At 180th Exhibition, Academy Asks Disegno And Gets Big Muddle

tend not to be very obedient about following rules, even when the rules are established by their fellow artists; they prefer to do their own thing rather than conform to some committee directive. So it was not exactly a surprise to discover that a number of artists represented in the 180th Annual Exhibition at the National Academy Museum in New York either ignored and took considerable liberties with the exhibition’s assigned theme, Disegno, which is defined in the show’s catalog as “To draw, delineate, mark out, sketch in outline, or otherwise give visual expression to, as a conception or plan, especially for the first time, or to serve as a pattern or model for a more finished study.”

focus on artists’ “studies,” as they are usually called, is said to represent a departure from the academy’s annual exhibitions, which have traditionally been concentrated on what are described as “works of high finish.” We are thus invited to believe that the current focus on artists’ studies “offers viewers an intimate glimpse into the inner workings of an artist’s mind.”

as the outgoing president of the academy, Gregory Amenoff, cautions us in his farewell “Note” in the catalog, Disegno is “a word and concept subject to much interpretation and argument.” And as Mr.
Amenoff further wrestles with the meaning of Disegno, we’re told “it is fitting that artists disagree about such things as we are prone to resist category and classification or anything that seems to impose limits on our creative endeavors.”

certainly have no desire to “impose limits” on anyone’s “creative endeavors,”
but it’s nonetheless my frank impression that the academy has made a muddle of its Disegno exhibition by its refusal in so many cases to honor the show’s announced theme. This is not to say that there aren’t some interesting artists’ studies in the show, but rather to point out that there’s also much in the Disegno exhibition that doesn’t by any discernible standard qualify as a “study.”
There’s much, indeed, that could be better described as “high finish” works of art of very low accomplishment. And how could it be otherwise, when every artist-member of the academy is allowed to serve as his or her own critic and curator in selecting a work for the show?

a result of this muddle, the 180th Annual Exhibition often resembles many of the unlamented earlier annuals we have seen at the academy. Which is to say that the show is a large-scale miscellany of recent and current art fashions, confusions and clichés—a miscellany in which high accomplishment and dismal failure are accorded equal status. It is, moreover, a miscellany in urgent need of an independent authority in a position to reject work that falls below an acceptable standard of quality. Every artist as his own curator is a policy that has consistently failed to produce first-rate exhibitions. For it must also be recognized that the academy’s annual exhibitions have rarely, if ever, been “must-see” events in the art world.

face it: There’s a reason why “academic” is seldom a term of praise in art but, on the contrary, has come to invoke an art derived from outworn conventions.
Nowadays, this also includes a good deal of art based on the outworn conventions of the so-called avant-garde. But an assembly of outworn conventions is about the only “tradition” the National Academy Annual can now lay claim to.

the artists whose work struck me as exceptions to this dismal standard are Lennart Anderson, for his Study for “Apollo and the Three Graces” (circa 2000); Ann Chernow, for the three versions of the lithograph entitled Summertime (2005); Thomas Cornell, for his oil sketch of The Birth of Nature (2005); William Beckman, for his charcoal study for a Self-Portrait (2004); Yvonne Jacquette, for her masterly pastel cityscape, Dark Basilica By Logan Circle, Philadelphia (2004); Paul Resika, for his painting Arabesque (2004); and Daniel Bennett Schwartz, for his oil Study for “Waders” (2001). In a class of its own is the wacky and delightful watercolor study by Warrington Colescott called Fund Raising Event in a Rose Garden (2005).

Disegno: The 180th Annual
Exhibition at the National Academy Museum
was on view from May 25 to July 3, and its well-produced catalog contains illustrations of every work in the exhibition.

At 180th Exhibition, Academy Asks Disegno And Gets Big Muddle