Time has a way of fading memories and legacies.
However, the Albany Institute of History and Art is trying to stop the fading process by bringing a local artist’s work to the forefront of the arts scene.
Otto Plaug (1898-2000) lived and worked out of his studio in Greenfield Center for many years, though the work on exhibit at the Institute reveals that it wasn’t Saratoga County that inspired his work early in his career, but the American Southwest.
In “Painting the American Southwest: The Work of Otto Plaug,” viewers get a glimpse of his journeys during the 1920s to New Mexico, with more than a dozen portraits of people from the Laguna Pueblo tribe. He also captured the landscape, using flattened colors and little shadowing.
The Institute recently acquired the artwork, along with many of Plaug’s abstract paintings, thanks to a gift from Albert B. Roberts (who also helped discover an oil painting by 17th-century artist Anthony Van Dyck, which was on exhibit at the Institute late last year).
“This is really a debut showing of this collection. . . . This is an exhibition to reintroduce an artist who’s been lost to history, he was not a self-promoter. It’s a way to bring back his name into the American canon of modernist artists,” said curator Doug McCombs.
Plaug was born in Germany and moved to the United States when he was a child.
“From an early age [he] developed a fascination with the American West and with the Native Americans who were still living in areas of the West. We know also when he was younger and right after he arrived here, he started clipping magazine articles about Native Americans. He was very interested, as many Americans were, in the unfortunate plight of the Native American Indians,” McCombs said.
The exhibition includes some of those clippings, like one titled “The Vanishing Red Man.”
In 1913, however, Plaug went back to Germany to pursue artistic training, first in Strasbourg and then in Hamburg.
“Germany was really on the cutting edge of modern art. Some of the best art training schools were in Germany at the time and he [had] family [there] so it made sense that he would go back,” McCombs said.
“Unfortunately, in 1917, while he was still studying there, America had entered [World War I] and because he was an American he was imprisoned for six months and then eventually released and then spent the last part of the war and into 1919 under house arrest living at his grandfather’s house outside of Berlin.”
Finally, in 1919, he was granted permission to come back to the United States. The following year, he began his first journey to the Southwest, eventually traveling to New Mexico.
“He spent about six or seven months there and really became friends with the residents of Laguna Pueblo. Portraits that you see in this series were painted in 1921 after he had spent some time there and became good friends with a number of them. In 1922, he actually had an exhibition at the Museum of New Mexico, which is now the Fine Art Museum of New Mexico,” McCombs said.
Some of those portraits are on exhibit at the Institute. In one, Plaug brings together a mother, Mrs. Leeds, and her baby. Mrs. Leeds is wrapped in a plaid shawl and is looking down at her baby, who she has wrapped in the cloth.
Unfortunately, the portraits came with little information about who these people were. The Institute noted a few of the known stories in the wall text.
In another painting, the figure looks contemplative, with his eyes cast downward.
“The gentleman that you see here in this portrait, he was a former governor of Laguna Pueblo. The few bits of information that Otto recorded about him was that he was a great guy and that he was known because he had a cane that Abraham Lincoln had given to him. His name is Trevio Kouni,” McCombs said.
Most of the portraits have plain backgrounds, with flat blue or turquoise hues. In a few, the artist experimented with patterns or more complicated backgrounds. Overall, he used flatter colors with less nuanced shadowing, even in facial features, which, according to McCombs, reflected what was going on in the art world at the time.
focus on landscapes
When Plaug again visited the Southwest in 1925, he focused on landscapes and continued in a similar style, marking a turn toward modernism.
In “Pueblo Buildings,” Plaug uses a monochromatic palette that hardly differentiates between the ground and the blocky buildings. In “Laguna Pueblo Green Tree Borders,” viewers get a glimpse of the landscape from afar, through the break in two muted hunter green trees.
With “In New Mexico,” Plaug looks out over the vastness of the landscape, with small shrubs in the foreground and jagged mountains in the background.
After his southwest series, Plaug went to New York City to study under Hans Hoffman, who is considered the founder of American abstract expressionism. He also painted theatrical designs for the Ziegfeld Follies in New York City for the Met Opera.
In 1943, he took a job with General Electric in Schenectady, illustrating manuals. He held the job for several years until the Red Scare in the early 1950s when Plaug was let go for being a member of the American socialist party. He later taught German at Skidmore College and he continued to paint abstract pieces, many of which the Institute has in its collection.
“He really was not a self-promoter, his art was really at the beginning of American modernism and he really should be recognized as an American modernist but he was never a self-promoter, always very humble and in fact, in some of the letters, he said his greatest joys in life are walking in the woods and writing poetry,” McCombs said.
Much of his later works were abstract pieces, inspired by the teachings of Hoffman. Plaug’s work was exhibited many times in the Capital Region during his lifetime, including at the Schenectady Museum. His work was also exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute.
However, since he passed away in 2000, his work has receded from the forefront of the local arts scene. With “Painting the American Southwest: The Work of Otto Plaug,” the Institute reintroduces a body of work and an artist. The exhibition will be open through July 5. For more info visit albanyinstitute.org.