The Academy Hedges Its Bets

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The New York Sun

The National Academy of Design, which continually provides us with great exhibitions and lectures unavailable elsewhere in the city, is an essential, thriving part of the New York art world. Its recent shows of David Smith and Jean Helion have reestablished the venue as an invaluable institution that stands not behind trends but behind art. But its 181st Annual, which opens tomorrow, suggests that the institution is getting nervous about its competitive place in the 21st century – that it is feeling a little out of step and hedging its bets.

Until 2002, the works in these biennial exhibitions were selected by a council of academicians in an open, juried format. Artists, mostly painters and sculptors, who wished to show at the Academy submitted works for consideration. But the last two biennials have been selected by invitation only, which has altered their flavor considerably.

The Academy’s last non-member exhibition, the 179th Annual, in 2004, included installation art for the first time. The 181st Annual turns it up a notch with video. What this change indicates is not that the National Academy is embracing contemporary trends and media (if so, it is decades behind), but that it is attempting to put on a contemporary face. It remains unclear whether this is meant to compete with Chelsea galleries, the Whitney Biennial, P.S.1, and MoMA, or to attract a broader spectrum of the New York art world. In the end, though, it produces a scattered exhibition that no longer has a tradition conscious center.

I have been going for years to the National Academy’s “annuals,” which used to include both academicians and nonacademicians. In 2000, because the shows were getting too crowded, the Academy decided to separate and alternate shows between members and nonmembers. The “annuals” have all had an overwhelming share of illustrative and academic art, enlivened here and there with genuinely spectacular talents. The more than 150 works by 124 artists in the 181st Annual, loaded down with academic realism and academic abstraction (and now academic installation and video), is no exception.

Certain works in the exhibition thrilled me, such as John Chamberlain’s “The Big One” (1992) and Richard Rezac’s “Untitled” (2004-05). The first – a vertical mass of twisted, painted, and chromium-plated steel that commands a curved niche in the museum’s entry hall – opens the show with a big bang. The sculpture’s zebra-striped foot plays beautifully off of the floor’s black-and-white swirled marble, and its bright colors electrify the wall’s subdued earth tones. Mr. Rezac’s work, in birch wood, nickel-plated bronze, and aluminum, is an enigmatic mobile that teasingly suggests a ship, a crane, a machine, or an upside-down table.

Other sculptures stand out, including Anthony Rubino’s abstract, ceramic hieroglyphic figure “Allegro in Blue and White” (2005), and Alan Wiener’s suite of strange, abstract, denture-like resin casts displayed in glass cases. Cathy Butterly’s goofy “Rock, Paper, Scissors” (2005), a small, freestanding, abstract porcelain and earthenware form that is part animal, part human, and part wrapped-up package with a bow, is great fun. Garth Evans’s large fiberglass sculpture “Hold” (1992-94), a blunt, recumbent, abstract biomorphic figure, is arresting, as is Matt Harle’s “Untitled” (2003), a floor-standing sculpture made of interlocking planes of foam insulation, out of which rise a loosely pyramidal, hydrostone skeleton.

The Academy, which thrives on representation, is, paradoxically, better in this exhibition at selecting abstract artists than representational ones. A number of strong works by lesser-known abstract painters – James Little, Tine Lundsfryd, Gordon Powell, Trevor Winkfield – tower over more established voices, such as that of Thomas Nozkowski.

The flat, hard-edged paintings by Mr. Little and Mr. Winkfield – who currently has a beautiful show of small paintings at Tibor de Nagy – each exert a commanding presence in their respective galleries. Mr. Little’s “Bitter-Sweet Victory” (2005), a can-can row of pointed forms in day-glow colors, holds astringent, heightened color in a state of suspended quietude and equilibrium. Mr. Winkfield’s “Her Pines, His Pineapple” (2005), a jumble of symbol, nature, interior, and object, juggles and mixes everything in the painting (pineapple, flower-face, mountains, pine trees) as if in a poetic blender.

It is difficult to know where the National Academy is heading. What is clear is that academic videos and installations are no more engaging than academic abstraction and representation. Maybe the problem lies with the National Academy’s inherent group dynamic – a scattershot, conflicting voice that could be remedied every other year, or at least brought into coherence, with a single curator.

Until June 13 (1083 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, 212-369-4880).

The New York Sun

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