Recently by Peter Plagens
This is a shallow post. (Well, shallower than usual from me.) I was going to post on Richard Serra and Kasimir Malevich, but my train of thought was interrupted by a weekend. And I want to talk about that, because I can't get to the greatest sculptor (I'd even go greatest artist) of the last 40 years or so and the Russian Suprematist who influenced him before I process this weekend out loud.
On Friday, Laurie (Fendrich, my wife; she's a painter, too) and I went to the theater. The tickets were her birthday present, and the play was "King Lear" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (a.k.a. BAM). Derek Jacobi acted the lead role. Now, partly for cheapskate reasons (theater is expensive and I want to make sure I get my money's worth), I like my plays dramatic (as opposed to musicals), tragic instead of comic, and overlong and overstuffed. "Lear" is perfect for me. Some knowledgeable people say it's Shakespeare's greatest play. Personally, I prefer "Macbeth," Laurie "Hamlet" and our daughter "Othello," but who are we amateurs to say?
Birthdays are a dime a dozen, and decade-turners aren't really that big a big deal. Or they shouldn't be. But waking up one recent morning to discover that I had officially entered eminence-grisehood (O.K., maybe just grisehood), gave me a bit of a start. This is a guy who (I was told by an old high-school flame at a reunion) was known among the cute girls as "The Brat." Indeed, my stock-in-trade as an art critic has always been a kind of brattiness, a glib, smart-aleck, colloquial approach to contemporary art, which was, back in the mid-1960s when I started writing about it in Artforum magazine ("the house organ for Minimalism," a lot of people called it), pretty academicized and dense. After the publication moved to Manhattan from Los Angeles, and its roster of writers grew thick with heavy-duty New York intellectuals, I became comic relief from the West Coast. When I moved to New York myself and, a couple of years later, happened into the Newsweek job, my vernacular approach to art criticism turned out to be a nice fit. (My rhetorical style is much a product of my limitations--I'm not and never have been a intellectual, a theorist, a scholar--as a conscious choice. I like readable writing and have always thought that good art criticism could be delivered in fairly plain English.)
1. A bunch of critics touting criticism. Quelle surprise. Conspicuous by their absence were novelists, short-story writers, poets, and most of all, plain ol' book-buying readers saying how much they needed it and begging critics to stick with it. The whole ensemble seemed to me like Sports Illustrated running a suite of short essays on the need for sportswriting.
2. Not exactly a great range in race, age, class and, at least to a non-specialist in literature like me, set of touchstones.
3. Nothing much critical, especially of other critics. (Or are literary critics an all-for-one, one-for-all band of musketeers fighting off--not to put too fine a point on it--amateurs who blog?) The tone was pretty much commencement-address, and kind of a snore, really.
Laura sent out an e-mail asking if any of us "ARTicles" bloggers would like to respond to the censorship situation at the National Portrait Gallery. Alas, I feel a creepy sort of onus on me, as a visual-arts person on "ARTicles," to say something. I don't think I have anything especially insightful or different to say, except, perhaps, that people ought to tell the truth when answering the inevitable, "What if it were an image of Mohammed?" question. But, for the record:
1. Once an item in an exhibition goes up, it shouldn't be taken down by a museum. (All right, if it turns out to be emitting toxic fumes--literal, not metaphorical--or is short-circuiting the phone system, or something...) Politicians' pressure to remove something from an exhibition is the sort of thing over which museum directors are supposed to resign, not into which they're supposed to cave.
When I started losing my hair, which is to say developing patches of male pattern baldness, I started cutting my hair shorter. Way short. Now, I get myself "buzzed" every month or so with electric clippers with the little attached plastic gizmo set for the shortest length. It's a step-and-a-half removed from a shaved head, a length (or lack of it) to which I won't go because I don't like the sight of my own blood flowing from a scalp wound. (I also wear a short beard--the product of getting, several years ago, some god-awful skin infection from keeping my razor for the gym in a plastic bag in the locker, not being allowed to shave while it healed under some medicinal cream, and liking the release from having to shave. Since I'm white on the top of my head and white on the bottom, many people ask me--presumably not from intellectual indicators--whether I've got my cabeza on right side up.)
Wearing a hairpiece--a.k.a. rug, hair hat, "Did something crawl up on your head and die?"--never occurred to me. Not having as much hair as I did when I was younger (thick brown hair runs in my family) never seemed a particular appearance detriment (I didn't have that much to lose), let alone a cosmetic disaster. The reason I cut my hair real short now is not to disguise the fact that I've gone fairly bald, but that combable-length hair with large patches of skin visible through the strands is ugly, like a big toe visible through the worn material of an old sock is ugly.
No, it's not just Tom Moon's kind use of the reference, "Mr. Plagens" (something I'm not too often called, for reasons inherent in this comment), that draws me to me his very good, very thoughtful, very honest post. The issue he raises is a meaty one, albeit all but rendered moot by the blogosphere. (If Huey Long were around today, his famous speech might have to be reworked as, "Every man an online critic.")
In sum, being an artist never caused me any trouble as a critic, but being a critic caused me lots of foreseeable but endurable trouble as an artist. The art world in which I grew up--way smaller, way poorer, way more ingenuous than today's--had a tradition, and an ongoing practice, of artist-critics, from Selden Rodman to Robert Motherwell to Don Judd to a whole bunch of people in what was called the "Women's Movement" in the 1970s. Practically everybody worked two jobs--artist/teacher, artist/critic, artist/entrepreneur, or, the hardest row to hoe, artist/curator. True, hardly any staff critics for major dailies or popular magazines were known to be working artists (who knew what they did in their apartments in the dead of night?), but more often than not the authors of art-magazine reviews were also artists. Nobody ever said to me, officially or not, you shouldn't be a critic because you're an artist, too.
