of the concealed power of the spirit, not of the brute physical form.” Pousette-Dart was one of those urban American artists—plentiful among the generation maturing aesthetically at the beginning of what we once called the Atomic Age—who sought out the cosmological as a refuge from material and industrial might. He attended Bard College in 1936, but quickly decided to quit school and become an artist. Although he first apprenticed himself to the conservatively modern figurative sculptor Paul Manship, he was

  • Richard Diebenkorn

    If there’s one lasting impression left by the retrospective of Richard Diebenkorn’s paintings at the Whitney Museum, it’s an overriding sense of finicky graphic and chromatic tastefulness. And this carefully crafted rightness—almost every Diebenkorn picture seems like the resolution to a family argument pled for by a kindly old father who wants, above all, to avoid any sign of conflict—is what makes the show seem so out of touch with the times. Of course, there’s bad out-of-touch and good out-of-touch: a retrospective that reveals how academic and timid the artist’s work is, compared with today’s

  • Drear and Loathing

    IF ART IN 1997 WASN’T exactly (to invoke a cliché) old wine in new bottles, or (to cite a hipper version) old whine in new bottles either, there was something both déjà vu and complaining about it. The art you saw this year, whether in galleries, contemporary museums, and chain-link-fenced vacant lots down under one Batmanish bridge or another, had a recombinant, self-pitying quality to it. What was particularly nagging this year about its seeming familiarity came less from any resemblance to Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys, or Fluxus events (in fact, the familiar complaint that there has been little

  • the return of P. S. 1

    ABOUT TEN YEARS AGO, the venerable New York alternative space P. S. I began to think about a major renovation of its building—a huge, brick, former public school built in the nineteenth century, and improbably located in Long Island City, Queens. Recently, the task became precipitously necessary as the roof was literally caving in—along with the floor of director Alanna Heiss’ office, and myriad other parts of the structure. With the city as the renovation’s major patron (although P. S. I did raise a portion of the $8 million cost on its own), a new, almost “uptown” P. S. I will open to the

  • Lucas Samaras

    The first thought that came into my head at the Lucas Samaras exhibition at PaceWildenstein uptown last November was, “Why isn’t he having this retrospective in a New York museum?” After all, the last Gotham-grown one for him was way back in 1972, at the Whitney; the one after that was organized way out in Denver in 1988, and the most recent, in 1991, took place in Japan. Given the conventional appreciation of Samaras as our best dissenting stylistic loner during the heyday of Minimalism, you’d think that someone other than the artist’s gallery—as prestigious as it may be—would have staged this

  • Peter Plagens


    Nobody really hates JASPER JOHNS. But for many, Johns is becoming-the-artist-you-love-to-hate-because-too-many-uncool-establishment-types-have-climbed-aboard-his-love-boat. And then there’s the Museum of Modern Art. How can one of its unimaginative, right-down-the-pike, chock-full, lockstep, didactic retrospectives be the best show of the year? Or Philip Morris? How can you honor the cancer peddlers? Well, sorry, sorry, and sorry. “Jasper Johns: A Retrospective” is a clear, encyclopedic view of a great late-modern artist. The show’s conception (orthodox) and installation (“

  • “The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism”

    Whatever the revisionist revelations of Serge Guilbaut, Griselda Pollock, et al, the consensus on Abstract Expressionism remains that it was both the first great homegrown American art movement and the center of the greatest period in American art (roughly 1945–60), modern or otherwise. There’s an argument to be made, I suppose, that Pop art was bigger in the press, bigger in more galleries, bigger in its effect on subsequent art, (Abstract Expressionism, after all, can’t claim to have turned every subsequent artist into a smart-ass ironist). But there’s no argument, in my opinion, to be made

  • Christopher Knight’s Last Chance for Eden

    Most daily-newspaper art critics are at least readable because they arrive at their desks from places like J-school, the city beat, or the sports department, where plain English is still spoken. But they’re often either ignorami who don’t know Kunst from Koons or “arts writers” forced by broadsheet downsizing to cover everything from the local woodwind quintet to installation art based on Lacanian reconsiderations of gender transgression (one of my favorites). So, with notable exceptions, they have nothing of interest to say to anyone in the art world. Art-critic art critics, on the other hand,

