Leopold Plotek: The Instrument of a Place, Han Art 2012

Leopold Plotek: The Instrument of a Place, Han Art 2012

by Leopold Plotek

It’s a symptom of having reached a certain age that one is compelled, internally as well as by circumstance, as in the case of this exhibition, to look back along one’s trail. I think that most active artists are inclined to focus exclusively forward: to the painting left unfinished yesterday, and to the dim outlines of the one to follow. This is part of the excitement of our vocation, or at least my own: I truly don’t know what my next work will look like, what it will be, and this is both a thrill and an anxiety.

However, there’s no denying that a forty—odd years’ body of work has a reality that increasingly takes a shape. So when I was asked to look back at my work of over thirty years ago, and unwrapped a number of the paintings, I found, to my relief, that they are still intimate objects to me; that they exist in my present moment as familiars, not as aliens. I know what motivated each one, what I needed to see and to show, even what problems they presented in their making.

My earliest years of serious work after graduate school, in my first Montreal studio on the Main, were a time of trying to figure out where I stood in the stream of modernism as I had inherited it from my mentors, Roy Kiyooka and Yves Gaucher in Montreal, and Will Townsend in London. Roy had already hinted a warning, saying that he himself had worked in the faith that art was a wedge driving forward in time, and he needed to be at its edge. When he came to realize that this faith had evaporated, that there was no wedge of inexorable progress, he lost the need to struggle to its front. Roy had experienced this as a liberation, and his creative forces found other, more anarchic outlets, fed by his sense of irony and humour. For a couple of years I ignored his warning and rushed ahead to explore a kind of purified form and process which I thought addressed the problems I saw in the painting of the 60s that I admired. But Roy had been right, and I eventually ran aground. I locked the studio up for the summer and left for Italy, not knowing whether I’d ever open it again.

The pull of Italy had begun some years before and had become more and more insistent. In London I’d started to read the works of Adrian Stokes on the Quattrocento, on stone and water, on the deep links between the imagination and material. Inevitably, after Stokes, I put a foot into Freud, and soon found myself immersed. For the first time I felt that here was a way to think about inspiration and about the work of the mind that made sense to me. I began to think about form as not so much a symbolic thing, but as an embodiment of deep-rooted phantasy.

I suppose it’s not surprising, then, that Italian architecture had such a devastating impact on me when I first met it in the flesh. The bodies of buildings, their masses and hollows, the windows cut into the walls, the rhythms of the surface decorations and, perhaps most important, the way stone modulated Tuscan light and shadow, captured me completely. It would be several years before Italian painting had an equal impact on me.

Back in my studio in the fall, and without any conscious decision, I had a subject that compelled me. It was the experience of a place in time. My curiosity about painterly process or strategy as a thing—in—itself just vanished, replaced by an urgent desire to capture something of the feeling I had undergone. I needed a scale large enough to make paintings with the gravity and permanence which moved me, even when they were rooted in something evanescent like the shadow of a window—shutter on a slanted wall, or the shape of a doorknob set into a hollow bronze plate. Most important of all was the sense I now had, of the world open and filled with forms that offered themselves to be encountered and responded to at the deepest levels of my imagination.

In the decade that followed there were paintings inspired by the work of architects — first Alberti, then Luciano Laurana, later Borromini and the Roman Baroque, but also by the poetry of Montale, of Dino Campana, of John Donne, whose imagery linked itself in my mind with things, places, stories, and light. Looking back, I’m moved by the still—warm presence of these ghosts with whom I lived my life in the studio in those years. To the young painter I was in my thirties, that rich world of voices and visions was a fresh territory waiting to be made real and shaped into a gift.

by Karen Wilkin

For as long as I have been following Leopold Plotek’s work, watching him, over more than three decades, shuttle between greater and lesser degrees of abstractness and reference, now exploring the pos- sibilities of arcane narratives, now wrapping himself in insulating metaphor, each new family of paintings has seemed more powerful and more alluring, but at the same time, a little stranger and often, a little more disturbing — in the best possible way. The works in an exhibition in late 1989, for example, struck me at the time as being among his most difficult and least ingratiating to date, and just about every group of pictures I have seen, in the studio or in shows, has provoked similar responses. At times, it seems as if Plotek’s self—appointed task, over the years, has been to challenge his audience, perhaps even to test our Visual and intellectual acuity, by offering us the evidence of his own formidable intellect, probing more and more deeply into the mysteries of the art he is most interested in, past and present, while simultaneously bring- ing to bear, in purely visual terms, the effects of a lifetime’s omnivorous looking, reading, and ruminating. (It goes without saying that Plotek also challenges himself by his effort.)

