Thursday, March 11th, 2004

Invitational Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture at American Academy of Arts and Letters

Audubon Terrace until April 4
Broadway between 155th and 156th Streets, 212-368-5900

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, March 11, 2004

installation shot, with, foreground, Mia Westerlund Roosen Ava 2002, concrete, 13 x 80 x 28 inches, and works of George Miyasaki (left) and John Walker
installation shot, with, foreground, Mia Westerlund Roosen, Ava 2002, concrete, 13 x 80 x 28 inches, and works of George Miyasaki (left) and John Walker

It’s overdose week for the New York art world. As if the Whitney Biennial and the Armory Show didn’t, between them, provide enough miles of distraction, the American Academy of Arts and Letters has thrown another 30 artists into the mix with their annual “Invitational.” But while the Biennial and the Armory are prone to induce exhaustion to the point of despondence to those out of whack for art marathons, visitors should sprint out of Harlem’s Audubon Terrace in a state of elation.

The Academy selection is, to be sure, studiedly eclectic – truly committee work, with the competing egos of interested parties shining through. But there’s method in the madness. While the heavy hand of curatorial argument is inevitably evident at the Whitney and the invisible hand of the market at the Piers, the Academy is guided by the taste and personal allegiances of practicing fellow artists.

The Academy, chartered by Congress in 1898, numbers no more than 250 artists, writers, and musicians at any time. It does all the usual kinds of academy things: dinners, medals, the provision of funny little buttons – often spied pinned to the least likely avant-garde lapels. One might think that for visual artists in the early 21st Century, an unwillingness to exhibit in a salon would be a cri d’honneur. But artists long ago internalized Flaubert’s advice regarding one’s national academy: “Run it down but try to belong to it if you can.”

The Invitational actually brings together two Academy functions, for which there used to be separate exhibitions: the awarding of prizes, for which the 30 artists are effectively the shortlisted nominees, and the purchasing of works to be placed in museums across the country. (The Academy’s purchase grants, instigated in 1946 by Childe Hassam, are a godsend to the emerging and the eclipsed alike.) Its unabashed emphasis on painting is an antidote to the Whitney’s penchant for art that plugs in and lights up (though this year, as it happens, the Biennial is relatively kind to painting.).

The 1920s landmark buildings – one by McKim, Mead & White, the other by Cass Gilbert – occupied by the Academy are a dream for painting, offering spaces with classic proportions, sumptuous scale, and best of all (in the North Gallery) God’s own daylight. The installation has nothing of the fuddy-duddy mish-mash approach of a traditional salon hang. Instead, each work is given the kind of distance and space it would rarely enjoy elsewhere. Two brooding romantic landscapes, each 8 by 7 feet, by veteran British painter John Walker seem more august here than they did in the by-no-means-pinched space of Knoedler last year.

Robert Stuart (left) Golden Gates 2003, oil and wax on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, and Susan Shatter Sea Swell 2000, watercolor on paper, 45 x 65 inches
Robert Stuart (left) Golden Gates 2003, oil and wax on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, and Susan Shatter Sea Swell 2000, watercolor on paper, 45 x 65 inches

The beauty of the Invitational is its democracy, the way it throws together artists not just of generational difference but of contrastive ambitions and notions of what painting even is. Seeing such hot-button artists as Sue Williams and Stephen Ellis plucked from the familiar habitat of their Chelsea galleries to hang alongside decidedly uptown artists like Stephen Pace and Albert Kresch is a jolt to expectations – just what one wants from a survey exhibition of current painting.

Ms. Williams, a sometime “angry young feminist,” has evolved her figuration in recent years into a lyrical abstraction; Mr. Pace is a latter-day fauve, building up his compositions from strident dabs of warmed up pastel shades. The formalist sensibility that brings them together makes as much sense as any contextualist approach or art-world snobbery that would keep them apart.

Another refreshing thing about this show is that unexpected commonalities are preferred to obvious ones. A curator bent on compartmentalizing art would have, for instance, coupled Jacqueline Gourevitch, with her vertiginous cityscapes viewed from skyscrapers, and Olive Ayhens, with her riotous freeway-scapes distorted into a kind of fluid cubism, as if viewed through a melting prism.

Instead, the installers have coupled Ms. Gourevitch with Alexander Ross, tempting fate with the contrast of her earthy ochres and his acid greens. This lends spice to a fruitful dialogue between the two artists on the theme of oddity discovered through tightly controlled observation. Ms. Ayhens, meanwhile, keeps company elsewhere with three small, boisterously grungy canvases by the veteran abstractionist, Michael Goldberg, and the spare, steely gray geometric abstraction of Gerald Auten.

And so it goes on, in each space: The Taiwan-born Vivian Tsao, whose pulsating interiors recall a cross between Gwen John and Bonnard in their almost-mystical sense of expansiveness, suggestively complements the wave-crashing intensity of Susan Shatter, whose large, masterful, Homer-like marine watercolors pack in their aqueous energy claustrophobically. Only in the smaller but open-plan South Gallery is studied mixing up abandoned.

There, an enclave of narrative-led artists has formed around Faith Ringgold, with her autobiographical painting on quilts; Whitfield Lovell, with his antebellum history paintings; and Dawn Clements, with her nutty, doodly drawings of interiors. But it would have been more fun to see, say, Mr. Lovell’s symbolism juxtaposed with the ethereal portraits of John Lees, or Ms. Ringgold’s intensely involved, personalist hand matched to the bombastic calligraphy of Mr. Ellis. In forcing these narrative artists into a causal relationship corner, the Academy seems have had a Whitney moment.

Tara Donovan Ripple 1998  cut electrical cable  Courtesy Ace, Los Angeles
Tara Donovan, Ripple 1998 cut electrical cable Courtesy Ace, Los Angeles

Sculpture is seriously shortchanged this year, but as in previous years the cute annex space of the South Gallery is given over to an installation. Tara Donovan, up to her arte povera trick of alchemically transforming mundane materials, this time has created a spiral on the floor out of cut electrical cable, to ethereal effect.