Friday, March 9th, 2001

Invitational Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture

American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City

Nicole Eisenman Fishing 2000 oil on board 43x56 inches, Collection of Craig and Ivelin Robins, Miami Beach, FL (courtesy Jack Tilton Gallery, New York)
Nicole Eisenman, Fishing 2000 oil on board 43x56 inches, Collection of Craig and Ivelin Robins, Miami Beach, FL (courtesy Jack Tilton Gallery, New York)

Bouvard and Pécuchet pretty much had the right idea about academies. Never miss an opportunity to ridicule them, and never turn down an invitation to join! My own “received idea” about Salon-type exhibitions is largely informed by London’s Royal Academy of Arts which every year delights ladies in tweed (plaid) from the Home Counties and embarrasses the artworld with that time-honored ritual, the Summer Exhibition. Academicians, already an odd-enough cocktail, add to the brew of their own eclecticism by opening their august walls to other talents, new or old. Nothing can be more calculated to offend a modernist sensibility than the double- and triple- hangs with a resulting visual cacophony that typify the RA Show and the comparable Salons (de Mai, d’Automne etc.) arranged periodically at the Grand Palais in Paris and indeed anywhere where exhibiting societies of yore survive. Post-modernists generally find cooler ways to overturn the applecart of modernist purism than throwing in their lot with these meat markets (though one year, as it happens, YBA Michael Landy did submit a market stall to the RA where it held pride of place under a rotunda). Anyhow, this is all by way of introduction to the totally unexpected positive feelings engendered in me by this year’s “Invitational” exhibition at the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

I don’t know what others do when they receive an invitation with thirty-eight names on them, but in a mix of curiosity and vanity I like to circle any acquaintances, and to my astonishment, when this particular card arrived on my desk I soon found a baker’s dozen of haloed names. These were all artists I admired and respected; yet in my wildest dreams I would only curate them into one exhibit as a Surrealist gesture. A sewing machine and an umbrella are more likely to meet on a dissecting table than Melissa Meyer, Chakaia Booker, Amy Sillman, and Martha Diamond to exhibit together in glorious, top-lit nineteenth-century galleries in a complex of like-buildings floating as incongruously amid the northern reaches of Harlem as the Taj Mahal in modern Agra. But that’s exactly what’s going on at the Academy’s Art Galleries at Audubon Terrace at Broadway between 155 and 156 Streets til April 1. For those of us – shame on us! – who have never ventured to this neighborhood before, the delights of Velázquez and Goya and much else await at the Hispanic Society of America next door.

Of course, the Invitational follows hot on the heels of those bazaars, the Armory and Pier shows, so New Yorkers may still have the magpie sensibility needed to extract aesthetic experience from the quagmire of overload. I should say, however, that the Academy show is installed with remarkable dignity considering the number of artists included, and the depth given to each artist. The sculptor Lucky DeBellevue is given better opportunity to do his thing here than he was in the encyclopedic “Greater New York” show at P.S.1 in Queens last year. His exquisite mesh of chenille stems in the suspended canopy The Underneath made for a magisterial entrance to the South Gallery. A heightened sense of nature versus artifice is sustained as the visitor turns left, to find, framed by an alcove, a sumptuous Ena Swansea shadow painting. The annex revealed a new artist to me: Justen Ladda, whose sensationally crafted Tree of Knowledge in glass crystal beads- knowingly, wickedly kitschy – is sorely tempting.

On a similarly lapsarian note, it struck me on this occasion that Nicole Eisenman’s slick, slippery, mannerist panel paintings of mean, muscley ice-maidens (which I had actually seen already at the Jack Tilton Gallery, but needed a second viewing to be convinced by) could be the work of Adam Elsheimer angry ex-wife, Lilith! Fishing, 2000 (borrowed from a Miami Beach collection) I have now decided is a masterpiece. The gleeful, girlish illustrational quality of this image, of a surly sisterhood lounging around in tight catsuits on Giotto-like icy hillocks and presiding over the dunking of a hapless Acteon (hoisted – literally – by his own petard) compounds rather than distracts from the intensity of the whole. Sure, this is Bad Painting with a capital B, but there is real aesthetic communication here, not just art about art, which is why, in my opinion, Eisenman leaves John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage out in the cold (it’s Nicole who really “breaks the ice”!). The tight contorted awkwardness sits well with the erotic energy experienced by painter and viewer alike in this Rubenesque paean to voluptuous girl-power. But enough… this review is about to get X-rated!

Seriously, though, you can see the problem with a Salon review. There are thirty-eight artists here, and I’d like to talk in similar depth about, say, twenty-four of them. It’s tempting to delve into the revelations that arise from the juxtaposition of artists from totally different milieus. I love the way Jacqueline Humphries’s sparse, sleek drip paintings, commentaries on, as much as essays in, abstraction are on the other side of a wall with Charles Cajori’s sweaty AbEx figural abstractions, as if to say, here are two sides of one coin. And it is interesting how, out of the icebox of Mary Boone’s uptown gallery, Will Cotton’s high-end kitsch ice-cream paintings melt into the hokey academic still lives by Nancy Hogan hanging next to them. But still, there is no group aesthetic, no zeitgeist that I’m smart enough to discern. I guess this is why there’s never an effective equivalent of Ruskin’s Academy Notes or Baudelaire’s Salon Reviews for the Whitney Biennial or the Venice Biennale, the modern equivalents of those sprawling old fixtures. So, I can’t actually review the American Academy of Arts and Letters Invitation Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture. But I certainly can recommend it.