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  Peter Plagens

Paint & Tell

Meet postwar California art expert, distinguished “Newsweek” art critic and prolific abstract painter Peter Plagens. Did we mention he’s a Trojan?

Courtesy of the Summer 2005 Trojan Family
by Nick P. Divito

Photos by S. Peter Lopez

Peter Plagens ’62 shuffles stocking-footed across the glossy, hardwood floor of his immaculate Tribeca loft in search of the political cartoons he sketched for the Daily Trojan some 45 years ago. Maybe they’re near the neatly preserved artifacts from his 16 years as Newsweek’s in-house art critic. Perhaps they’re in the orderly bookshelves laden with art history books, some with his name on their spines, or the clearly labeled boxes of widgets and whatnots, or next to the fastidiously organized drawers of his startlingly uncluttered desk.

“It might be mild OCD,” Plagens reflects, pausing mid-search. “I have a little thing with neatness.” (Guests who enter his spacious loft are instructed to remove their shoes. For the sockless, spares are on hand.)

There’s no denying it: Plagens (rhymes with “pagans”) is a neatnik. That fact might seem trivial until you consider his extensive body of abstract paintings – self-described as “loose and open, very chancy and sloppy.”

“It’s really interesting when you think about it,” muses Sique Spence, a longtime friend, neighbor and director of Lower Manhattan’s tony Nancy Hoffman Gallery, where Plagens’ paintings have been hung and sold during the past 30 years. “Nicholas Wilder’s paintings were absolutely meticulous, almost ‘fetish finish,’” she continues, “and his place was an absolute pigsty. In contrast, Peter’s work is very loose – lots of scribbling and dripping – and that seems to be something in contrast with obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Maybe his art helps him to get into that place?”

Ask the 64-year-old painter-art critic, and he shrugs: “That’s one of those deep interpretations that’s not for any artist to make about himself. You’d have to ask my shrink, [except] I don’t have one.”

Plagens studiously avoids pondering the so-called “deep, hidden meaning” in his art. “To me, the paintings are, at bottom, all about an existentialist view of the world,” he has written. Yet there is no “thinly disguised symbolism lurking in their abstractness (at least not as far as I can help it). Even if there were, the last thing I’d want to do is inflict upon the viewer a long exegesis about them. In short, the existentialism is my problem.”

Which leaves all the more elbow room for viewers to seek their own meanings. Trojans were given a rare opportunity to do just that last winter, when the USC Fisher Gallery presented Peter Plagens: An Introspective. It was the first time the museum, now in its 66th year, has held a solo show dedicated to the art work of an alumnus.

This isn’t really surprising when you consider, as USC School of Fine Arts dean Ruth Weisberg puts it, that “Plagens is easily one of the art school’s most famous, well-known and successful alumni.”

Fisher Gallery director Selma Holo has been acquainted with his paintings for years. Back in 1981, several Plagens canvases were part of a group show at the Fisher called Quiet Commitment.
Untitled (VIII), 2003, mixed media on paper.
Last year, looking about for an exhibition to mount that would be appropriate for marking the university’s 125th anniversary, Holo had an inspired thought. “It occurred to me,” she writes in the show’s glossy catalogue, “that Peter Plagens was both an artist and a public figure, an alumnus who might most suitably present the university at a moment of celebration and, yes, of introspection.”

Holo found herself jetting between Southern California and New York to view the “zillions” of pieces the artist had produced. When Holo won grants from the Henry Luce Foundation and the Peter Norton Family Foundation to fund the exhibition, it seemed to confirm her curatorial acumen: “Peter is not just someone who graduated from USC,” she says. “He’s an important American artist, and his art deserves to be showcased.

The local art scene certainly seemed to approve her choice. In his review for the Los Angeles Times, critic David Pagel praised the Fisher show for “consistently (serving) up quiet excitement that’s easy to miss because it’s simultaneously sophisticated and inelegant.” He had kind words for the painter, too. “To find another abstract artist whose work combines the intellectual savvy and disdain for snobbery that Plagens does, you’d have to go back to Willem de Kooning… But the more telling comparison is to Mark Twain: another multi-talented multi-tasker whose whip-smart insights go hand-in-glove with the conviction that accessible experiences beat academic theorization any day and that popularity, for its own sake, means nothing.”

