The Painter of Modern Opera

I found out the week before last that a man I barely knew had died. I had met this man,

I found out the week before last that a man I barely knew had died. I had met this man, an artist named Carl Plansky, for the first and only time a few weeks before, at the opening of an exhibition of his paintings. Plansky, who was also the founder of the renowned paint-making company Williamsburg Artist Materials, died suddenly of a heart attack on Oct. 10 while driving back from New York City to his home upstate. He was 58 years old.

I had attended the opening because of the subject matter of the paintings, huge canvases that depict Plansky dressed as famous opera divas. They are strange but seductive pictures, seething and luridly colored, as simultaneously violent and controlled as the work of his teacher, Joan Mitchell, or, for that matter, as opera. “His two great loves were painting and opera,” said Aprile Millo, the well-known soprano, who had befriended Plansky near the end of his life.

It was through Ms. Millo that I had learned about Plansky’s work in the first place. Around the end of September, I received an unexpected phone call from the singer, whom I’d never met but whose manager I had contacted about setting up an interview. The connection was bad, the street was noisy and I wasn’t entirely clear what she was saying, but eventually I realized that she was extending me an invitation.

That night, I pieced together, she would be going to an art show featuring paintings of opera singers. She was bringing along a friend, a voice teacher and scholar who had known some of the greatest singers of the century, Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland among them. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, darling,” she purred, and wouldn’t I meet them at 7 at the New York Studio School on East Eighth Street?

One does not turn down a great diva’s “once-in-a-lifetime” invitation, so I canceled my previous plans and headed to the Village. At exactly 6:58, I walked into the school, an imposing early-20th-century building that was the first home of the Whitney Museum. Up a big winding staircase was the lobby, and to the left off of that were two small rooms in which “Sacred Monsters: Carl Plansky’s Divas” had been installed.

The opening had begun at 6:30, and there were about 20 people milling around. I realized I didn’t know what Carl Plansky looked like. But I hung around the entrance for my new friend, expecting that when she arrived, I’d be ensconced among the party’s cool kids.

An hour and a half later, I’d received a flurry of calls and text messages, but—in true diva style—no arrival yet. By that point I’d had the chance to go through the show—about 10 paintings in all—about 20 times. Avoiding the eyes of Plansky’s friends, who were looking at me doubtfully, wondering why this stranger was lingering so long, I kept my attention focused on the work.

The opera paintings, which mostly date from the mid-’90s, are massive, considerably bigger than life size. The centerpieces of the show were two versions of Self-Portrait as Monserrat Caballé. Like the other diva portrait in the show, Self-Portrait as Anita Cerquetti, the Caballé works are so expressionistic that if the titles didn’t give it away, a viewer wouldn’t know that they were really of Plansky. In both, he strikes the poses—slightly stiff but passionate and dignified—that were Caballé’s trademark. And in both, the flesh is painted a burning red and the mouths are angrily open, sound seeming to explode out of them.

The Cerquetti self-portrait is less violent. Dressed in a voluminous caped red dress, eyes closed, her hand reaches up to graze her shoulder. She is, perhaps, preparing to sing. The handling of the paint is, as always with Plansky, dramatic, but the overall effect is a burning calm. Another portrait, lighter in spirit, imagines the painter Grace Hartigan as the glamorous soprano Eleanor Steber. Yet even that basically happy, graceful painting is suffused with melancholy. More than anything else, the show evoked two midcentury worlds that have vanished: both the New York School of Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan, and the operatic golden age of Callas, Caballé, Cerquetti and Steber.

At 8:30, Ms. Millo and her friend finally arrived. I found out who Carl Plansky was: a short, round, Santa Claus–ish man with a big white beard, dressed in a black polo shirt and black pants, glasses pushed high up on his head. He greeted us warmly, but was quiet and shy as he took us over to the newest work in the show, a portrait of Ms. Millo as Leonora in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Her expression in it is epically mournful, but the painting is exhilarating.

“I approached this wonderful man on Facebook,” she told me. She was impressed by the self-portrait he had as his profile picture and sent him a message wondering if he would be willing to do a picture of her that she could display at her recital on Nov. 17. It turned out that he was already a huge Millo fan. “He loved my cheekbones, he loved my voice,” Ms. Millo remembered, laughing. Assuming his gallery gives permission, the painting will be up at Rose Hall for the recital.

Ms. Millo told me that two Sundays ago, about a hundred people squeezed into a basement studio at the New York Studio School for a memorial, at which she spoke. “There were broken palettes and easels in disarray and we were surrounded by all the accoutrements of painting,” she said. She had learned so much in those last few weeks about Plansky’s biography, including a decade after art school that he spent slicing lox at various Village delicatessens. “It’s fascinating, actually,” she said. “I hadn’t known how interesting he was.”

The speakers told the story of a passionate, iconoclastic painter who stepped away from the art establishment because he didn’t want to be controlled by it. His credo, one of the eulogies recalled, was “the only life worth living is based in salvation through individualism.”

  The Painter of Modern Opera