There aren’t a whole lot of arts venues waaaay uptown that can convince people to venture up to 156th Street (which is downtown for some of us), but the 109-year-old American Academy of Arts & Letters alone more than justifies the trip. It’s an exceptional institution in a special setting, currently presenting an exhibition of particular merit. In substance and spirit, the Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts at AAA&L, proved to be the perfect antidote to the surfeit and frenzy of the recent glut of art fairs in NYC.
The show, on view until April 1, 2007, consists 86 paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, photographs, and other works on paper by 34 contemporary artists. Academy members, an elite society of 250 of America’s most eminent artists, architects, writers, composers, initially nominated 150 artists for the exhibition, and a selection committee then decided upon the exhibiting artists. (For what it’s worth, in a nod to Rebel Belle & Edna over at Anonymous Female Artist, I’ll note that 20 of the 81 Academy members in the Visual Arts incredibly do not have penises! A whopping 25% in comparison to what we see at other established institutions like the Met Museum, for example. Even better, almost half of the artists in the show are female.)
The Academyâ€™s art awards and purchase programs are intended “to acknowledge artists at various stages of their careers, from helping to establish younger artists to rewarding older artists for their accumulated body of work.” Therefore, it’s not surprising to see well-known, established artists like David Salle, Sally Mann, and Grace Knowlton with underrecognized, unfamiliar and/or younger talents.
Initially chartered by Congress (before government became so interested in ransacking the arts) The Academy was established in 1898 with the laudable mission to “foster, assist, and sustain an interest in literature, music, and the fine arts.” In service of that mission, they will award nearly $50,000 in cash to some of this year’s artists, and additionally will purchase selected paintings and works on paper for placement in national museums. Their press release notes “…works by Polly Apfelbaum, Mel Bochner, Nicole Eisenman, Thomas Nozkowski, James Siena, Stephen Westfall and Lynn Davis are among more recent placements. Since the purchase programâ€™s founding in 1946, through the legacy of Childe Hassam (a fave artist of Brooke Astor), close to 1200 works have been purchased and donated to museums throughout the country.” That constitutes a pretty significant contribution towards sustaining our national cultural heritage, I’d say.
Housed at Audubon Terrace (Broadway between 155 & 156 St) in two landmark buildings designed by McKim, Mead & White, and by Cass Gilbert, the installation in the galleries has been excellently considered and thoughtfully carried out, making it easy to absorb and make sense of such a broad range of work.
Black and red licorice is the surprising medium used by Andy Yoder in his huge pieces — sentimental, evocative, and nostalgic sculptures of a man’s wing-tip shoes, bow tie, and Magritte-like pipe. Joe Fig, whom I’ve reviewed here before, also has work in this show, including miniature renditions of his own studio and Dana Schutz’s, who’s in the show too. It’s refreshing to see recognition being given to artists like Emna Zghal, whose poetic work, which incorporates painting, woodcut, and ink drawing, is not easily pigeon-holed into any category. It was great to see works in this show of artists represented by some of the smaller galleries with passionate, intelligent dealers who have staked out turf in Chelsea, like Miyako Yoshinaga’s M.Y. Art Prospects (Zghal) and Edward Winkelman’s Winkelman/Plus Ultra (Yoder & Fig).
Sally Mann takes photography to a new level, with her large-scale gelatin silver print portraits of her children, that, with their perfect matte finishes look like frescoed visages of classical sculpture. I was delighted to become acquainted with Warren Isensee’s work, and was particularly captivated by his painting “Highbeam,” so appropriately named because you want to keep looking at it, while it’s hard for the eyes to do so. With terrific skills as a colorist, Isensee wallops the viewer with the optical depth, movement, and intensity of his geometric compositions. Also new to me were the paintings of Juan Gomez. His pink and acid-green canvases were simultaneously pop/cartoonish, suggestive, and touching. Not to lay on the superlatives too heavily, but the guy is an absolute virtuoso with the paint. You can’t tell from this reproduction, but with a few deft strokes, he gives us one of the best images of a baby perhaps ever painted. (This year, Gomez received The Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award of $5000 to be given to a younger painter of distinction who has not yet been accorded due recognition.)
In the south galleries, there are several pieces that joyfully express a connection with the natural environment. Julian Hatton, another great colorist, matches his skills in that area with his dynamic, idiosyncratic language of landscape. Frances Hynes‘ guileless and true, impastoed canvases set off an internal soundtrack of birds, water and wind, helping one forget the brutal cold outside and believe Spring will really arrive. And there are rewards to be had for taking the time to engage with Emily Nelligan’s charcoal drawings of Maine’s Cranberry Island, sensitively imbued with a subtlety derived from the artist’s spending “every day of every summer for almost sixty years seeking to capture itâ€™s brooding shoreline.”
A real show-stealer for me was the installation by Sarah Oppenheimer, of a curved, wood-lined passage opening through an intersection of the gallery walls to unite three of the discrete spaces. During the reception, it was particularly enjoyable to rethink architectural experience while getting a spy’s eye glimpse of the art and guests in the adjacent spaces through Oppenheimer’s elegantly conceived portal. No picture of that one, so you’ll have to go see it yourself.
Dates Thursday, March 8 through Sunday, April 1, 2007
Hours Thursdays through Sundays, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Location Audubon Terrace on Broadway between 155 and 156 Streets
Directions Subway: #1 to 157 Street; Bus: M4, M5 to 155 Street and Broadway
P.S. Don’t forget to stop in and check out the El Grecos at the Hispanic Society while it’s still there and you are too.