New York — For an artist, the opinions expressed by his fellow artists about his work are often the most valuable critical comments he can receive. This is equally true of face-to-face discussions in his studio, and of the decisions made by a jury of his peers sitting in judgment on work submitted to a local, regional, or national exhibition.
At present, there are very few open-juried museum competitions in the United States, and only one, the National Academy of Design's Annual Exhibition here, whose scope is truly national. The National Academy, founded in 1825, with Samuel F.B. Morse as its first president, has always viewed its annuals as crucial to its commitment to promote quality in art.
Since I've missed no more than two or three of these annuals since 1956, I was delighted when John Dobkin, the academy's director, acceded to my request to be present during the selection of works submitted to this year's annual, the academy's 159th. I was especially pleased since this annual was open to everyone , and not only to academy members as is the case every other year.
I arrived five minutes late on the day of the jurying and found everything already in full swing. Some 1,440 artists had submitted works in four categories: painting, sculpture, watercolor, and graphics, and academy assistants (some of them students of the Academy Art School) were busily preparing them for viewing.
The jurying system was simple but effective. Each category had two all-artist juries, one for selection and another for awards. As each work was placed before a jury of selection, it was designated ''in,'' ''out,'' or ''doubtful.'' Once the initial decisions were made, the process was repeated with the ''doubtfuls'' until the judges were satisfied that only the best pieces were left.
I was intrigued by the fact that of the 824 paintings submitted, only 25 or so were immediately classified as ''in,'' and that a few of the ultimate award winners languished in the ''doubtful'' category until close to the final vote. Among those original 25 were two I particularly liked: Herbert Katzman's witty and imaginative portrait of Marsden Hartley (which went on to win a prize), and a large canvas by John Heliker (which didn't). Another immediate ''in'' and ultimate winner was an excellent figure study by Jerry Weiss, a 24-year-old student of the Academy Art School.
It was very obvious that all four juries of selection took their work seriously. Everything shown them - even a few really bad paintings and watercolors, and more than a few hideous pieces of sculpture - was treated with respect. Outright disagreements were rare, and when one occurred, the work in question automatically went into the ''doubtful'' pile to be mulled over later.
Comments by the jurors were often quite revealing. It's unfortunate that the submitting artists weren't present, for I suspect many would have benefited from what was said. It's quite an experience, after all, to spend a full day watching and listening as 16 seasoned, and in some instances distinguished, artists discuss the pros and cons of almost 1,500 paintings, sculptures, watercolors, drawings, and prints. I couldn't help being impressed, for instance, by the open- and fair-minded manner in which Chaim Gross, one of the three members of the sculpture jury, approached his task. And much the same was true of Xavier Gonzalez, who managed to find something good in almost everything brought before the six-member painting jury.
In the end, however, everyone concentrated as exclusively as possible on quality. Of the 824 paintings submitted, 89 were accepted. Of the 208 sculptures sent in, 53 passed. And of the 244 watercolors and 164 graphic works placed before their respective juries, 54 watercolors and 42 prints and drawings made the grade.
It had been, for me at least, a long and very worthwhile day, but one with very few surprises. Considering the generally conservative nature of the academy , of most of the jurors, and of most of those submitting works, it was to be expected that the final selection would reflect a predominantly conservative point of view. I for one could not have cared less. No matter how one labeled them, I had seen a number of excellent works pass before my eyes, and had very much enjoyed half a dozen or so that would have looked impressive in any show anywhere.
But even more important, I had seen a system at work whose immediate goal may have been the selection of works for an exhibition, but whose long-range objective is the preservation and advocacy of the highest possible standards of quality in art. Of course the drawback of such an emphasis on standards, on tradition, is that those insisting upon them are apt to look more to the past than to the present for their technical and formal ideals and for their inspiration. They also are more likely to judge art on how well it is done than on its imaginative possibilities. This had been a problem at the academy for a long time, but anyone who has viewed its exhibitions and annuals over the past six or seven years will have noted a dramatic change toward a much more open and less strictly ''academic'' approach to art.
The National Academy is a remarkable institution. Its potential for helping maintain a sense of stability in an art world increasingly unsure of itself, its goals, even at times its values, is enormous. But to do so it needs greater support, both from the art community at large, and from those within the academy whose perception of art is almost entirely defined by the past. The former must be willing to view the academy in the light of what it is and what it is trying to do rather than on its pre-1975 performance, and the latter must try to understand a bit more clearly that art is always a bit more concerned about what it says than about how it says it.
Now, as to the academy's annual whose selections I had witnessed. I found it not quite as good as last year's, possibly because several of the academy's most talented members didn't enter. As usual, the paintings dominate, both in number and in quality, while the sculpture section - also as usual - trailed very far behind in quality.
For my money, the best work in the show is Herbert Katzman's ''Marsden Hartley Standing Before Portrait of a German Officer,'' with John Heliker's ''Portrait,'' and Cornelius Ruhtenberg's ''Lady in Red'' (which won the $3,000 Benjamin Altman Prize for figure painting) not far behind. I was also taken by Jules Kirschenbaum's ''La Bas,'' Jerry Weiss's ''Mindy in White Blouse,'' Honore Sharrer's ''Untitled,'' and Lynn Shaler's print, ''Ansonia.''
Of the 1,440 works submitted, 238 were accepted. In my opinion, this show, while good, would have been even better had another 75 or so pieces been left out - or if a larger number of America's more adventuresome artists had entered. These annuals need more entries from a greater cross section of American art. I for one would like to see our more open-spirited artists enter them. Having watched the academy's selection process very carefully, I can state unequivocally that their work would be treated sympathetically and with respect.
At the National Academy of Design, 1083 Fifth Avenue, through April 5.