Plotek’s work established him early on as a young painter to be reckoned with and, in retrospect, an- nounced many of his persistent preoccupations. His generously scaled paintings of the late 1970s were essentially geometric (albeit non—Euclidian), constructed out of clean, discrete areas of often murky, hot color. Their imagery evoked architecture or, at least, rational structures, suggesting (though not literally depicting) entrances, arcades, or the shift of light in a doorway. Those that followed over the next decade, were increasingly lush and complex, but spoke to similar obsessions. In a painting of the late 1980s, for ex- ample, a tall, slender tower-like shape could turn a dark, luminous expanse into sky, arching shapes invoked the sheltered streets of Bologna, something vaguely figure—like lurked in a corner, yet the work remained essentially abstract. Plotek acknowledged those associations, saying that he was often surprised to discover, after the fact, that the configuration he had coaxed into being on the canvas would sometimes recapitulate, without his having willed it, spaces and places that seemed to him particularly charged.

Since then, Plotek’s paint handling has become increasingly various and expressive, so that the dif- ferences between loose, brushy gestures and more restrained passages have become major carriers of meaning. But he has never abandoned the expansive scale, the uncanny invocation of place, and the simul- taneous sense of ample space and flat, painted surface that distinguished his early work. Similarly, he has remained faithful to moody color and broken surfaces that seem particularly his own but also trigger as- sociations with Old Master precursors. In the more recent works, the places to which Plotek alludes seem to be less those of an external environment than of an internal landscape with the elastic properties of remembered or dreamt locations. It is difficult to locate oneself in these pictures; space is unstable; “fore- ground” and “background” change places. Figures, gestures, even entire narratives, are implied but rarely made entirely explicit. Sometimes Plotek’s elusive dramas are enacted by fairly recognizable protagonists, but at other times human presence seems to haunt a picture rather than to inhabit it unmistakably. The paintings draw us in; they hook us with their tantalizing sense of that if we look hard enough we could unravel the confounding image before us and yet they also force us to keep our distance and consider them as independent objects.

It seems beside the point to try to classify Plotek’s recent works as abstract or even loosely figurative. They are both simultaneously, perhaps defining a new kind of picture, hors catégorie, like the steepest bicycle ascents, or like the way the best of the sculptor David Smith’s polychromed constructions fulfilled his lifetime ambition to fuse painting and sculpture into what he called “a new art form that would beat either one.” Plotek investigates an uneasy zone between limpidity and ambiguity, between autonomy and illusion. It’s a high risk proposition, but when he succeeds best — as he often does — he achieves resonant, unsettling images with ambiguous layers of associative meaning that both demand and reward sustained attention, provoking our intellects and our emotions with equal intensity.

Plotek’s titles, from the early years to the present, have invoked everything from classical mythology to Jewish scripture to obscure moments in history to the literature of several languages to Artie Shaw — an eclectic list that parallels the wide—ranging pictorial allusions of his paintings. Plotek clearly aspires to the drama, seriousness, and sensuousness of the Venetian Renaissance and the High Baroque, aspirations usually synonymous, in recent years, with Post—Modernist irony and appropriation. But he neither quotes verbatim nor updates historical compositions. Instead, he strives to re—invent — or perhaps wholly invent — the qualities of the past art that he admires in his own ambiguous language. He casts the Grand Man- ner into completely contemporary terms, filtering the highest of high art through High Modernism, but at the same time, allowing street—smart overtones to impose themselves. He seems to inhabit with equal enthusiasm the cinquecento, the seicento — he knows Italy well — and the gritty glory years of Modernist abstraction, without either nostalgia of cynicism, and without ceasing to make work speak unequivocally to the present moment.

This is, happily, unfashionable art: no cynicism, no appropriation, and no text. It’s about expressive- ness, feeling, and reason in purely visual, painterly (which is not to say mindless) terms. A peevish Toronto reviewer famous for his susceptibility to novelty once asked whether we needed Plotek’s kind of painting. The answer is a resounding “yes.” His intelligent, resonant pictures are some of the best we have.

Toronto and New York 1979, 1989, and 2012

by Ben Portis

may be another’s eccentricity. The observational abstractions of Leopold Plotek, observed in a paradoxical attitude of sincere devotion and ironic dispassion, assume both or either view, simultaneously pictures of one (or another’s) convictions and doubts, apprehensions and misapprehensions.