  • Peter Plagens


    Having consigned last season’s pocket calendars and back issues of Gallery Guide to the dustbin of, well, the dustbin, I’m operating a bit out of my hip pocket here. I’ll go way out on a limb and say the best show of ’95 was the BRUCE NAUMAN retrospective at MoMA. (I preferred the Walker Art Center’s version, but it ran before “last season.”) Limb? C’mon, you say. I reply: It’s a “limb” because I’m going to take a pasting since Nauman is just another white, male, het, Euro-darling artist who happens to be exactly my age and an old acquaintance to boot. Look, I’d like to say the

  • Cousin Brucie

    A stainless steel and glass frame makes almost anything you stick in it look like art; it authenticates as art even the most negligible effort. The museum context does the same thing for a whole oeuvre; there is almost nothing you can put in the crisp, professional space of the County Museum which will not look profound.

    —Peter Plagens, “Roughly Ordered Thoughts on the Occasion of the Bruce Nauman Retrospective in Los Angeles,” Artforum, March 1973

    HEY, I WAS PRETTY PRESCIENT. That article was written 22 years ago, and a third of the paragraphs still stand up about as well as that one. It didn’t

  • A Conversation

    John Coplans works as an artist in New York. An exhibition of his photographs initiated at the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, Portugal, is currently traveling. He was editor of Artforum from January 1972 to February 1977.

    PETER PLAGENS: I remember you telling me in the ’70s, when you had moved to New York and I was still in Los Angeles, “You people out in L.A. think the continent of art is America, with New York on the east coast and L.A. on the west. But it’s not. The continent of art is the Atlantic Ocean, with New York on the west coast and the European cities on the east, and you guys

  • Stealing Time: An Ontological Odyssey

    IN THE 1960s, I used to write, more or less straight, about art. Then, concurrent with the “dematerialization of the art object,” I got more interested in what went on behind the art: hence the first-person essays like “Peter and The Pressure Cooker,” “The Visiting Artist,” and “Subway Orbit.” At the time, I thought this activity was an antidote to the ongoing and repugnant “de-definition” of art. Now I realize I had more in common with the forces of evaporation than I thought, for, excepting my own products, I’m drawn more toward plane rides, winos, out-of-the-way lecture halls, rollbooks,

  • Robert Irwin’s Bar Paintings

    IN THE SEMITROPICAL MICROCOSM THAT the West Coast art community might seem to be, compared with the mundus patris of Paris/New York, I imagine Robert Irwin to occupy an historical position analogous to Hans Hofmann.The native German lived through and participated in the major artheavals of his immediate world: Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism (of a sort), and Abstract Expressionism. He made a substantial contribution to his last affiliation, Abstract Expressionism, and expanded it toward another mode, the color painting of the 1960s on. Irwin experienced and labored within the styles of

  • William Baziotes: Primeval Sentiment

    "Every picture tells a story.”

    Rod Stewart

    IN MY STILL UNCOMPLICATED traversement from collegiate adolescence to artist, one painting is crucial: a pale little minor picture by William Baziotes entitled Toy in the Sun. I used to see it regularly when I would stroll from the University of Southern California across the street to the old Los Angeles County Museum in Exposition Park to ventilate my head of the ready-made poignancy of some Salinger short story from lit class, and to soak my soul in the more universal profundity of paintings. Toy in the Sun was a bridge; its pastel yellows, blues,

  • The Story of “A”

    Andy Warhol, The Philosophy Of Andy Warhol (From A To B And Back Again) (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), 241 Pages.

    If I were writing obituaries or 99-cent supermarket encyclopedias, my précis on WARHOL, ANDY (b. Warhola, 1930, att. Carnegie Institute) would run thusly:

    Effete former 5th-Avenue shoe illustrator who became, in the early ’60s, the definitive Pop artist, with silkscreen repetitions of Liz and Campbell’s soup cans and static films like Empire and Sleep. His total Pop lifestyle, however, is what finally distinguishes him from his contemporaries Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg,