The conservative tradition: alive, vital

It may come as a surprise to many that the conservative tradition of realism in American art is alive -- and that it is well-represented in the National Academy of Design's 155th annual exhibition of paintings, sculpture, graphics, and watercolors on view here through March 30.

It is the academy's best annual exhibition in recent memory and must be viewed by all who feel that this realistic or representational art has been defeated once and for all.

But I fear that prejudice against the more traditional forms of art will hold , and that for every thousand visitors who enter the Guggenheim Museum's doors a block down Fifth avenue, fewer than a hundred will feel inclined to enter those of the Namakeup-feational Academy of Design.

It wasn't always so. Founded in 1825 with Samuel F. B. Morse as its first president, the academy has had a rich history of encouraging and teaching art.Its school of Fine Arts, established to teach the fundamentals of antique and life drawing, had expanded its curriculum by the early 1840s to include painting, engraving, and commercial art. From its beginning the academy served as the standard-bearer for artistic quality and tradition for generations of artists whose ideas on art were often first formed in its school and then demonstrated annually at its national exhibitions.

The academy has had some rocky times, especially during the first years of this century, when its authority was seriously challenged by the urban realists and by European modernism, and after World War II, when it was ignored by the generation of the abstract expressionists.

But it survived, and it did so by redefining its conservative tradition in the light of the dramatic upheavals of recent art. This ability to assimilate whatever of the new was reconcilable with the old is very much in evidence in this exhibition. In previous annual exhibitions one felt that many of the artists had spent as much time looking over their shoulders to see what was new as they had spent painting or sculpturing. But this exhibition leaves one with the impression that much of the recent concervative identity crisis has been resolved. It is the least anxiety-ridden academy show I have seen in 20 years of attending show I have seen in 20 years of attending these annual affairs, the one that gave me the most pleasure, and the one that proves most emphatically that the conservative tradition is not only very much alive but that it is also very much on the move.

This is a show in which professional skill and love of craft are given high marks, and in which beautiful passages of paint, exquisite textural and tonal effects, and delicate intricacies of line are considered as important as anything else. With a dozen exceptions at most, the works on display are modest and unpretentious. Some reflect honest attempts to paint a figure or a landscape in the style of a favored master, while others result from intense struggles to capture precisely what the artist saw before him.

Even some of those that don't quite make it as complete statements have lovely passages of paint, color, line, or texture. Outstanding among these is Herman Rose's "A. DeKnight-My Studio," whose right third of the canvas gets my vote as the most beautiful piece of painting in the show. If the rest of the picture had been up to that section it would easily have been the best work on view.

These annual shows still adhere to the jury system, which means the shows are selected and judged by artists. At one time the notion that an artist could best be judged by his peers was extremely popular, but about 20 years ago the powers that be decided one or two museum curators could better assemble a show than a group of painters or sculptors -- and then decided the idea of giving awards for excellence made no sense.

Perhaps it doesn't from the one point of view, but an award given by one's peers, by fellow artists who have a good idea of what it takes to produce a particularly fine piece of work, is often the only recognition a painter or sculptor will receive for a lifetime of effort.

By and large the prizes in this show were well deserved, especially Charles Cecil's "Voltera, Italy," John Heliker's "Still Life By Window," Charles Pfahl's "Patters II," Marcia Bailey's "Stump Dump," Eric Isenburger's "Still Life," Gregory Paquette's "Red Potatoes," and Joan Poole's "Columbus Oak."

Of equal quality although not among the prize-winners are Seymour Pearlstein's "Room With Stairwell," Joseph Solman's "Camera," Titolo's "Argentina's, Dorothy Cochran's "California Shoreline," Karl Fortress's "Red Ball," and Robert Kipniss's "Without, Within."

On the other hand, what can one say about Aaron Bohrod's "Pieces of Action" except that it is a meaningless and pointless exercise in pictorial emptiness.

And yet even his painting looks good in comparison with the sculpture. Seldom has a more uninspired group of sculptural portraits, historical subjects, and allegorical figures been exhibited together.

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