A professional hyphenate if there ever was one, Plagens boasts a litany of impressive resumé-points: Aside from being a reigning authority on California postwar art, Newsweek magazine’s resident art critic for the last 16 years and a respected abstract painter whose work has toured in America and abroad, Plagens has authored several books of criticism and a novel, won two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, held down multiple professorships and helped raise three kids. Now, after 40 years in the art biz, he finds himself at the top of his game: The exhibition at USC Fisher Gallery, which features 44 pieces spanning 30 years of art-making, is the most wall space ever devoted to his paintings.

And he’s not slowing down. “What’s wonderful about Peter,” observes Holo, “is he keeps on discovering things that he wants to say.” Plagens deflects such compliments.

“Of all the national art critics,” he quips, “I’m the best known as a painter. Of all the painters, I’m the best known as an art critic. But,” he adds ruefully, “it’s better than being a disgrace.”

Born March 1, 1941, in Dayton, Ohio, Plagens was a self-proclaimed runty late-bloomer. As a tot he had an early and admittedly peculiar fascination that might, to someone acquainted with the work of Marcel Duchamp, have presaged a future in art. “I loved toilets,” he confesses, between sips of non-alcoholic beer while lounging in his studio.

When the Plagens family drove cross-country to Southern California in 1942, it seems young Peter made a study of the flushing action of all the gas station restrooms along the way, earning him a pet-name: The Toilet Inspector. He apparently achieved toddler-nirvana when the family reached San Francisco’s Pulgas Water Temple, a Beaux Arts-style monument marking the terminus of the Bay Area’s massive water transmission system. “Whoosh!” Plagens gleefully mimics his memory of the roar of rushing waters. “I remember I thought it was great. It struck me as all those other toilets, writ large.”

His father was a commercial artist who bounced from small firm to small firm, all the while dreaming of writing a science fiction novel or making a TV series about jazz musicians.

“I often refer to him as the Willy Loman of commercial art,” Plagens says. “My father loved me, treated me very well, and gave me my interest in art and a sense of obligation to read as much as I could. On the other hand, he was a moderate failure in the business world. I think at least part of that was due to his religion.”

A devout Christian Scientist, George Plagens would, in his son’s words, retreat “into the bedroom to ponder the key to the scriptures instead of swimming with the sharks. To him, the whole material world was a figment of God’s imagination.”

The younger Plagens firmly set his sights on living in the here and now. “I’m more ambitious than he was,” he says of his father. “And I’m an atheist who thinks organized religion scores about 80 on a scale of 100 in therapeutic value, but near zero in truth value.”

Religion, however, remained a central theme in Plagens’ life through adolescence. When the family settled in the newly developed suburb of Alondra Park, Calif., his father organized the residents to form the Alondra Park Community Methodist Church – Methodist being the denomination of the neighborhood’s only available ordained minister.

“I had perfect attendance at Sunday School, from kindergarten through fifth grade,” says Plagens, with some irony. “Of course, it had a lot to do with the fact that my mother taught Sunday school.”

When Plagens was 13, his family started attending the more progressive First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, where “the sermons were more about the evils of Joe McCarthy than they were about anything having to do with Jesus.”

His mother, whom Plagens describes as a “get-things-done, salt of the earth” type, lost interest in churchgoing; the budding artist embraced atheism, and thereafter his father practiced Christian Science alone.

Despite his religious rebellion, Plagens was hardly the stereotypical ’60s counterculture rebel. At John Marshall High School in L.A.’s Silver Lake district, he ran with the “square” crowd – studiously doing his schoolwork, drawing in his spare time, steering clear of drugs. “I knew I didn’t want to be a radical, dope-smoking, smack-shooting lefty artist,” Plagens says. “I wanted to be a successful painter, featured in a gallery in the big city.”

But while similarly ambitious classmates talked of going to Cal or Stanford, Plagens looked no farther than USC. With the aid of a little nest-egg his mother had put by and a couple of scholarships, Plagens entered the university majoring first in English, then switching to fine art.

“It sounds kiss-assy, but I got a wonderful education at USC,” he says. “I studied real, real hard.” Living at home and working odd jobs to make ends meet, Plagens says he “painted for grades.” Yet he was determined not be a detached commuter and campus outsider.

So when two tipsy upperclassmen urged him to rush Alpha Tau Omega, Plagens eagerly embraced Greek life. Ordered by his fraternity brothers to participate in campus affairs, the young artist marched up the steps of the Student Union, handed the editor of the Daily Trojan a stack of drawings and promptly became the newspaper’s editorial cartoonist for the rest of his college years.

