Remember Painting?

If you’ve ever wondered what a large cross-section exhibition of contemporary American art would look like if it were selected entirely by professional artists, rather than by dealers, curators, critics or collectors, the show not to miss at the moment is the 178th Annual Exhibition at the National Academy of Design. Be warned, however-or should I say assured?-that this is not an exhibition designed to satisfy appetites panting for the so-called cutting edge. There isn’t a dollop of Vaseline to be seen on the premises; nor are there any video films, conceptual installations, computer printouts or other technological intrusions. Almost nothing is Minimalist, either. In other words, there’s little in this show that’s likely to send Michael Kimmelman into one of his periodic paroxysms of promiscuous superlatives.

On the other hand, there are many fine paintings to be seen. (Remember painting? Like, you know, oil or acrylic on canvas?) And quite a few excellent drawings and prints, too. “Mixed media” in this show is more likely to refer to combinations of watercolor and encaustic, say, than a pair of old boots attached to a discarded window frame or a monochrome canvas. A rampant nostalgia for the audacities of an antiquated avant-garde is conspicuous by its absence, yet there’s much here that’s in a direct line of descent from the most creative currents of modern painting and drawing.

Alas, most of the sculpture proves to be more problematic. But then, it’s been my impression for some time now that American sculpture is in the doldrums. Or, to put the matter another way, American sculpture has not yet recovered from the blight of Minimalist orthodoxy. Certainly the most accomplished sculpture in the current exhibition is the work of veteran talents who remained untouched by the Minimalist scourge-among them Philip Grausman, whose stainless steel portrait head, John (2000-2), is executed with a flawless purity of form; William King, whose carved pine polychrome figure, September Morn (2002), is equally flawless in its purity of gesture; and Isaac Witkin, whose carved marble Wallenberg Gate (2002) is a masterpiece of what may be called modernist baroque. Yet there’s no shortage in this show of the kind of sculpture that is, well, “academic” in the negative sense-a routine rehearsal of a moribund convention.

It is, then, mainly as an exhibition of contemporary American painting that the academy’s current annual commands our interest. With stellar examples of such well-known painters as William Bailey, Lois Dodd, Paul Resika, Jane Freilicher, Robert Berlind and Rosemarie Beck, the standard of achievement remains high. It’s interesting, too, to be reminded of both the variety and the vitality of abstract painting in the work of William Scharf, Vincent Longo, Joseph Fiore and Sonia Gechtoff, among others. In one respect, however, the selection of paintings for this annual is also weakened by a retreat into academic convention: Too much priority is accorded to paintings of the female nude. Surely the time has come, if it’s not indeed overdue, for a re-examination of this exhausted artistic practice. It doesn’t help to be reminded of the many great paintings that have been devoted to this subject in the past-both the distant past of the Old Masters and the recent past in the heyday of modernist painting. Yet the many hackneyed female nudes in the current show only serve to remind us of how far we are today from a golden age. Far from revitalizing an established convention, the current crop of female nudes suggests a need to furlough the subject until a talent emerges that’s capable of transforming it in ways that speak more directly to the social and cultural life of the 21st century.

And it’s not only by comparison with the past that these paintings of the female nude fail to engage our interest. Compared to some of the landscape paintings in the current annual-particularly those by Bernard Chaet, John Dubrow, Gilbert A. Franklin, Jane Freilicher, Philip Jamison, Wolf Kahn, Herbert Katzman, Joe Lasker, Richard Mayhew and Wilbur Niewald-these forlorn paintings of naked women are really dismal. That they were selected by a committee of professional artists only underscores the need to re-examine the entire practice.

Despite these negatives, the National Academy of Design’s 178th Annual Exhibition does have much to tell us about the current state of American art-both its achievements and its failures. Think of it as an alternative to the Whitney Museum’s Biennial exhibitions, which consistently marginalize not only painting but much else as well in favor of what passes for avant-garde audacity. Even the lesser accomplishments of this annual have a lot to recommend them.

The 178th Annual Exhibition at the National Academy of Design remains on view at the academy, 1083 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, through June 15. The academy galleries are closed on Monday and Tuesday.