Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

When Academic Isn’t a Dirty Word

What is said about God also kind of applies to academies: if they didn’t exist, the art world would have to invent them. However egalitarian, hipster and anti-establishment are the aspirations of those in ascendancy, an elect is inevitable.

The Whitney Biennial, arguably, is an academy of the moment.  But New York hosts two venerable, national visual arts institutions that boast the word academy in their title: The National Academy of Design and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Their annual exhibitions don’t garner the press and attention of the Whitney, or even the raucous, spirited Brucennial for that matter, but the academies have a singular advantage over most institutions and festivals: selection processes (for invitationals and membership alike) rest in the hands of living artists.

Works by Rebecca Smith on view at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2012
Works by Rebecca Smith on view at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2012

The National Academy has dropped the confusing “design” from its day-to-day name—to its 19th-century founders, design meant disegno in the renaissance sense, but today most people think of teapots.  And it has been experiencing a veritable renaissance itself since the start of the 2011-12 season when its stunning program of renovations was unveiled.  Suddenly, the old warhorse looked sprightly.

Tomorrow (May 17) Arts and Letters, as it is colloquially called, will open its none-too-catchy titled “Exhibition of Work by Newly Elected Members and Recipients of Honors and Awards”.  It follows on the heels of the annual invitational that opened the same spring week as the Whitney.  Make no mistake, however: this is a show of artists more likely to persist in the consciousness of connoisseurs than many in the flashy, headline grabbing, portentous museum surveys that eclipse such an event.  In place of themes that professional curators come up with are individuals of quality selected by revered peers.  The award selection committee at the American Academy consisted of Lois Dodd, Wolf Kahn, Alex Katz, Malcolm Morley, Thomas Nozkowski, Judy Pfaff, Dorothea Rockburne, Peter Saul, and its chair, Joel Shapiro.

Among cash prizes of $10,000 each, to be distributed at a ceremonial at which Chuck Close will deliver the keynote address, are the Jimmy Ernst Award for a lifetime achievement, picked up by sculptor of zany furnishings and decorations Forrest Myers; the Merit Medal for Painting, awarded to Joyce Pensato; other awards to John Newman and Rebecca Smith;  prizes earmarked for young artists going to Nathlie Provosty, Elisa Soliven and Nicole Wittenberg.  The exhibition also includes artists in the invitational from whom works were purchased on behalf of American museums, among them Cora Cohen,  Suzanne McClelland and Ann Pibal. New artist and architecture members inducted this year (the academy also elects writers and musicians) include Lynda Benglis, Elizabeth Diller, Kenneth Frampton, Robert Gober and Kara Walker.

It is a matter of some pride to me personally to note artists on these lists who have also featured in the pages of this magazine, received attention at The Review Panel, or were subjects of shows that I helped organize.  I will also mention having written for the catalog of Wittenberg’s debut New York solo show opening at Freight & Volume Gallery in Chelsea next week.  Critics don’t go out of their way to cultivate academic tastes, but it is validating to find commonality with an academy as august as this one.

American Academy of Arts and Letters, 633 West 155 Street at Broadway, New York City, 212-368-5900, open Thursday to Sunday, 1 to 4 pm (closed Memorial Day)

Nicole Wittenberg, from May 24 at Freight & Volume Gallery, 530 West 24th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues, 212-691-7700

Nicole Wittenberg, The Countess 2 (London on October 15th, 2010), oil on canvas, 29 x 33 inches. Courtesy of Freight & Volume
Nicole Wittenberg