The comeback: The National Academy reopens with six new exhibitions

The treasure within

             
Fig. 8                                                                  Fig. 9

The academy's current exhibitions reveal the variety and significance of the collection. Not surprisingly, they include a host of famous names: two fine works by Morse, Thomas Eakins's late self-portrait with its Rembrandt-like sense of resignation, works by Cole, Chase, Church, Cropsey, Durand, and Sargent. Among the unexpected treasures is a tiny, explosive sunset by the elderly Hudson River landscapist Ralph Blakelock, painted on the lid of a cigar box during his last years in an insane asylum, and a vivid oil study of George Washington's head by Emanuel Leutze in preparation for his emblem­atic 1851 canvas, Washington Crossing the Delaware (Fig. 14). Here, too, is the American symbolist Elihu Vedder's haunting tondo, Jane Jackson, For­merly a Slave, painted in 1865 (Fig. 13).

Less familiar figures offer further revelations: a heroic marble bust of Morse in old age, his sensi­tively carved beard cascading down his chest like that of Michelangelo's Moses, is the work of the gifted Irish-born Launt Thompson, who sculpted Civil War monuments throughout the country. In contrast is the informality of John Koch's 1953 portrait of the late Vogue editor Leo Lerman sur­rounded by Louis XV furnishings and impression­ist works.

                               
     Fig. 13                                                              Fig. 14

Other eye-catchers include Frank Tenney John­son's moonlit Southern Night (Fig. 15) and Edwin Howland Blashfield's intensely pre-Raphaelite Saint Michael (undated). Meticulous tempera self-portraits and landscapes by N. C. Wyeth (Fig. 8), his son Andrew Wyeth, and Andrew's son James "Jamie" Wyeth exhibit three generations of the refined draftsmanship and twilit rural loneliness that have created a constant demand for their work. The tempera medium favored by N.C. Wyeth is used with similar precision but a different spirit by George Tooker in his Voice II (1972).

 

       
  Fig. 15                                                                                  Fig. 16

These contemporaneous influences repeatedly suggest a sense of community amongst the academi­cians of each generation. For instance, while Thomas Wilmer Dewing is known for wraithlike angels and spare indoor scenes of modern life, his early canvas The Sorcerer's Slave (Fig. 16) offers a nude study of a slender youth with all the complex contraposto and sinewy musculature of an Eakins. If Thomas Hart Benton's fairly late self-portrait of 1963 (Fig. 9) captures a pointed sternness not usually found in his virile, often humorous paint­ings of the New Deal era, we can see that earlier and more familiar Bentonian influence in the 1941 self-portrait of Peter Hurd (1904-1984) posed in a "ten-gallon" hat before a looming prairie rain cloud (a work not in the current rotation of the exhibition as of this writing). And the somewhat waxy round­ness of flesh and limbs we often see in American realist painting between the world wars links Isabel Bishop's 1934 Nude (Fig. 19) to both the two wist­ful young women in Abraham Leon Kroll's 1938 The Conversation (Fig. 20) and the tumbling figures in Reginald Marsh's wry Barrel of Fun (Fig. 21).

       
Fig. 19                              Fig. 20                                         Fig. 21

Whether showcasing the work of past academicians or present ones, the exhibitions underscore the re­vitalization of the academy's mission to blend its historic legacy with the central position its members occupy in today's art world. To be sure, fiscal chal­lenges remain, but with its distinctive and growing artistic community, its museum and its school, the National Academy is uniquely positioned to offer the nation a living history of American art.

 

An American Collection and The Artist Revealed will run concurrently with the following four exhibitions at the National Academy.

Parabolas to Post-Modern: Selections of Post-War Architecture from the Acad­emy's Collection reveals the academy's less familiar archive of architec­tural work. Including pieces by Frank O. Gehry, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Eero Saarinen, Laurinda Spear, Robert A. M. Stern, and Rafael Viñoly, it documents the evolution of American architecture over the last seventy years.

Contemporary Selections: Aligning Abstraction showcases the Diploma presentations of five younger academicians: Bill Jensen, Harriet Kor­man, Melissa Meyer, Judith Murray, and Stephen Westfall.

National Academicians: Then and Now traces the develop­ment of four artists-Elizabeth Catlett, Janet Fish, Malcolm Morley, and Joan Snyder-and architect Thom Mayne. By linking their Diploma presentations with more recent work the show illustrates the ongoing role they play in the development of American art and architecture.

Will Barnet at 100 is the first New York museum retrospective of this artist and instructor, who continues to be an influence in the art world today.

 

 

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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