“I thought maybe I could be Herb Block or Bill Mauldin or someone like that,” Plagens chuckles. In time, the charms of fraternity life faded – it was expensive, Plagens says. “I didn’t have two nickels to rub together.” But the cartooning job stuck. “I loved the DT,” he says. “I so desperately wanted to be one of those ‘DT dorks.’ The parties were better, and the people were smarter. They were just more interesting than the Row was. I wanted to be sophisticated. I wanted to have a tweed jacket and a tie on, a Marlboro in my hand, and to order a scotch mist at Julie’s.”

Plagens loved not just the student-reporters’ frumpy style but their edgy nonconformity. During his senior year, Plagens recalls the Daily Trojan ran an exposé on two underground student parties then dominating campus politics. “The players in that game went on to become some of the key players in Watergate,” notes former Daily Trojan editor Barbara Saltzman ’61.

The exposé needed a powerful illustration; Plagens obliged with a series of quaint John Tenniel-style illustrations showing Alice in Wonderland falling through a rabbit hole and discovering strange underground shenanigans. “I thought they were pretty damn good,” Plagens says of the cartoons.

“Pete’s illustrations were brilliant,” agrees Saltzman, who went on to be an editor with the Los Angeles Times. “He would have had a brilliant career as a political cartoonist,” she opines, had he not opted for brilliant careers as an artist and art critic.

Echoes her husband, Joe Saltzman, the paper’s 1961 editor-in-chief and now a journalism professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, Plagens “made the Daily Trojan one of the great college newspapers in the early 1960s with his wonderful cartoons and intelligent editorial sense.” Most importantly, say both Saltzmans, he never missed a deadline.

But even as he poured his creative energy into editorial cartooning, Plagens nervously looked on as classmates he considered “serious painter-types” went off to start careers. “I thought, what am I trying to be a cartoonist for? That’s not art!”

Graduating magna cum laude with a BFA in 1962, Plagens headed straight to graduate school, thinking he could become an art teacher and support himself as a painter. Wanting to be close to the Big Apple and its lively art scene, he enrolled in an MFA program at Syracuse University, which had offered him a free ride.

“Apparently I couldn’t read a map,” he reflects, “because Syracuse ain’t spitting distance from New York City.” But it was close enough: Plagens remembers vividly one five-hour trip to Manhattan in November 1962. He and some buddies had piled into a Volkswagen and driven to Manhattan just to see New Realism, an exhibition showcasing up-and-coming artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. “I wouldn’t say I was present at the creation of the movement,” Plagens says, “but a lot of people say it was the first big show of its kind.”

MFA in hand, Plagens looked about for work but got no offers. “I discovered that I wasn’t going to be an automatic all-star right out of college,” he says. “Other artists were older, had more experience, had more chops than I did. But I was a serious artist,” he adds, unlike the variety that “liked to sit and drink in the studio more than they liked to paint.”

In 1965, Plagens landed his first art-world job as assistant curator of the Long Beach Museum of Art. Because it was a city job, and Long Beach employees were required to live within city limits, Plagens found himself residing 30 miles from the galleries of Los Angeles. Afraid he would fall out of touch and wither into “a suburban artist,” Plagens made himself drive to the offices of Artforum magazine, then on La Cienega Boulevard, and inquire about writing freelance reviews. The articles paid $5 a pop. “That would, I told myself, pay for the gas and compel me to make the trip at least two Saturdays a month.”

In time, the assistant curator job gave way to faculty postings at various institutions, from USC and Cal State Northridge to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. All the while Plagens continued painting and writing art reviews. “The inner competitiveness got to me,” he explains. “I thought, ‘Why not the lead review? Why not a feature? Why not the cover story?’”

He began writing longer works of art criticism, starting with Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast, 1945-1970. Originally published in 1974 and recently re-released, the book is generally considered the most trenchant record of post-war American art history in the West. “A remarkably large number of artists,” praised critic Hilton Kramer in the New York Times Book Review, “are accorded brief and often very sharp critical profiles.” It would go on to be a staple of art-history syllabi at American universities. Plagens produced two more books: Both Kinds: Contemporary Art from Los Angeles (1975) and Moonlight Blues: An Artist’s Art Criticism (1986). He also contributed essays to critical volumes on constructivist sculptor Don Gummer, minimalist painter Tony DeLap and Pop Art master Ed Ruscha.

In 1989, Plagens’ name came up at a Newsweek editors’ roundtable on who should replace departing art critic Mark Stevens. A lunch interview with the managing editor – to make sure, Plagens jokes, that “I didn’t have green hair and could eat with a knife and fork” – clinched the job.

