What to See in New York Art Galleries This Week

What to See in New York Art Galleries This Week

Peter Plagens, now 76, has devoted most of his life to making paintings and writing about art. He will probably be best remembered for his stylish, cleareyed art criticism, which these days appears regularly in The Wall Street Journal. But persistence pays, and Mr. Plagens is now making the best paintings of his career. Like his writing, they are witty and knowing. They are also hard won, the results of more than a decade spent trying out different combinations of three or four specific abstract styles. His latest amalgam — the simplest and most balanced — is an eye-teasing sandwich of contrasting formalist strategies.

The paintings seem to begin with an allover field of semiautomatic drawing: fast and furious squiggles, loops and grids, rendered in graphite and charcoal and annotated with watery color. Most of this activity is then blocked out by a big, squarish expanse of opaque color — juicy orange, lavender-gray or deep aqua. It’s a failed monochrome with wildly irregular edges and broad bands of drawing left exposed. Plunked into the center of this field is an irregular polygon, built from six or seven shards of bright color. This passing reference to hard-edged geometric abstraction, which the artist calls a badge, also evokes the big resin paintings of Ron Davis, an avatar of the Los Angeles art scene in the 1960s, when Mr. Plagens began his career there. Finally, the borders are gone over with flat white, as if a referee were moving in and out of the action, covering drips and editing down the outlying borders of drawing to blurry skirmishes at the frayed edges of the monochrome.Like most painters, Mr. Plagens has borrowed more than he has invented, but he’s never done it with such confidence. He is fully present in these smart, glamorous, high-spirited works. They take things we’ve seen before and put them together in ways we haven’t.

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