Plotek’s early canvases have waited thirty years and more for due recognition. He painted them hard on the heels of artistic and critical re—examinations of decoration, an aesthetic consideration until the mid- l970s considered fully extraneous to Modernism. As a protégé of Yves Gaucher, Plotek was steeped in, and considerably perplexed by, late Modernism, the reductive tunneling of which occluded the richness, variation and patterns of its inspirations. Luminescence had been a core value of Gaucher; however his paintings hummed in auras of controlled fluorescing optics. Plotek threw open his pictures to the light of day—revelatory. His paintings, whatever the ambiguity of their intentions, leave their motivations nakedly apparent.

Throughout we see imagery of conditions and settings. Many of the first consist of little more than architectural motifs. A pillar, a lintel, a cornice an arcade, organized into a section that implies measure- ment, a potential rhythmic progression into space described as a chromatic void, the picture plane, as such, just ever so tilted into the mental construction of unseen perspectival distance. A structural arcade fragment denotes its Arcadian inhabitants. These figures appear soon enough. Stare at Leporello 2'77 Dzkgr/2'56. Plotek has assured us that he lurks within the set.

Plotek easily associated his sets to the operatic realms of motivation and consequence, where life and destiny are cast by the fates and gods. Leporello is a character from Mozart’s D071 Gz'0mm¢z'. He is the servant to Don Giovanni, a lothario’s cautious, watchful shadow. Other paintings were inspired by Schonberg’s narrative song cycle Pierrot Lunaire, told by a character whose careless actions have been guided by the oblivious moon. Several more paintings are portraits of nymphs and muses, those fleeting, capricious, contagious emissaries of the gods into the human world.

The ember—and-ash tones of Ma/ataxia commemorate a little-known historical figure, Errico Malatesta (1853-1932). His unusually long life for an anarcho-communist of this era would cast a lasting influence on radical thought of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The later paintings in this exhibition show the inventive coalescence of Plotel<’s own “odes” and “poems.” T/96 52'/1g/e Peta/ed R016 exemplifies his fully-matured abstract figuration. As its title suggests, it can be viewed a i antic rolled blossom ato a stem, its outer membrane fra red and tou hened by ex osure 8 8 P } g . P and experience, protecting a still tender core. Yet it really is two figures, a once cynical, noticeably softened parent embracing the freshness of his child, one to another.

Toronto, August 2012  

This catalogue wass published for the exhibition of Leopold Plotek’s works at Han Art Gallery, Montreal, Canada.

Leopold Plotek in his studio / Leopold Plotek dans son atelier

Leopold Plotek in his studio / Leopold Plotek dans son atelier

Le présent catalogue est publié à l’occasion des expositions d’oeuvres de Leopold
Plotek à la Galerie Han Art, Montréal, Canada

