Donna Nicholas Gallery

Joseph Plavcan (1908–1981)

Born in Braddock, Pennsylvania, Joseph Plavcan moved to Erie as a child. At Academy High School he learned from painter George Ericson, a successful illustrator whose works appeared under the name Eugene Iverd. Ericson encouraged him to become a professional artist and to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where in 1928 he was awarded a Cresson Scholarship to study abroad in Europe, an experience that was an important influence on his work throughout his life.

In January of 1932, Plavcan started teaching at Erie Technical High School, a job he held until his retirement in 1970.

A prolific artist throughout his life, Plavcan painted constantly. One of the most common recollections of former students is how he was always at work on a painting in the classroom. He also worked daily in his home studio and painted on location throughout the region, especially on Erie’s waterfront. Seeing a teacher actually painting—making art every day—was a wonderful inspiration, and a great reassurance to the aspiring artists in his classes.

During the 1930s, Plavcan actively pursused exhibitions and participated in the major competitive exhibitions of the period, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Corcoran Biennial in Washington, D.C., and the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh. As time passed, and his family grew, he put less energy into trying to have his work seen, preferring to spend his limited time on painting.

After his retirement from teaching, Plavcan exhibited new work locally and around the country, but the majority of his paintings, including dozens of portraits, as well as the landscapes and urban views for which he is best known, remains in private collections. The Museum’s collection is a notable exception, and this exhibition offers a survey of the artist’s life work.

Stylistic Changes

Driven by his response to the art of his contemporaries and predecessors, his untiring artistic inventiveness, and his ongoing quest to revise and refine his vision of the world, Plavcan’s work underwent many changes of style during his career.

Examples of his early works can been seen directly behind you on the South wall. Painted during his school years in the late 1920s and early 1930s, an untitled landscape and The Red Mill show his sense of realism. Other paintings on this wall, from the 1940s and 50s show how he continued in this style and refined his technique.

Beginning in the 1960s, Plavcan began to experiment with flattening his perspective. The painting directly to your right, Snow Cover, shows this transitional period. Some elements of this landscape are flattened, but there is still a sense of dimension.

Partially inspired by bold colors in his student Richard Anuszkiewicz’s work, Plavcan’s style changed further to include bold, flat areas of color, with subtly nuanced shades. Works on the west wall and north partial walls, including Spring Promise and Sky Above, Earth Beneath, directly left, show this new style.

Mid Century Experimentation

Plavcan’s work underwent many changes of style during his career. His untiring artistic inventiveness pushed him to revise and refine his vision of the world and to respond to the art of his predecessors and his contemporaries.

Plavcan painted in oils for the first part of his career (he also did watercolors, drawings, and a variety of prints), but experimented during the 1950s with other painting media better suited to conveying his new ideas, including tempera, casein, and early forms of acrylic paint. Plavcan’s best-known student, Op Artist Richard Anuszkiewicz, acknowledges that his own fascination with color, above all other visual elements, has something to do with Plavcan’s equally intense but very difficult involvement with that same element. Likewise, Plavcan was inspired by Anuszkiewicz’s work in the 1960s, turning from the more traditional realism of his earlier work to a new and unique style characterized by bold, pure colors.

Using the commercial artist acrylics that became available at that time, Plavcan explored this new style for the rest of his life. Bold, flat areas of color dominate in this later work, with subtly nuanced shades enlivening what may at first appear to be a simple, paint-by-numbers approach.

One visual element that Plavcan found most difficult to reduce to flat planes was the tree, one of his favorite subjects. In his treatment of trees we can most easily witness the progression of his late style. At first, he flattened the foliage into large, hard-edged geometric forms, creating little abstractions within the large composition. Gradually, the geometrics softened, the forms lost their hard edges and became expressionistic, eventually bringing him back around to something approaching a brighter-colored version of his style of twenty years earlier.