PRINT December 1995

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 best show I saw last season was by Catherine Opie, Kerry James Marshall, Manuel Ocampo, or Sadie Benning and start getting invited to cooler parties, but I just can’t. There were more dark ideas, more hilariously stated and more economically packaged, in any three of Nauman’s pieces than there were in all of SoHo during all of last season. It ain’t fair, but that’s the way it is.


If memory must serve, then it’s a recent show—KIKI SMITH’s sculpture at PaceWildenstein’s downtown emporium—that qualifies as the worst show, or at least the worst significant show of the year (why pick on some misguided first-timer at a co-op?). Now, I’ve heard David Ross say that if he had his druthers, the Whitney’s next acquisition would be a sculpture by Smith, and if I were she, I’d sure rather have Ross’ blessing than mine. But her work strikes me as Leonard Baskin for the ’90s: anatomically semiaccurate (all distortions guaranteed intentional and poetically tragic), surfaces heavily overarticulated to disguise compositional inertia, and everything redolent of those woe-is-we-in-the-atomic-age pseudo-profundities that passionate but clumsy artists used to turn out by the ton in the late ’50s and early ’60s. To her credit, Smith by and large forgoes blind poets musing on the fate of all mankind (with women assumed as bring-alongs), in favor of (mostly) female figures introspective enough not to try to stand in for men, too. But she and Baskin share the same faults: philosophical overreach and an undergrasping talent.

Peter Plagens is a painter and the art critic for Newsweek magazine.