Un-Hyped Academy Annual Quietly Takes the Long View

Hype is an insidious, all but irresistible phenomenon. It preys on our insecurities, our need to belong to a community, however contrived or flimsy. It’s also there to sell us a bill of goods. Hype was the sole factor explaining the crowds at the Whitney Biennial that just closed. No one visiting the Whitney expected to see art, did they?

The 181st Annual: An Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary Art at the National Academy Museum has nowhere near the buzz of the Biennial. Perhaps the venue is considered too poky—“the museum that time forgot,” as one wag put it. Susan Shatter, the institution’s current president, writes of the academy’s “loyalty to representational art,” but adds that it’s “catching up to an art world that is more aesthetically diverse.”

The academy’s recent annuals have included media other than painting, drawing and sculpture—installations, say, or anything else requiring an extension cord and a computer technician. But while new forms promise a certain frisson of hip, they can’t guarantee risk, reach or (dare I say it?) beauty.

A committee from the academy narrowed hundreds of recommended submissions down to the work of 124 artists. The result is a hodgepodge; could a show featuring so many artists amount to anything else? All the same, there are many highlights, and the best are brave and profound.

The exhibition presents a number of artists at the top of their form. Chief among them are James Little and Robert Kushner. The tumbling flora, gold leaf and glitter of Conservatory Scatter IV (2005) evince Mr. Kushner’s longstanding love of Asian art and unapologetic embrace of the decorative. No surprise there, but this is the best painting he’s pulled off in years, deftly setting material excess into motion. Color and surface have always been his strengths, but here they’re endowed with newfound density and grit. Conservatory Scatter IV alternately crackles and flows. It’s a thrilling performance.

So is Mr. Little’s Bitter-Sweet Victory (2005), an arrangement of rigorously articulated geometric patterns. Though he defines his jagged forms with the hardest of hard edges, he tempers their mechanical character with supple, warm and pleasingly tactile surfaces. The brash palette—purplish blues, light-filled oranges, sharp and velvety greens—is all the more impressive for not “popping” at the eye. (Op Art gimmickry isn’t the point.) The clincher lies in the center of the painting: A column of yellow ochre containing almost unperceivable shifts in tone and temperature anchors the composition, demonstrating Mr. Little’s coloristic know-how.

Paintings by Thomas Nozkowski, Helen Miranda Wilson, Tine Lundsfryd, Kevin Wixted, Michael Tompkins, Harriet Korman, Joan Semmel and Trevor Winkfield don’t disappoint high expectations. New to me is Ralph Iwamoto, whose acrylic-on-canvas Dominoes, Opus 27 (1987) syncopates and enlivens its grid through a seemingly infinite number of variations on an octagon. Lee Walton mines a related impulse with ink and watercolor on paper, though he’s inspired by baseball rather than geometry: 2005 World Series, Chicago White Sox vs. Houston Astros (2005) is a delightfully offhanded recording of sports strategy. Lauren Bakoian’s print, The Slow Thinker (2005), creates an enigmatic Klee-like animism from a sloping grid, the coarse grain of a woodblock, and a spare and ghostly allusion to the figure.

Sculpture is well served by the machine-shop proficiency of Richard Rezac and the lumpish vigor of Garth Evans and Matt Harle, whose untitled construction made of insulation foam, hydrostone and acrylic paint posits an intriguingly disjointed symbiosis of drawing and architecture. Sculptor Stephen Talasnik’s pencil drawing, Rococo Dream (2006), imagines structures that are equal parts roller coaster, botanical study and Euclidean fantasy. Mr. Talasnik should have a beer with Gerald Auten, whose Pencilhead (2005) exhibits a similar gift for creating astonishingly lustrous surfaces with graphite.

The number of dreadful works here is small, though the ordinary does outnumber the exceptional. And while no survey this size could consistently sustain or gratify one’s interest, the National Academy’s quiet insistence on individual vision is a better marker of art’s continuing vitality than the groupthink recently heralded at the Whitney. The half-life of hype is mercifully brief. The life of art goes on forever.

The 181st Annual: An Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary American Art is at the National Academy Museum, 1083 Fifth Avenue, until June 18.

Out of Contexts

It’s unfair to judge an artist, an ethos and a decade by an exhibition the scale of Eva Hesse: Sculpture, on display at the Jewish Museum. There have to be better ways to eulogize a “great American artist,” Minimalism and the 1960’s than an abruptly circumscribed overview of signature sculptures or pieces representative of important stylistic shifts.

Hesse is a hugely influential figure. Her investigations of industrial materials, repetitive forms and bodily dysfunction imbued the blunt severity of Minimalism with Surrealist-inspired psychological tension. They’re seen as forming a bridge between an impersonal machine-tooled art and something intimate and diaristic. Hesse’s early death—of a brain tumor in 1970, at the age of 34—imparts the awful force of prophecy to her fleshy skeins of rope and membranous “accretions” of fiberglass and polyester resin.

Yearning is her leitmotif: The sculptures strain under the dictates of anonymity and order. Imperfections resulting from material processes endow Hesse’s vessels and “skins” of latex with a wobbly fragility. The work’s plaintive character—its bathos, really—is genuine. So too is Hesse’s dogged search for art that “accedes to its non-logical self.” But mostly the sculptures are pretentious and inert.

In an interview, artist Mel Bochner stated that “there was something ‘haunted’ about [Hesse’s] work. Maybe it’s haunted by all those lost ‘contexts’ of the 1960s.” He’s right: The air of morbidity hanging over Eva Hesse: Sculpture is unrelated to her tragic death. Minimalism is the grim reaper here, and the 1960’s its partner in crime.

Minimalism’s disavowal of metaphor, of art’s ability to take on an independent life through illusion, has left a catastrophic mark on several generations of artists. Hesse was fascinated by the brutal permanence of Minimalist art, but attempted to wriggle out from under its intractable weight. She failed. The chinks Hesse put into Minimalism’s façade—by allowing chance incident, say, to augment a work’s final shape—only underscore its deadening authority. The curse of “anti-form” (now there’s a quaint bit of 60’s cant) is that it squelches artistic potential. Nihilism is bad enough; coupled with know-nothing portentousness, it’s insufferable.

In tweaking the tenets of Minimalism, Hesse mistook molehills for mountains; her work feels overblown. Sculpture that thrives upon the vitality of form either held no interest for her or was beyond her talents. A healthy engagement with the transformative possibilities of material and metaphor can redeem almost anything. There’s nothing redemptive about Eva Hesse: Sculpture. It commemorates an artist, an ethos and a time whose import are vastly overrated.

Eva Hesse: Sculpture is at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, until Sept. 17. Un-Hyped Academy Annual Quietly Takes the Long View