A line from Hart Crane, author of “The Bridge,” to whom
I’d been introduced by the wonderful Montreal poet Peter
Van Toorn, a great friend and a decisive influence on my
stance toward work. Van Toorn’s absolute devotion to his
art, his willingness to take infinite pains to achieve form,
has been a lifelong example.
Back Cover: The Plough and the Stars
1989 66” x 78” Oil on canvas
The name of an early Irish flag, associated with the Easter
Rebellion, and dedicated to the memory of a friend in
London. I was clearly going through one of my periodic
bouts of struggle with cubism, to which I am still liable
P.05 Eine Blasse Wascherin
1979 70” x 78” Oil on canvas
Based on a flash-memory of a mileage marker, driving
somewhere in Umbria.
P.07 Sun, rose, smoke, limb
1980 72” x 87” Oil on canvas
The lantern at the top of the Florence Duomo at dusk
through the polluted summer air
P.11 The Single Petaled Rose
1986 73” x 73” Oil on canvas
Named for my daughter, and drawn initially from a sketch
of a café-table in Venice.
P.13 What’s the Spanish Word for Hombre
1987 70-1/2” x 80” Oil on canvas
A little bronze object grown to monumental scale, as in
Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar.”
P.15 The Winners’ Circle
1989-90 72” x 80” Oil on canvas
An early critic was of the opinion that, having got out of
the gate fast in the career horse-race, I soon took a wrong
turn and was out of the running. Here I was, trying to
turn lugubrious stonework into something with the joyous
looseness of a Picasso collage of the teens.
P.16 Veglio, Penso, Ardo, Piango
1980 72” x 89” Oil on canvas
A line from Petrarch: “I watch, I think, I burn, I weep.”
The line had been inlaid into the inside-lid of a harpsichord
I once saw. The shapes had to do with brilliant light
bursting from behind a half-closed door.
P.17 Parva Regina
1978 50” x 76” Oil on canvas
“The Little Queen” was dedicated to Amy Goldin, a New
York critic with whom I’d had a number of enlightening
talks about the relation of painting to decoration.
P.18 Il Frullino
1979 63” x 89” Oil on canvas
Il Frullino: The name of a villa outside Florence which I
saw at twilight with a storm threatening: the gate into a
Green Theatre.
P.20 Leporello in Disguise
1979 51” x 91” Oil on canvas
Don Giovanni’s trusted manservant, nowhere to be seen
down shaded corridors, but always just a step away.
P.21 Morning, Sea, Meteor
1981 59” x 89” Oil on canvas
This work is influenced by Rilke, one of the Sonnets to
Orpheus, I think, - a “swoosh” with an occluded shadow.
P.22 Enthauptung
1978 72” x 93” Oil on canvas
Drawn from a buttress on an old house in Assisi.
P.23 Demon in American Shoes
1981 72” x 79” Oil on canvas
A line from Mayakowsky: something at once formal and
funny, as the poet often managed to be.
P.24 Tribune
1980 72” x 84” Oil on canvas
The simplest distillation of what had begun as a very complex
painting; I had to stop myself before it disappeared
List of Work s with Note s by the Arti st
P.25 La Fontaine des Aveugles
1981 72” x 78” Oil on canvas
The well at which Melisande, with Pelleas, loses her ring.
Drawn from a Venetian cistern-head covered by a bronze
dome with a big lock.
P.26 Trefle
1982 71” x 79” Oil on canvas
and P.33 Trefle de la Passion
1983 76” x 102” Oil on canvas
Two variations improvised from Gothic trefoil-windows.
P.28 Eros and Psyche
1982 72” x 97” Oil on canvas
The one complex shape in this work is taken from, of all
things, the decorated music stands used in the 30’s by the
Ellington orchestra. Here it becomes one of the pair of
unwilling but forever-joined personae of the title.
P.30 Castalia
1984 79” x 71” Oil on canvas
One of several paintings named for the four sacred springs
of the Greco-Roman world. I’ve now visited two of them.
P.31 Mondestrunken
1978 71” x 102” Oil on canvas
“Moondrunk” is the first and biggest work of the Pierrot
Lunaire series. I was obsessively listening to the Robert
Craft recording of the Schoenberg song-cycle, with its
atonal intervals making for spooky distances. The shapes
here are taken from a barrel-vaulted arcade, but turned
into a kind of inverted perspective by isolating them on
an unyielding ground.
P.32 Columbine
1978 71” x 94” Oil on canvas
This refers to a character in Pierrot Lunaire, the girl with
whom Pierrot is in love. I was clearly dominated, here, by
Matisse and Ellsworth Kelly, and trying to turn my servitude
to some living advantage.
P.34 Mneme
1984 72” x 98” Oil on canvas
One of the super-muses surrounding Apollo, who is
chiefly concerned with memory. This is an evocation of
burning noonday sun and shade, and a shard of brilliant
P.35 Malatesta
1981 72” x 78” Oil on canvas
The title refers to the great figure of the Italian left, and
namesake of the lord of Renaissance Rimini. The moral
distance between martyr and tyrant is the ground of devotion.
P.36 Heimweh
1984 71” x 96” Oil on canvas
from the last of the Pierrot Lunaire series: “The Way
P.37 Esqire Swank
1984 69” x 90” Oil on canvas
From an Ellington song - How far could I go with an
almost silly piece of bad gestalt and still make something
whole and alive out of it?
P.39 The Lighthouse invites the Storm
1982 71” x 90” Oil on canvas
A line from one of Malcolm Lowry’s marine sonnets:
“The Lighthouse invites the storm, and lights it,” –the last
phrase is brilliant, a lifting of obscurity, and a perfect description
of the grace of inspiration.
P.40 Fevershot
1985 68” x 72” Oil on canvas
The work is based on a sketch of an antique capital used
for a well-head, in an obscure campo in Venice.
P.41 Au Cafe Mazzara
1985 72” x 78” Oil on canvas
The Sicilian café where Lampedusa wrote The Leopard,
being obliged to leave home each day to allow his wife,
a psychoanalyst, to see patients in the house. Mazzara at
night becomes a kind of living film-noir set.
P.42 Patience on a Monument
1986 78” x 72” Oil on canvas
The title is from Shakespeare. One of several paintings
inspired by seeing the interior of Brancusi’s studio preserved
in Paris. For a time, his Le Coq was my absolutely
favourite work of modernism.