ANYONE interested in American art, past and present, is in for a special treat at the National Academy of Design here. Three of the academy's floors have been given over to a large sampling of one of the world's finest collections of American paintings and sculptures. Half of these works have never before been on public display, and all are the property of the academy. They've been taken out of storage to celebrate the culmination of a decade-long period of revitalization by the academy. Not only has the academy, under the directorship of John Dobkin, upgraded the range and quality of its public exhibitions, it has also devoted a great deal of energy to the physical conservation of its permanent collection. Storage facilities have been brought up to modern standards and an in-house conservation laboratory, staffed by two conservators, has been established.
The manner in which the academy acquired its collection was unusual, to say the least. Founded in 1825 by a group of artists including Samuel F.B. Morse and Thomas Cole, the academy is an honorary society run by leading artists and architects. When elected to associate membership, a newcomer must present a self-portrait to the institution. When elected to full membership, a ``diploma piece'' is required.
In this manner, the academy has built an unsurpassed collection of self-portraits and independent works by a number of American artist of note from 1825 until the present.
Many of the best of these paintings and sculptures are on view in this exhibition. They range in time from Samuel F.B. Morse's 1827 portrait of Dr. F.G. King (the academy's school of fine arts' first anatomy teacher) to Wayne Thiebaud's 1985 self-portrait, ``Tennis Player.'' They include excellent examples by Asher B. Durand, Frederick Church, John Kensett, Winslow Homer, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and numerous others.
It all adds up to an important and thoroughly engaging show. After its closing at the National Academy on June 30, it will travel to Nashville; Raleigh, N.C.; Atlanta Santa Clara, Calif.; Chicago; St. Louis; and Denver over the next two years.