Peter Plagens’s exhibition of paintings and collages opens at Nancy Hoffman on January 25 and continues through March 10, comprising works of the past five years. Plagens has always been concerned with his own kind of beauty, which he terms “existential.” Others have described his work as “refined, yet boorish,” “sophisticated and inelegant” and “gregarious and loopy.”
Over the years Plagens has pursued his personal dialogue between figure- ground in abstract painting, saving some of his juiciest passages for the edges of his canvases. He hews to geometric flag-like shapes floating on a grey field, a kind of folding and unfolding origami of high color-key shapes that constitute the chroma figure that captures the eye. With a nod toward elegance, Plagens prefers different shades of grey for his ground or background as a contrast to the carefully painted colorful origami flag. The greys range from pale and cool to dark and rich, each a kind of visual foil. It is at the edge of the paintings, top, bottom, left and right that the unexpected happens. It is at the periphery of the works that Plagens turns up the volume of his music and allows gesture in paint and pencil to soar. The lines of paint seem to emanate muscle and speed as they race across and behind the grey field. There are drips, amorphous shapes, squiggles, with no concern for tidiness. The totality of Plagens’s calligraphy is a framing of the grey field that seems at once both harmonious, and inharmonious, a kind of renegade homage to gesture.
Each painting is a work in three modes: the chroma flag, the grey ground and the calligraphic gestural surround. In each of the three modes, Plagens is a sensitive and quirky colorist. The grey fields are always perfect, flat, painted in pristine fashion. The chroma flags are brilliant in palette, and impeccably painted. And the edges are wild and wooly with not a drop of perfect painting, sheer abandon and joy.
Plagens has made collages throughout his oeuvre, a nod to his literary side. He incorporates images, words, bits of flotsam and jetsam he collects from the streets or from the stalls of memorabilia and postcards that line the Seine. Plagens has been a traveler throughout his life, he picks up information in his path wherever he lands. These bits and pieces of life find their way into the collages. The collages are not narrative or literal, nor do they incorporate full sentences. Like the paintings, they are a celebration of color. Once again the edges spell freedom. The central image is surrounded by bands of color around which the artist paints a field color, always of brilliant palette, then further bands of radiating color as an inner frame. The final layer of paint, as one approaches the edge of the paper is a wash of color, a breath of air. And open space.
Peter Plagens was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1941, and graduated from the University of Southern California in 1962 with a B.F.A. degree in Fine Arts. He received his M.F.A. from Syracuse University in 1964. Plagens has been the recipient of two N.E.A. artist’s fellowships, and a Guggenheim fellowship in painting. A retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the Fisher Museum at the University of Southern California; it traveled to Columbia College in Chicago and The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio. During the fall, 2015 semester, he was Distinguished Visiting Artist at the San Francisco Art Institute, and during August, 2017, he completed his second residency, sponsored by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, at the Dora Maar House in Ménerbres, France. Plagens’s works are in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Chase Manhattan Bank, the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, the Power Memorial Gallery, Sydney, Australia, the Prudential Insurance Corporation, Tawarya, Kyoto, Japan, and other institutions. He lives in New York with his wife, the painter Laurie Fendrich.