I like voices. Not just the singing kind (among which I happen to prefer raspy, gargly male throats along the lines of Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, Leonard Cohen, and Fats Waller--not Tom Waits: too inverse-show-offy), but speaking voices. That, plus my rapidly fading showbiz knowledge (I can't keep up with the stroboscopic succession of ever-younger, ever more vapid movie actors), used to enable me to nail the voiceovers on a lot of commercials. Hey, that's Gene Hackman for--if I remember correctly--United Airlines, Lowe's and the Oppenheimer Fund. Richard ("'night, John Boy") Thomas for Mercedes-Benz was easy. Isn't that the leading man from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and any number of Lifetime Network woman-in-jep movies, doing those Applebee's commercials?
I have a harder time with female voices. Part of it's due to residual chauvinism (shared, apparently, by "the industry": they don't seem to spend the money Dolby-ing up women's voices in the movies like they do Russell Crowe whisper-growling that he's going to break his innocent wife out of prison), part of it's due to plain ol' discomfort with the higher registers, and part of it's due to the fact (actually, I'm guessing) that commercial-makers don't go in for female celebrity voices as much as they do for those of males that one subliminally recognizes. The only one I know in New York is longtime radio veteran Patricia McCann ("Hi, this is Patricia McCann...) on the AM radio I listen to for traffic reports. She introduces herself on commercials because, these days, she's known for doing commercial voiceovers--a variation on historian Daniel J. Boorstin's theme of people who are well-known for being well-known. (Another variation is "reality TV star.")
Spoiler alert: The following post of necessity reveals the endings of two old movies.
Spoiled alert: The following post is pulled from the author's hip pocket (or from somewhere in that general region), and contains almost no serious research, or even research, period. (But isn't that part of what the privilege of blogging is all about?) The post doesn't even have much of a point. (Blogging, privilege, etc.)
Each of two nights this past weekend, after a couple of grind-it-out days in the studio getting some paintings on paper done (no suffering-artist bleat intended here; I just got it into my head to finish them there and then), I wound down with old movies on TV--one on IFC and the other on TCM. The first night, 'twas the newer, the British film, "The Wicker Man" (1973), with Edward Woodward as a straitlaced mainland cop, Christopher Lee as a sinister lord of the manor who runs a pagan-hippie cult on his inherited island, Diane Cilento as a colluding earth mother, and Britt Ekland as one of the hippies. (Yes, there are a couple of quick, gratuitous nude shots of Ms. Ekland.) Wooodward arrives on the island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl who, he comes to suspect, will be a human sacrifice in the cult's rites on behalf of successful crops. (The cult is apparently a pioneer in the local food movement.)
The Museum of Modern Art will open on October 3rd what director Glenn Lowry calls "the largest and most comprehensive exhibition ever" of America's first homegrown major modern art movement, Abstract Expressionism. (Forget claims from Europhile art historians that taschisme--in English, "stainism" or "spotism"--was a Continental equal; it was puny and weak by comparison.) Since the 245 works in "Abstract Expressionist New York" derive entirely from MoMA's vaults, the performances, if you will, of individual artists, are skewed by what the Museum bought or was given. The scholarly but graphic-designy Robert Motherwell, for instance, seems to have been a fave of MoMA's inner circle and has six paintings in the exhibition, while the German emigré full-blast, push-pull colorist Hans Hofmann, who preferred running his own art school in Provincetown to kicking back at the Cedar Tavern with Franz, Bill, Jackson and the rest of the boys, presents but half that, and one of them is tiny. Still, this is a once-in-a-whenever opportunity to compare and contrast Gotham's AbExers while they're on the gallery walls at the same time. (You can do your own C&C all the way through April 25, 2011.) On the basis of a couple of hours spent at the press preview, here are my Paint-Slinger Power Rankings:
'Twas a fateful decision. When I was an undergraduate, not so much "torn" between art classes and English classes as squeezed in trying to take as many of each as I could, there were these little, one-credit, one-hour-a-week courses in individual authors. My schedule and general preference for the modern (which is why I don't know nothin' about no DWEM canon, but that's another story) presented me with a choice between a class in Faulkner or one in Hemingway. I took Faulkner, and my prose style, such as it is, has been clotted, crenulated and Corinthian ever since. I've never seen a semicolon I didn't like and, when I first signed on as art critic at Newsweek, my editor's most frequent marginalium was an arrow pointing to a particularly long, contorted sentence, accompanied by the comment, "Chop this baby up, please!"
Naturellement, my likes in recreational fiction were inclined, over the years from youth through the seven not-quite-pillars of wisdom, toward southern novelists: Eudora Welty, William Styron, Calder Willingham, Walker Percy, Carson McCullers, and others. Gradually, I came to the conclusion that in 20th century American literature there were essentially two main themes: being Jewish in New York and being weird (and, the default position, white) in the South. Although I read my share of Saul Bellow and Philip Roth (and even slogged through Henry Roth, too), I could never quite get down with the former program. Of course, it probably had to do with my being a gentile from L.A. (which is, remember, south of the Mason-Dixon line), and the fact that in my formative years (a.k.a. high school), the only adult Jews with whom I made acquaintance were parents of fellow students, who worked in "the industry," wore Hawaiian shirts, and whose only appurtenances of religion were mezuzahs worn on chains around the neck.