Ariel Plotek sits with his cup of coffee on the shaded west side of Giuseppe’s Sculpture Court Cafe. With his fitted linen shirt, mustache, and shades tucked neatly into his collar, you might think he’s fresh out of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, or some hip arrondissement of Paris. But like Charles Reiffel, the artist he has been researching for the past two years, Plotek came to San Diego to make his mark in a community that’s far from the more concentrated artist circles in New York and Europe.
“There are certain things that are more easily done when you are out of the center than when you are in it,” Plotek says. He studied in London and earned his doctorate from New York’s Institute of Fine Arts before moving to California. He is now assistant curator at the San Diego Museum of Art.
“Having lived in New York, there’s a sort of myopia that sets in, and it’s actually very provincial to be focused on one’s own place. Maybe being aware of where you are is a healthier state of affairs than to believe that the world revolves around you and your scene. I don’t think anyone in San Diego really believes that — and that’s all right.”
As Plotek talks, I wish that Reiffel were here to offer his perspective on San Diego’s art community as it was 80 years ago, when he was one of the region’s most acclaimed visual artists. A leader of the California plein-air school of painting, Reiffel was dubbed by some critics as “America’s Van Gogh.” Reiffel used vivid colors and expressive brush strokes for his popular landscapes.
Plotek is part of a team of scholars that has been researching and writing about Reiffel for a joint exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art and the San Diego History Center. “Charles Reiffel: An American Post-Impressionist” opens Saturday in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth.
It was the lure of a dramatically different landscape and the brotherhood of another community of artists that led Reiffel to leave the East Coast during the peak of his success. He found a new, stimulating environment in Southern California, but his move did not help him commercially or critically. Plotek explains this period of Reiffel’s life as he makes this transition in the 1920s: “He’s in Connecticut, at his peak and beginning to get real national recognition, and finds himself here in California where collectors and critics are more conservative. They find him to be too modern for their taste.”
And while Reiffel continued to exhibit in the 1920s and 30s (including a show at the Fine Arts Gallery, now the San Diego Museum of Art), he was removed from the international scene. “It was sort of out of sight, out of mind,” Plotek says.
During the Great Depression, Reiffel’s scope of work broadened in large part out of necessity. Works included in the exhibition reflect his various pursuits: the murals he created through a commission from the Works Progress Administration and wax crayon drawings from his days teaching art in county schools.
“The trick was that he warmed up the crayons first to blend the colors more easily, treating it more like pastel,” Plotek says. “They’re actually pretty remarkable.”
It’s a season of American art in Balboa Park. The November opening of “Charles Reiffel: A Post-Impressionist America” coincides with the launch of “Behold, America!”, another collaborative project of the Museum of Art, this one with the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the Timken Museum of Art.
Plotek’s expertise is modern European art, particularly French art of the 19th century; two years ago, he curated the exhibition “Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris.” With the Museum of Art’s resident American art expert Amy Galpin consumed with the “Behold, America!” show, Plotek had the opportunity to immerse himself in American art and in the exchange of ideas across the Atlantic.
“I looked at these patterns of influence. It was not something I had worked very much on before, except insofar as Americans were exiling themselves to Europe to join the School of Paris. Reiffel doesn’t do this.”
“Partly what Reiffel found here was a landscape that was very congenial to his art. It’s the thing so many of us appreciate about San Diego County: the mountains and backcountry on one side and the ocean on the other. He takes full advantage of that as a painter of landscape.”
Hear more from Plotek during Nov. 15 or Dec. 6 lunchtime talks (free with museum admission). He will also join Bram Dijkstra and Keith Colestock in a round-table discussion at 7 p.m. Dec. 13. ($7 members, students, seniors and military; $10 nonmembers).