New York

Peter Plagens

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the major dynamic contributing to the incomplete discussion of United States art is the consistent machine-gunning of California art, usually by those who are not even native New Yorkers. These fake New Yorkers’ xenophobia produces unilateral condescension toward the human aberrations from the West—branding them as simple, stupid, lazy, mush-headed idiots—finding California’s weather simply too good for the production of suitable art or proper intellectual activity. Everything and every thought is assumed to originate in New York City, although New Haven and Cambridge can be called upon for fresh recruits. Only artists like Clyfford Still are acceptable, because his paintings are raw and ugly, like all good art, and accompanied by inflated rhetoric and secondhand European authentication.

The rare case of appreciation would then be instructive. This individual would have to conform to what would be tolerated by the prejudices of New York expectations: the wild and woolly crazy from the Wild West. This oddity would be the example which proves the rule. Let’s say we choose Peter Plagens for our stereotype. He fits the program so well. He prefers to quote from Car and Driver rather than from The British Journal of Phenomenology. The titles of his paintings take their lead from photographs in Penthouse. His writing style was ’60s “gonzo” by his own epithet: smart, colorful, immediate and personal—absolutely none of the things art writing is supposed to be. (It was writing meant to be read.) While others used the essay as a plea for their friends and their own kind of art, Plagens held back. He likes Bacon, Serra, Bengston and Morris.

As a consequence, people felt he wasn’t serious, since his arguments were not given over to proselytizing for the divine right of one breed of art. Writers didn’t like him because he had no “line” (just a style), and, worse yet, he pandered to “popular” taste. (They took it out on his art, which was thrown aside as secondary material.) Worse than that, Plagens dared to inject humor into art writing. This was a sure sign that he was irresponsible, which, of course, is the giveaway trait of every Californian.

The double bind, an irony Plagens would appreciate, is that artists didn’t consider him to be a fellow artist, but a writer, with all the fear and mistrust that engenders. But at least it was writing they could understand. While others fought for position, trafficked in academic trivia, and attacked to preserve their place in the making of history, Plagens was content to follow his instincts and experiences, going in and out of the art ambience, seeing where it might lead him. The unvarying quality is one of pleasure, even when the subject happens to pain him deeply. This is, again, a typically Californian attribute—mindless reveling in sheer pleasure.

Very near the self-imposed end of his writing career, Plagens concluded that art was “profound decoration”—by which he meant, I think, that it was both beautiful craftmaking and possessed of a capacity to express things impossible in other disciplines. Painting does best what it does as painting, period, because it gives a pleasure and satisfaction unavailable anywhere else, so why give it up? Painting itself became a kind of moral position. A cursory review in this magazine snidely referred to Plagens’ affection for painting as the underdog art medium, and then continued on to deprecate his writing. But if there ever has been a writer who questioned and worried over the effects of words on art, it has been Plagens. By giving up writing for painting, it appears that he figures he might as well be criticized for that which will eventually give him the most pleasure.

That same review surmised a change in Plagens’ style from another review Plagens wrote on Serra. The effect of Serra’s drawings was to make Plagens get “tough,” in the New York sense of the word. The central essay, in retrospect, appears to be the one on Bengston, where he reached that “profound decoration” conclusion. Beautiful surface and intellectual unpretentiousness become a kind of ideal duo which can cover a lot of territory and many different styles. The artist Plagens admires most is the one who creates a style that can cover a lot of territory, do a lot with a little (not do a little with a little). This is an old-fashioned, studio-school position; Plagens gives it an edge with his worried cynicism brought on by the commercialization and corruption of ’60s art. Writing, an essentially public affair, is a popular form that can attack its environment; painting, an essentially private endeavor, can only become corrupted—it is defenseless, unable to strike back. That’s its major shortcoming.

Most of the paintings in his new show were untitled. But the ones that weren’t had a lot to say. The Alibi of Good Intentions, Their Time of Grace Is O’er, The Road to Revolution, An Apology From a Guilty White Bourgeois to a Decapitated Mexican Garbage Man (Penthouse Photo World Aug.–Sept. 1976) all refer directly to the connection between social action and painting activity, and the impossibility of marrying the two. The “revolution” painting is especially poignant, as the central figure is an interrupted red circle. To attach such titles to these abstract paintings is either naive or nostalgic, or both.

Plagens used to work in chalky pastels; the new work is primarily white. Edges are left uncovered and expose splashed, stained, scribbled layers at the base. Occasionally there are networks of pencilled, stacked triangles or ovals, irregular and lightly floating. The last paintings sprouted black shapes (circles with cutout sections); this time, the circles have been hollowed out so that the form is really a bent stripe, with a section missing. This is a personal, identifiable symbol, allusive and sexually connotative, as is Bengston’s iris. Formally, the edges bring our attention away from the strong geometric shape. The circle’s broken section lets the inside and outside interpenetrate, creating a confusion of figure and ground. I think a legitimate criticism would be: why just one kind of shape, why not other similar, or even different shapes? The one here is strong, but it doesn’t sustain itself over a dozen or more paintings. Plagens needs to be more generous, and probably more specific. The abstract emblem hasn’t got a real world correlate, and the potential play between inside (art) and outside (life) is not consistently felt. That play was Plagens’ best characteristic in his writing. It is possible, I think, to be really good at more than one thing.

Jeff Perrone