Giant steps forward by the National Academy of Design

I've written before of how dramatically the National Academy of Design's Annual Exhibitions have improved over the past few years. And of how pleasant it is these days to walk through the academy's galleries after years of tramping though them searching - often in vain - for art that was both technically accomplished and creatively alive.

The academy has been pushing ahead at a remarkable rate in other areas as well. Its recent exhibitions have attracted the very highest praise, and its schedule of future shows includes several that should whet the appetite of all knowledgeable art lovers.

The academy's recent annuals, however, have been the clearest indication of its commitment to reenter the mainstream of contemporary art. Progress here has been rapid, and the distance between today's more adventuresome art and the art that appears on the academy walls, has already narrowed drama-tically.

Proof of this can be found in its current, 158th Annual Exhibition. The 92 paintings, 43 watercolors, 32 sculptures, and 25 prints on view include more good, substantial works and far fewer embarrassments than was seen in any annual since 1956, the year I first attended these events. And just as important, it includes an unusually large number of outstanding works, as well as a few that are truly exceptional.

If almost all the artists included seem familiar, it's because this year's annual was limited to members of the academy. In previous years, the exhibition was open to both members and nonmembers, with only the latter subject to a jury of selection.

This policy was changed in 1982. Henceforth, the annual will be open to everyone in even-numbered years - with both members and nonmembers subject to jury selection - and open only to academy members in odd-numbered years.

The new system worked well last year, and it's worked well this year. Rather than taking advantage of the situation to submit inferior pieces, the members obviously saw it as a challenge, and outdid themselves in submitting what they felt was their very best work.

Herman Rose, for one, submitted ''Manhattan Morning,'' and with it garnered one of the academy's top prizes. It also wins my vote as the best painting in the show. It is simple, beautifully painted, and proves again that when Rose puts his mind to it, he's one of the best painters around.

Crowding Rose for top spot are Esteban Vicente's exquisitely subtle ''Melody, '' Alice Neel's sharply defined ''Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews,'' Philip Pearlstein's ''Nude With Pattern,'' Jules Kirschenbaum's ''Kabbalah,'' and John Heliker's ''Young Man in Studio.'' Other outstanding paintings are by Robert Kipness, Raymond Breinin, Herb Katzman, Isabel Bishop, and Robert Kulicke.

Of the watercolors, I particularly liked the pieces by Richard Yarde, Clarence Carter, and David Levine. And in the graphics, my vote goes to the prints by Kiebenkorn, Milton, and Frasconi. The latter's ''Young Walt Whitman'' is an intriguing departure for this veteran artist.

As for the sculpture, the less said the better, although I did like Bruno Lucchesi's ''After Shopping.''

As usual, this annual is largely representational - but that puts it very much on the side of the ''good guys'' at this time. It also is extraordinarily technically accomplished. I haven't seen so much subtle glazing on canvas, and so much brilliant watercolor technique since, well, since the last annual.

And that's all to the good. After all, the academy is, in the best sense of the word, a conservative institution. It must do its best to conserve what is vital and good of the past, while also doing all it can to be dynamically active in the present. In the hands of its director, John Dobkin, it is doing just that.

At the National Academy of Design, 1083 Fifth Avenue, through April 23. Gonzalez retrospective

Every once in a while, a museum retrospective comes along that helps redefine what such an exhibition should be. It presents a clear, in-depth picture of the artist and his work, illuminates hitherto unknown aspects of his creative evolution, corrects misinformation, helps place him in the proper art-historical context, and dignifies his work by displaying it well.

Such an exhibition is Julio Gonzalez: A Retrospective, on view at the Guggenheim Museum here. It is the largest and most comprehensive show ever mounted of his work, and includes approximately 90 sculptures, 160 drawings, and a selection of early jewelry and decorative objects.

Gonzalez (1876-1942) is generally credited as a pioneer in the development of the welded-metal idiom, and as the father of modern metal sculpture. His influence upon latter-day 20th-century sculpture has been enormous, matching, in all probability, the influence of Brancusi during the first half of the century. Thanks to him, David Smith (who was one of the very first artists to recognize his originality and importance) was himself encouraged to attempt metal sculpture. And through Smith, Gonzalez's ideas were transmitted to artists of the following generation - most particularly Anthony Caro.

Everything about this exhibition is first-rate, from the work shown to its installation and the documentation supporting it. The Guggenheim's ramp beautifully serves to give the viewer a sequential accounting of the artist's career, from his early paintings to the iron masterpieces of his last decade. And the viewer's passage down the ramp is enhanced by a large number of excellent drawings that illuminate the evolution of certain key works, or indicate alternative possibilities.

It's a stunning show, thanks to a large extent to its curator, Margit Rowell. Unfortunately for New Yorkers, this is her last exhibition at the Guggenheim. Henceforth, she'll be serving as a curator for the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

After its May 8 closing at the Guggenheim, this beautiful and important exhibition travels to the Museo Espanol de Arte Contemporaneo, Madrid (June 15 -Aug. 3) and to the Akademie der Kunste, Berlin (Sept. 11-Oct. 30).

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