“The Abstract Impulse: Fifty Years of Abstraction at the National Academy, 1956-2006” at The National Academy

Pat Adams, Des Clefs (1990), mixed media on canvas; courtesy The National Academy Museum & School of Fine Arts

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The Abstract Impulse: Fifty Years of Abstraction at the National Academy, 1956-2006 examines one museum’s still evolving and complicated relationship with an idiom practically everyone else takes for granted. It’s an interesting instance of self-scrutiny, and much of the artwork on display is good or better than good. It’s a spotty show, though, and the reasons for that go straight to the heart of the National Academy and its history as an institution.

In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Marshall Price, curator of modern and contemporary art, writes about the Academy’s sometimes tempestuous relationship with abstraction. He cites perceptions of the museum as “‘that figurative place’,” a champion of traditional art-making skills, evidently skeptical of the avant-garde. In recent years, the Academy has made forays into installation and video art, but, on the whole, it treads lightly around new media, unable to shake its poky reputation altogether.

The mere notion of an “academy” may give off the stale whiff of rote endeavors. It’s worth noting, however, that the National Academy’s founding was the result of rebellion. Nineteenth-century painters—among them, Asher Durand and Thomas Cole—were fed up with moribund artistic conventions. They established the school to exhibit and elevate the status of contemporary art, and they sought to set a standard by which American art could be measured.

Of course, future Academicians, bristling under the constraints set by their elders, would inevitably mount their own insurgencies. But insurgencies can be quashed. The fabled Armory Show of 1913, with its startling array of European modernism, went off like a bomb in American culture. Fearing that barbarians were storming up Fifth Avenue, the Academy went on the defensive for more than a few years. Academician Kenyon Cox, in The New York Times, wrote that the “modern tendency is to exalt individualism at the expense of the law,” and he described modern art as “extreme” and “savage.” In important ways, he was right.

But the Academy was slow to accept the positive aspects of the modernist upheaval. It wasn’t until 1952 that an abstraction (an etching by Alessandro Mastro-Valerio) would grace its walls. It met with predictable hand-wringing. “Are we backsliding on our ideals?” irate colleagues asked.

“The twenty-first century …” Mr. Price insists, “promises to be one of advancement for the National Academy.” For now, reactionary ideals and the abstract impulse have reached a well-meaning, if inconclusive, détente at the museum.

The exhibition is divided into three sections: artworks motivated by gesture, those inspired by geometry and those devoted to “introspection,” a category intended to encourage a meditative mood. Mr. Price admits that the classifications are elastic. How anyone could reflect when confronted by Richard Anuszkiewicz’s painfully eye-popping canvas, Temple of Deep Crimson, is beyond comprehension. In the geometric section, Vincent Longo’s Untitled (1995), a gridded canvas illuminated by creamy variations on yellow and green, unfolds with quiet resolve. You want to take the canvases off the wall and switch their places.

Andrew Forge’s majestic Fragment, Roman Torso (1985-86) is a neo-pointillist tour de force. The painting is rigorous without sacrificing playfulness, and it thrives under prolonged looking. Nearby, Pat Adams’ enigmatic Des Clefs (1990) offers similarly slow-burning pleasures.

Robert Blackburn recycled and reconfigured wood blocks used for an earlier print to makeModern Times (1984), a Cubist-inspired knockabout farce. Blackburn shared an interest in Native American art with his friend Will Barnet. With Joyous (2006), Mr. Barnet, now 96 years old, revisits the pictographic vocabulary he pursued at midcentury.

If Blackburn and Mr. Barnet compact energy, Elmer Bischoff’s #35 (1978) disperses it with jittery aplomb. And James Kelly, an artist unknown to me before this show, channels the natural world at its most volcanic; his appropriately titled Hurley-Burley (1991) is a churning amalgam of Turner’s dramatic topographies, Marsden Hartley’s epic forms and, of all things, Florine Stettheimer’s acidic palette.

Sculpture is less abundant. Ensconced in the lobby gallery, Lawrence Fane’s totemicMonument (1996), a life-size poplar carving, greets viewers with intimidating stateliness. Isaac Witkin tapped into a similar vein of primitivism, but to more lyrical, lighthearted effect. His bronze Study for Eolith (1994) is an ascending stack of horizontal, bonelike forms. Despite its blunt and organic shapes—Witkin was Henry Moore’s assistant and the influence is clear—the piece radiates a casually balletic quality.

The Abstract Impulse includes a number of works by artists who deserve wider recognition and fuller accounting. New York still awaits a museum retrospective of Ms. Adams’ vast and gritty cosmos, and one of our curators could do worse than “discover” James Kelly. In the meantime, this exhibition, in a limited and perhaps inadvertent way, suggests that the standard narratives of American abstract art would benefit from revision and elaboration. As seen at the Academy, it might not be a huge proposition, but it’s welcome all the same.

© 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the August 7, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.

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