Oral Histories

Interview of Peter Plagens

Painter. Art critic for Newsweek and contributor to Artforum, Art in America, and other publications.
Interviews not in a series, part two
Biographical Note:
Painter. Art critic for Newsweek and contributor to Artforum, Art in America, and other publications.
Moon, Kavior
Plagens, Peter
Persons Present:
Plagens and Moon
Place Conducted:
Conference room at the San Francisco Art Institute in San Francisco, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Kavior Moon, UCLA Oral History Program; B.A., Visual Arts, Columbia University; M.A., Art History, UCLA.Moon prepared for the interview by visiting UCLA Library’s Special Collections to look through materials in the Peter Plagens papers, focusing on his texts for invited talks and published and unpublished writings. She also consulted the Walter Gabrielson Papers, also housed at UCLA’s Special Collections, where she read portions of Gabrielson’s autobiography regarding his friendship with Plagens. In addition, Moon read books on art by Plagens, including Sunshine Muse (1974; repr. 2000), Moonlight Blues (1986), and Bruce Nauman (2014), as well as a selection of recent articles and reviews by Plagens in Art in America, Artforum, and The Wall Street Journal. She also viewed exhibition catalogs of Plagens’s work, including Artists & Writers and Husbands & Wives (2002) and Peter Plagens: An Introspective (2004). Finally, Moon reviewed books on art in Los Angeles, including The Beat and The Buzz: Inside the L.A. Art World (2009), Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles, 1945-1980 (2011), Rebels in Paradise (2011), and Out of Sight (2015) and read articles on major events and figures in the Los Angeles art scene from the 1960s to around 1980 in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times.
Processing of Interview:
The interviewer compiled the table of contents and interview history and supplied the spellings of proper nouns. Plagens was then given an opportunity to review the transcript and made a number of corrections and additions. Those corrections were entered into the text without further editing or review on the part of the Center for Oral History Research staff.
12 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Parents’ family background—Father’s belief in Christian Science—Father’s job at Wright Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio—Family’s move to Southern California—Living in Alondra Park—Father as a “jack of all trades” and his desire to be an illustrator—Talent for drawing as a child—Financial difficulties while growing up—Temporary move back to Ohio to live with maternal grandparents—Family’s move to Los Angeles—Mother begins working, becomes anchor of the family—Father as an avid reader and autodidact—Differences in parents’ personalities—Attending John Marshall High School—Working at Safeway after school—Receives a scholarship to attend University of Southern California (USC)—Enjoying campus life—Joining a fraternity—Working for USC’s Daily Trojan student newspaper—Becoming an art major—Art and art history classes at USC—Enjoying writing in college—Other art students at USC—Influence of Bay Area Figuration—Applying to MFA programs—Decides to go to Syracuse University—Going to see exhibitions on La Cienega Boulevard—Interest in assemblage art in California—Going to a university “back east”—Is awarded a teaching assistantship in art history—Studio visits by other professors—Almost gets kicked out of the MFA program—Faculty’s general aversion to abstract painting—Other students in the MFA program—A return to the figure in painting—Going to see the New Realists exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery—Interest in pop art—Robert Rauschenberg’s skill at design and composition—Interviewing Jasper Johns.
MFA thesis on the “development of pictorial meaning”—Moves back to Los Angeles with his first wife, Joyce Wisdom—Working at towel manufacturing company in East LA—Working as assistant curator at the Long Beach Museum of Art—Offered an instructor position in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas (UT) Austin—Begins writing exhibition reviews for Artforum magazine—Impressions of Austin as a city—Conservative administration and student protests at UT Austin—Dave Hickey—Teaching at UT Austin—Art students at UT Austin—Applying for academic leave to study for one year in Belgium—Moving to Brussels and finding an apartment—Taking a twenty-day journey by ship to Europe—Seeing contemporary art in Belgium—Becomes acquainted with Marcel Broodthaers—Going to see Documenta 4 in Kassel, Germany—Change in perception of Broodthaers’ artworks—Joseph Beuys—William T. Wiley—Comparing contemporary art in the U.S. and Europe—Pilgrimage to Bergeijk in the Netherlands—Economic animosity towards Americans living in Brussels—Social and political unrest in Western Europe—Culture shock upon returning to Austin—Making artwork and exhibiting in Texas—Getting a teaching job at San Fernando Valley State College back in LA—Henry Hopkins—Going to collectors’ homes in Dallas and Fort Worth—Houston—“Cowboy modernism” in Texas—Teaching in the art department at San Fernando Valley State College (later California State University, Northridge [CSUN])—Living in Arleta—Meets Walter Gabrielson at USC over the summer while a graduate student—State colleges become “universities” under Ronald Reagan—Art students at CSUN—Having an art studio in Pasadena—Split between teaching artists and “real” artists—Awkwardness of being an art critic and doing studio visits with friends—Writing “Los Angeles Letter” column for Artforum—Editorial incident with Phil Leider—Artforum editorial meetings in New York—Minimalism in New York vs. LA—Solo exhibition of drawings at Riko Mizuno Gallery—Working with Nancy Hoffman and being represented by her gallery—Distortion of social dealings with people as an artist who also writes criticism—Resilience of museums and established galleries to negative reviews—Reactions from artists to reviews of their work—Thinking about one’s audience as a writer.
Tension with Fidel Danieli—Other art critics in LA—William Wilson—Reviews of Sunshine Muse—Being approached to write Sunshine Muse—Revising first draft of book manuscript with John Coplans—Sense of pessimism towards the end of Sunshine Muse—Recession in the 1970s—Financial and political trouble in LA art museums—Los Angeles Country Museum of Art(LACMA)'s conflicted building history—Newport Harbor Art Museum—Dissatisfaction with LACMA’s emphasis on spectacular contemporary art exhibitions—Emergence of alternative art spaces in LA—Market Street Program—Difficulties of being an emerging artist—Robert Smith and Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (LAICA)—Museums should reform their content or structure, but not both—Running into the problem of populism at LAICA—Conflict between “art” and “democracy”— “LAICA Sells Out” exhibition—Failed art magazines in LA—LAICA’s journal—Artforum leaves Los Angeles to move to New York—Lack of tolerance for engaged criticism in LA—Schizophrenia of the LA art world—Competition among groups of local artists in LA— Reputation for being a glib critic—Trend in the art world of using inflated vocabulary.
“Emerging” and “submerging” artists in LA—Importance of socializing to further one’s career as an artist—Pressure to appear more professional as an artist—Mixing of the art scene and Hollywood crowd in LA—The Pasadena art community—Is not living in LA at the height of the “LA look”—Uneasy relationships with other people because of his job as a critic—Feeling compelled to write what comes to mind—Walter Gabrielson—Other LA artists who didn’t get enough recognition—Rise of art scene in downtown LA—Decides to leave LA with second wife, Laurie Fendrich—Teaching and writing criticism as rounding the corners of one’s artwork—“Faculty art”—Teetering on the edge of being a “submerging” artist—Ambivalence towards LA as a city—Watching film noir and reading detective novels as a child—Attraction towards modernist concept of alienation—LA as hometown and obsession with LA as a city—The “LA look” and assemblage art—Minimalism as the last “court style”—Pluralism in art in the '70s— Changes in the editorial board of Artforum in the 70s—Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in downtown LA takes the place of LAICA—Moves to North Carolina—Applies for the position of chair of the art department at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill—Recession in North Carolina—Cultural atmosphere in the South.