May 14, 2009

Of the Academy, by and for Academicians
by Karen Rosenberg


The National Academy Museum has had a difficult year. Its financial troubles became the talk of the art world after a quiet deaccessioning of two Hudson River School paintings aroused the ire of the Association of Art Museum Directors. Plagued by conflicts between its board and its governing panel of artist-members, or academicians, it’s suffering an identity crisis. Many wonder whether it can afford to stay in its current home, a Beaux-Arts mansion on Fifth Avenue. 

It’s especially unfortunate, then, that there are few reasons for optimism in the academy’s show of work by members. “The 184th Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Art,” with contributions from 190 of 329 academicians, ossifies the academy’s prejudices and limitations. 

To be fair, the academy doesn’t have much in common with its neighbors on Museum Mile. Modeled on the Royal Academy of Arts in London, it brings together a school, an exhibition space and a professional association of American artists. Unlike other museums, it does not purchase art; its strong collection is made up of donations from members. 

Every other year, the academy invites its members to submit works for the juried “Annual” exhibition. (The name is a bit of an anachronism; since 2002 the “Annual” has alternated years with the “Invitational,” a showcase for select nonmembers.) The tradition of the “Annual” goes back to 1826, a year after the academy was founded. 

Juried exhibitions are hodgepodges by definition, but this “Annual” looks cluttered even by this standard. The dominant aesthetic, particularly on the fourth floor, is “more is more.” Still lifes and portraits teem with objects and props, landscapes with leaves and twigs: the more highlights and shadows, the better. 

There’s plenty of skill on display, but few original statements. Ashcan School realism, neo-Classical figuration and obvious political metaphors abound. A few works are plainly derivative of paintings by elder academy members like Chuck Close and Wayne Thiebaud (neither of whom contributed to this show). 

It’s art by and for academicians, and maybe a few other working painters and people with conservative taste. There are exceptions: John Dubrow’s “Christina” (2008), a portrait of a young brunette in a turquoise shirt against a black armchair, is a model of chromatic and compositional reserve. The painting is one of a few that should please traditionalists and contemporary-art lovers. 

The second floor looks a bit sharper, with abstraction by Joan Snyder, Pat Steir and Thomas Nozkowski. Other highlights include George Ortman’s sculpture “East of Hoboken,” a cluster of forms resembling avant-garde architectural models, and Philip Pearlstein’s painting of a drowsy model surrounded by bright, shiny children’s toys. 

Dorothea Rockburne’s watercolor on Dura-Lar “Angular Momentum” (2008) is both cerebral and colorful: it traces the path of celestial bodies in space, as described by Pascal’s geometry, with a swoop of bright orange over drips of yellow, green and white. Ms. Rockburne, who is in her 70s, is the recipient of this year’s lifetime achievement award. 

The painter Sue Coe has also received an award for “Mary,” which depicts the true story of the killing of a circus elephant. The beast hangs from a crane as a violent crowd similar to those in James Ensor paintings looks on. “Mary” is not really a departure for Ms. Coe — it’s part of a series on animal rights and the treatment of elephants — but it’s unlike anything else in this show. 

In her catalog note the academy’s president, Susan Shattner, stresses that the artists here are “in midcareer and beyond” — not the “Younger Than Jesus” crowd at the New Museum, in other words. 

Age, in itself, isn’t the problem. Many contributing members don’t show in Chelsea, which is fine. They have a different audience and a separate market. But they often seem hostile to change, and exhibit the same sort of clubbiness people often perceive in youth-oriented surveys. 

Consider Jonah Kinigstein’s artist statement in the catalog: “At one time there used to be a nucleus of the avant-garde walking in front of an army of painters. Today we have an army of ‘avant-garde’ striding in front of a handful of real artists.” 

The situation with the Association of Art Museum Directors has been resolved, for now; the academy has promised not to shore up its finances with deaccessions and will undertake new fund-raising efforts. It may also want to rethink the “Annual,” at the risk of angering some longtime members. 

Part of the problem is that the show’s mission has become obsolete. In the 19th century the “Annual” was part of a larger program designed to elevate American art vis-à-vis Europe. It’s an idea that seems laughable in the globetrotting, festivalist atmosphere of today’s art world. Even the Whitney has opened its biennial to artists born and based outside the United States. 

That would be a stretch for the academy, but it can and should reach out to younger artists, some of whom (Elizabeth Peyton, Dana Schutz) make figurative painting that wouldn’t be totally out of place here. It could also find ways to create dialogue between new works by academicians and the older art in its collection. And it might, at least, require academicians to contribute fresh work to the “Annual” — not art from 5 or 10 years ago or even, in a few cases here, from the mid-1980s. 

The “Annual” should do more than hand out ribbons; it should spark conversations. For this to happen, the academy needs to give its members something more than tradition, and the academicians need to recognize the responsibilities that come with the honor of membership.