New York

Peter Plagens

A lot of the articles Peter Plagens has written for this magazine wind up with affirmations of painting, huzzahs thrown in the face of other art-making modes. After a spell in the New York “pressure cooker,” for example, he’s back home in California slogging pigment. “Confronted with that—the painting on the wall—how can you possibly care about anything else?” Indeed. Well, there’s all that picaresque art criticism, powered by his angst as a painter, which he surely must care to write. And his book, Sunshine Muse, that launches itself well enough as an anecdotal history, but settles sadly into a regional apologia. So it’s hard not to see Plagens’s paintings in light of his writings, or worse in lieu of them, as more communiqués from Siena to Florence.

He wrote a published puff to a Los Angeles show of Richard Serra’s drawings (who, I’m told, leafed through Uccello picture books as he drew). Now Plagens’s new paintings have sprouted big geometrical figures in dark opaque colors. This might be a mugwump accommodation to New York neoConstructivist style, called “getting tough.” It’s as if Plagens decided that the heavily worked and reworked surfaces of his earlier paintings reflected not so much lyricism as indecision, a charge leveled at Diebenkorn in the late ’50s. So these paintings encode a coming through process of indecision and final assertion—“Look, I made it!” Plagens isn’t painting rhythmically anymore. Instead he’s setting up oppositions in his work between tentative and declarative painterly attitudes. The vagrant marks in these canvases may be so much fancy flicker entombed in layers of overpaint. But sometimes they look like predescriptions of the bolder shapes plonked down in their midst.

Since the early part of this century, these shapes have appeared on stretched canvases. Often they are architectonically interrelated. To get Newtonian for a moment, these relationships can impute that the mass of a given painting is close to the apparent volume of this thing that projects from the wall. Plagens, like many other California painters now, doesn’t stretch his paintings. This is an anti-sculptural convention since it doesn’t evoke weight. All you get is paint on a surface. Solid color shapes that bespeak mass, then, aren’t so commutable from stretched to unstretched painting. With Plagens’s pictures I’m left with the feeling that these shapes have strayed in somewhere they don’t belong. (Which I don’t say can’t work.)

The black form slapped onto a yellow field in Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) is just such an intrusion. The form’s a fusion of a semicircle and an obtuse triangle, two shapes that might have locked with a snap like some mechanical jaw. The gawky wavering marks look irrelevant beside this bulldog shape; they’re pathetic, unable to delineate. Only the red hooked line engages the alien shape. Perhaps it beckons it, or has this black in tow. Church of God is the only picture that moved me, in which something more than a muddle came through.

Alan Moore