Peter Plagens

  • 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

  • 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