Gender Gets a Boost: Women Artists on Top

Walking through Challenging Tradition: Women of the Academy, 1826-2003, an exhibition on display at the National Academy of Design, I

Walking through Challenging Tradition: Women of the Academy, 1826-2003, an exhibition on display at the National Academy of Design, I was reminded of a conversation with the artist Elizabeth Murray that I heard on a radio talk show about eight years ago. The occasion for the interview was an exhibition Ms. Murray had organized for the Museum of Modern Art as part of the “Artist’s Choice” series. Aiming to “weave together a sense of the genuine and profound contribution women’s work has made to the art of our time,” she chose roughly 100 pieces by women artists, all culled from MoMA’s permanent collection. The moderator, having glanced on the woman-centric theme, commented that Ms. Murray must have had an easy time curating it. After all, he caustically intoned, she didn’t have to worry about quality in selecting the pieces.

To this day, I don’t know if the statement was a sly dig at prevailing art-world orthodoxy. I certainly remember Ms. Murray’s reply: a conspicuous silence. She was plainly taken off-guard, as if it had never occurred to her that politics, however well-intentioned, could hijack the aesthetic. The interview never recovered from the impasse. Luckily for Ms. Murray, whoever initially chose the pieces for MoMA had an eye for what makes art tick. The show consisted of stellar works of art; she didn’t have to worry about quality after all. Still, the whole venture left me wondering: What would Sonia Delaunay have said if you told her that the artistic merits of a painting were subordinate to the gender of the painter? She’d probably have laughed in your face. Then she would have picked up a brush, loaded it with paint and got down to business.

No one expects agit-prop from an institution like the National Academy, of course. As an examination of “women’s role over the past two centuries in the American art world,” Challenging Tradition isn’t deep or wide, but it is solid. The early portions tend to the decorous, the latter to the various. All of it is accomplished, if unspectacular. Significant artists are included, but not represented by their strongest work: Lois Dodd has been more pointed, Pat Adams more coherent, Susanna Coffey edgier. Whoever thought to highlight a material sensualist like Helen Frankenthaler with a print must have been out of her gourd.

The brightest moments of Challenging Tradition are supplied by Leatrice Rose and Anne Arnold. At first glance, Ms. Rose’s depiction of a kitchen ( Untitled , circa 1993) is blandly bucolic-that is, until the painting’s deadpan realism divulges a wry, almost cutting sensibility. As for Ms. Arnold, her Portrait of Lois Dodd (1961), bluntly carved from wood, is a miracle of economy. Plugging into the arts of Africa and rural America for inspiration, the piece emits a light that is, by turns, generous and acerbic. Ms. Arnold’s sophistication is as unadorned and down-to-earth as a white picket fence, her humor as straight-faced and droll as Buster Keaton. If the National Academy wants to extol its women members, it should reward the most accomplished of them with a retrospective. Ms. Arnold gets my vote to be first up for the honor.

Challenging Tradition: Women of the Academy, 1826-2003 is at the National Academy of Design, 1083 Fifth Avenue, until Jan. 4, 2004.

Discovering Zing

On the recommendation of a colleague, I visited P.S. 1 to check out Site and Insight: An Assemblage of Artists , an exhibition organized by Agnes Gund, president emerita of MoMA and chair of Mayor Bloomberg’s Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission. As a contemporary round-up, Site and Insight is more memorable than similar efforts in recent years; it’s certainly the most personal exhibition I’ve seen at P.S. 1. Ms. Gund’s taste in art is refreshingly low-key and blessedly independent: New Yorkers eager for big names can look elsewhere. And yet the pieces are too self-consciously reticent-too artful and knowing-to really make the grade. (The exception is Judith Glantzman and her big, murky, moppet-filled canvases.) One ambles through Site and Insight admiring its reigning intellect and hankering for a bit of zing .

I discovered zing down the hall and to the left at P.S. 1, in a show titled Art Chantry: Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 . Actually, I would have missed it entirely if I hadn’t spied a group of pre-schoolers going into the show-and then being quickly ushered out again. I hope those children weren’t scarred by the contact with Mr. Chantry’s efforts in graphic design: The work isn’t appropriate for adults, let alone the under-5 set. It’s best suited to the adolescent in us all, the teenager who appreciates a mischievous wit inspired by Mexican wrestlers, low-grade erotica, D.I.Y. punk and sundry other cheap thrills.

Based in Seattle, Mr. Chantry made a reputation creating album covers and posters for the city’s “underground music and theater industry.” His abrupt and aggressive collisions of image, color and type mines the Dadaist aesthetic for its punch, but Mr. Chantry keeps things cool at the top-he’s nothing if not professional. A fondness for the kitschy, the secondhand and the ephemeral allows him to simultaneously flout and flaunt his expertise.

This is efficient stuff, taut and slick. It can be moralistic, too: Mr. Chantry’s cover for Bad Generation , an album by the Von Zippers, suggests that in an age of too much information, people are better off keeping their mouths shut. Elsewhere, he offers a laugh-out-loud-funny endorsement of safe sex-“Condoms are … dramatically improved since your parents used them (if they had sex, that is)!!!”-and he’s never at a loss for a nasty or brutish visual pun. All of which confirms that Dada’s contribution to humankind lies less in the realm of art than commerce.

Art Chantry: Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 is at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Avenue at 46th Avenue, until Aug. 31.

Gender Gets a Boost: Women Artists on Top