Insider Criticism: Mrs. Peter Plagens Reveals All
Peter Plagens at Nancy Hoffman Gallery
January 25 to March 10, 2018
520 West 27th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, nancyhoffmangallery.com
In writing about this exhibition of eight paintings and three collages by Peter Plagens at Nancy Hoffman Gallery, I happily abandon any pretense of objectivity. My point of view comes from nearly 37 years of marriage to the artist, more than three decades of sharing a studio with him, and our ongoing conversations and arguments—big and small—about painting and its meaning. That Peter doesn’t know I’m writing this essay, and won’t know about it until after it’s published, makes clear, I hope, that I alone am responsible for any errors in description of either his studio practice or artistic intentions.
At first glance, Peter’s paintings and collages seem poles apart. At one end, we’re talking enormous, aggressively vibrant abstract paintings; at the other, restrained, elegant collages containing words and images. That said, it’s not hard to suss out that Peter is on a quest to reconcile opposites—clean and messy, refined and rough, colorful and neutral, abstract and figurative, orderly and anarchic, certain and uncertain.
With over a thousand art reviews and essays about art to his credit, Peter has probably written more words about art than any other serious practicing American artist. His art criticism is clear, jargon-free, and peppered with cheeky turns of phrases (“the shitification of the art world,” or “the calculated indolence of a road crew”), easy colloquialisms (“punches above his weight,” or “a second body blow delivered to art”), and snappy references to popular culture (in a recent review of an exhibition, he referred to the artist as “the Sara Lee of the art world”).
This rough and tumble attitude in his writing also shows up in his painting, which he’s been tenaciously going at for more than fifty years. When he slathers wet paint across the surface of a canvas, oblivious to the possibility of “mistakes,” or when he decides a color, once chosen, cannot be altered, he’s opening up his art to the peculiar beauties of randomness. Even so, he lets paint off its leash only briefly; most of the time, his work rests on deft brush handling, acute awareness of the properties of color, and close attention to detail. It’s no surprise that his favorite artists are the Flems.
Peter begins his collages by tacking a piece of paper to the floor. Next, he slowly nudges pools of different hues around its edges. After the paper dries, he places it on his table and slaps down an image in the center—a word or phrase cut from an artist’s announcement, a little snippet from a piece of paper found on the street, an image cut from a photograph or an advertisement. From then on, his task becomes one of bridging the gap between the concrete image in the center and the indeterminate colors hovering along the paper’s edges. His method is always to gradually surround the center with collaged bits of colored paper and painted abstract shapes until, like Goldilocks, he finally senses things are “just right.”
Peter’s paintings, from the start, are made on the wall. He begins by covering the surface with loose and squiggly Gorky-esque marks, letting drips fall where they may. After this dries, he applies successive layers of paint to make a large, rough-hewn shape—sometimes a neutral gray, sometimes a saturated color—that sits on the original messy ground. Last comes a geometric form, drawn intuitively and placed approximately in the middle of the painting, and divided into six or seven shapes; these he fills in with pre-determined colors. His rule in painting, as in his collages, is to never correct anything.
Peter is not a formalist. His art is an impassioned, full-blown expression of his worldview. He understands the universe to be indecipherable, unfathomable, unknowable—existentially speaking, absurd. To deny this, in his mind, would be both foolish and futile. Painting makes him feel he’s among the lucky ones, for in wrestling with the wordlessness of paint, the ineffable wonders of color, and the chance-driven associations generated by making collages, he finds a way to assert meaning. If one of his paintings or collages manages to generate a small, shivering sensation of beauty along the way, he’s fully satisfied. Blathering on about its social or metaphysical properties would only muck things up.