The transition from academic to journalistic writing wasn’t an effortless one. The buzz around Newsweek was that “something would have to be done about my Faulknerian/Artforum prose,” Plagens remembers. “‘Chop this baby up, please!’ was a frequent note from my editor.”

But being one of two art critics writing for a major national newsmagazine (the other being his counterpart at Time) suits Plagens nicely: “I’m paid to go see art I’d gladly have paid to go see,” he says. “Who else gets sent to Holland to see the never-again Johannes Vermeer exhibition and describe how the Dutch like their boy?”

The worst part of the job? Dealing with “famous people,” with their egos and their entourages. Some notable exceptions: art historian E.H. Gombrich; Pop Art pioneer R.B. Kitaj; avant-garde painter-icon Balthus; and abstract sculptor Louise Bourgeois. Perhaps his favorite interview, however, was with British transvestite comedian Eddie Izzard: “Two of the best hours of my life,” he says.

And that’s what makes Plagens such a good critic, says Newsweek senior writer David Gates: “He treats artists as people at work, and tells us just what the work looks like. Sure, he’s enormously sophisticated about theory, but he wears it lightly.”

Adds Newsweek’s arts and entertainment editor Jeff Giles: “[Peter] is far and away the most genial, best-hearted person that I’ve ever worked with. You could ask him to do something impossible on a ridiculous deadline and he will absolutely, positively do it – without groaning, which, at Newsweek, is rare. If I could, I would clone him.” (Both editors, incidentally, mention Plagens’ orderly desk space.)

It hasn’t been easy being both painter and pundit. “I had to tell myself sometimes that I was the art world’s operative at Newsweek, and not the reverse – although that’s what Newsweek paid me to be,” he says.

Plagens, the artist, sometimes felt the backlash in the art community: “There was some resentment ... at my playing both sides of the street, so to speak,” he admits. “A byline in Newsweek does, after all, travel faster than even the most famous painting.”

Unable to solve the dilemma, he ignored it. “I just went ahead, trying on the one hand not to get to like the power a critic has, and on the other, not ‘aw-shucks-ing’ it away.”

Though many now view him as a writer who happens to paint, he would prefer to be known as a painter who happens to write criticism. (“If other people think the reverse,” he acknowledges, “I can’t claim it’s unfair.”)

In 1999, he muddied the waters a bit more with Time for Robo, a purely literary foray. Library Journal calls it “one of the most creative novels of the 1990s.... It’s rather astounding for a first-time novelist best known as a painter and art critic to write a novel comparable to those of Thomas Pynchon, Jim Dodge or Robert Coover.” Kirkus Review compared Plagens’ prose to Beckett, dubbing the book “a fitfully amusing extragalactic word salad.” His critic-colleagues at Newsweek chimed in with their own bons mots: “[W]hat you’d expect from a guy whose first Newsweek piece compared Cézanne to Ernest Tubb – a surreal waltz across space, time and cultures.”

And still Plagens paints. And writes. And paints and writes some more. It’s an affliction, he explains: “I write because I just can’t help it. I talk too much; I write too much.”

But four years ago, when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center just blocks from his Tribeca loft, Plagens had nothing to say – neither with his prose nor his paintbrush. It was election day, Plagens recalls, and he and his wife, artist Laurie Fendrich, had planned to cast their ballots after a light jog. Returning home for a quick shower and change, they heard the roar of a low-flying jet; then an explosion. The ground shook. Eighteen minutes later, the same thing again. When Plagens stepped outside, the first tower was starting to collapse. “I could see the smoke – like Godzilla – just barreling toward me.”

His neighborhood had become a war zone. About 3,000 people had died violent deaths a few blocks away. City officials searched the roof for body parts. The smell of charred flesh was unbearable. Fendrich developed a lung infection; one of their cats died. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever been through,” he says. “To this day, I still can’t look at any of the images – I just can’t stand to look.”

But with the exception of that unspeakable nightmare, Plagens continues to speak volumes in both words and brush strokes. In February, he made several appearances at USC in conjunction with his show at the Fisher Gallery. He’s looking forward to another show of his paintings at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery. In the fall, he’ll be a visiting professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. And he’s writing a new novel.

“It’s strange how you end up with what you want to be, if things go right and it sticks in your head,” Plagens muses, gazing serenely at his fastidiously kept home.

“Here I am living in New York, I live in a loft, I have this place up in the country. I’m married to an artist who also teaches. I have great kids. It’s a good life.”

Nick P. Divito ’99 is a Brooklyn-based freelancer and former editor-in-chief of the Daily Trojan.
Alpha Tau Omega at USC