Academy Annual Exhibition: one of the best in years

I'm always a bit concerned about what will turn up in the National Academy of Design's Annual Exhibitions here. In altogether too many of those of the past, art was treated as though it could only be created by recipe -- with a touch of sentiment or sensationalism thrown in for seasoning. As a result, many of these annual affairs consisted of one dull (but generally well-executed) figure study, portrait painting, landscape, still life, or allegory after another -- enlivened only by the occasional brilliant painting, sculpture, or print that twinkled in this environment like a firefly on a moonless night.

Fortunately this situation has begun to change dramatically. Last year's annual was the best of several good ones I've seen in recent years. Its overall level of quality was high, there was less deadwood on view than before (except among the sculpture), and things in general looked much more promising than they had at any time since I began attending these shows in 1956.

This year's annual (its 156th) sustains last year's promise. For one thing, the sculpture section is excellent and includes several outstanding pieces, among which are George Segal's sensitive "Blue Girl in Front of Blue Door" and Bruno Lucchesi's rather extraordinary "Woman Reading." But not by much, for the overall quality of the various sculptures on view is high, the highest, in fact, of any annual I can remember.

I wish the same could be said for the graphics -- this year's weakest category, with little of interest except for Lynn Shaler's exquisite print "Duality," Toni Herrick's delicate drawing "Stanbury, MO," and Gregory Paquette's study of "onions." Considering the excellence of today's printmaking and drawing, the quality and range of what is shown here is extremely disappointing.

But that is not surprising. As long as I can remember, the main emphasis of the annuals has been on painting. This category has provided most of the high spots of previous shows and is, one suspects, the main reason the public attends these exhibitions.

It's a pleasure to report that the general level of quality of the paintings in this annual is higher than in any other I can recall -- with fewer examples that are dull, dreary -- or which exist primarily to show off technical skills.

But while the overall quality if consistently high, and we are spared most of the errors in judgment or taste that cluttered these walls not too long ago, we also will not find paintings of such authority and quality that they automatically proclaim themselves to be major works of art. Nor will we find paintings by newcomers of such breathtaking promise that it would be no trick to forecast a truly great career for those who painted them. And neither -- largely because of the conservative nature of the academy -- do (or will) we find works of such startling or revolutionary a nature that some of our thinking would have to be modified before we could accept them as art.

What we dom find in this show is a remarkably consistent plateau of very high professional accomplishment, some very real flickerings of first-rate art, and considerable evidence that new painterly talent is as abundant as ever.

Herman Rose, in my book, is one of our very finest painters. His compact and rich still lifes and cityscapes come so close to being first-rate art that it is always heartbreaking to see him fall prey at some time or other in his work to structural or thematic carelessness. But for an error in conception, his entry last year would have stolen the show. This year's entry, "Rooftops and Still Life," while more successful than last year's, once again suffers from a basic flaw. This time it's structural: The entire right edge of the painting is ill-defined and weak; rather than giving support to the rest of the composition, it weakens it. Even so, flaw or no flaw, this painting tops everything else in the show.

I don't agree with the judges who awarded one of the show's major prizes to Karl Schrag's "sunny Woods, Small Pines and Grasses." The most I can say for this painting is that it is unflawed and powerfully done. But rather than dealing with the life and vibrancy inherent in his subject, Schrag focused his attentions on the rules and regulations of painting, and produced, as a result, a picture that is utterly professional, predictable, and "correct," something perfectly acceptable from a fourth-year art student, but not from one of our more powerful painters.

On the other hand, Lennart Anderson's "Portrait of Barbara S.," Anne Poor's "Ice on the River," Charles Pfhal's "Fallen Angels," Phyllis Herfield's "Portrait of a Young Man," Alfred Chadbourn's "Fish Market, Marseille," Mary McKenzie's "Couple," and Gilbert Riou's "Waiting" -- prizewinners all -- are excellent pieces.

The same is true of Anthony Martino's excitingly direct "Telephone Building, Roof Top," and Carl Titolo's delightful "Highway Butcher." Titolo is one of this show's younger artists -- and one of its most promising.

Another promising newcomer is Emily Barnett. Her "My Father" reveals an uncommon talent tackling a straightforward figure study and carrying it off with the aplomb of an accomplished master. it's a dazzling performance on any number of levels.

Other impressive paintings are Raymond Breinin's excellent "Self Portrait," David Kapp's "House in the Orchard," Frank Mason's "Self Portrait" (this work proves that the term "academic" need not be a dirty word), and Joseph Solman's "High Button Shoes."

All in all this is an impressive annual, and indicates that the National Academy is capable of exceptional growth within the framework of its tradition and role. it will remain on view through March 29.

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