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Star-Crossed Painters: Laurie Fendrich and Peter Plagens

Artcritical, February 14, 2011 (read there)

A question for arcritical readers: Has a married couple ever had overlapping, solo exhibitions at separate galleries in Manhattan? Laurie Fendrich and Peter Plagens couldn’t think of one, and nor could I. If their case is indeed unique, then her exhibition at Gary Snyder Project Space and his at Nancy Hoffman Gallery, which overlap for nine days, is an item for the record books. Adding a delicious romantic twists is the fact that the overlap includes Valentine’s Day.

The two were wed in 1981 and they share a painting studio in a barn in upstate New York. There is also discussion of renovating a room in their Tribeca apartment so that she can work on her drawings and he on his collages while they’re in the city. “Actually, ‘renovating’ is too strong a word,- says Plagens. ‘Ridding of junk’ would be more accurate.- Both of them have had storied independent careers. He was art critic for Newsweek from 1989 to 2003, has received Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, and has shown with Hoffman since 1974. She is a professor at Hofstra University, writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education, and was recently the subject of a two-decade career overview at Scripps College in Claremont, California that will travel to the University of Montana in March.

They bring disparate sensibilities to their painting practices. Plagens’ work – with its gestural application and improvisatory attitude – has roots in Abstract Expressionism. The abrasions in his paint surfaces are signs of happy accident and copious correction. He resolves his disorderly backgrounds by laying geometric elements on top of them. Multicolored polygons, dubbed “badges- by Nancy Hoffman, take on the role of Hans Hofmann’s structure-imposing rectangles.

Fendrich’s work, while no less improvised, builds more slowly, in a manner recalling Cubists like Juan Gris and California hard-edge painters like Frederick Hammersley. Using oils, she glazes her surfaces into a reproduction-defying shimmer, while enclosing her geometric shapes with a painted line that takes its soft, textured character from hard pastels. The day after viewing the 1993 Seurat exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum she went out and bought a box of Conté crayons. Her drawings, also on view at Gary Snyder,are constructed in the same careful manner, resulting in a smoldering intensity.

“Laurie is the optimist who keeps Jane Austen novels and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations by her bedside,- explains Plagens. “I’m the card-carrying existentialist who thinks that the universe is held together with chewing gum and baling wire and could fall apart at any moment. My paintings reflect that sense of barely contained order. Hers assume more order from the beginning.-

But having worked alongside one another for many years, some inevitable exchange has occurred, suggesting a productive if subtle collaboration. Plagens’s works show increasing decision and clarity between 2007 and 2010, while Fendrich’s grow in contrast and whimsy. “Laurie’s paintings may have become a little more playful over the years as a consequence of my work having been around the studio,- says Plagens. Fendrich adds, “I may have prompted him to clean up his act a little bit.- But they don’t offer each other unsolicited critiques. Creative support takes the form instead of an occasional shoulder rub.

Are there any problems with sharing a studio?

“Only the music, sometimes,- says Plagens. “Laurie can listen to anything except rock ‘n roll. I can listen to anything except, well…-

“Regina Spektor, for instance,- she finishes. “I like girl music.-

“She’ll also put her iPod on the dock and set one song to play on repeat. She’ll start working, and I’ll come back into the studio a couple of hours later and the same song is still playing. I get myself out of there.-

They laugh, as they often do.

Word count: 620

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