In the foreground Leonid Brener, “Death of the Poet” (2013) mixed media (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The work I found in the Instructors’ Exhibition of the Art Students League of New York was not what I expected. I had been to the exhibition in the years previous and don’t recall the work being so conservative. One one hand, the League is a venerable institution, dating back to 1875. On the other it is a boldly liberal experiment founded by students who broke away from the National Academy of Design: they have no degree programs and don’t grade student work. Judging by the list of stellar alumni — among them Milton Avery, Lee Bontecou, Romare Bearden, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ai Weiwei — this formula seems to have cultivated the emergence of artists very much rooted in their own particular visions and practices. I suppose that given this history I thought I would see quite unique work, but much of it was rather respectably unadventurous studio portraiture, focusing on skill rather than vision. Still, there were a few exceptions to this trend.

Joseph Peller, “Twilight Fog, East River” (no date) oil on linen, 36 x 50 inches

Bruce Dorfman took some chances with his assemblage painting “Nikkou” (2017) with its washy, yellow, painted surfaces on top of rectangles and squares arranged so that the vertical and horizontal axes of the work vie with each other for dominance, and the dark blue skirt in the middle gives away a small sweet tooth for the decorative. Leonid Brener‘s sculpture “Death of the Poet” (2013) was one of the few three-dimensional works in the show and perhaps my favorite because it is playful and lyrical, a figure walking that seems composed of white clouds and blue sky (though it seems like a small cheat that it’s being presented this year when it was made four years ago). I also really liked Arslan‘s “Standing Man” (2017), a white, male figure ravaged by a vertical wash of fire and flame and a looming darkness in the background. I found Marshall Jones‘s “Hostile Planet” (2017) frankly ridiculous, but with a good sense of humor about itself. The presentation of a naked white woman framed by an archway of rainbow balloons on a plain with a clutch of gazelle at attention facing the viewer seems like a fantasy of the earth being reborn and given a children’s party.

I do think that the show was ultimately too taken with the figure in expected ways that spoke of art as avocation as opposed to vocation. In this kind of work there was one standout: Joseph Peller‘s “Twilight Fog, East River” (no date). It has deep, contemplative blues that are more vibrant that typically used in this kind of maritime scene and has a vibrancy to the warm, caregiving lights that guide the boats, ships and cars on the distant bridge, all of them being guided toward where they need to go.

Arslan, “Standing Man” (2017) oil on canvas 48 x 36 inches

Bruce Dorfman, “Nikkou” (2017) assemblage painting, 55 x 31 inches

Marshall Jones, “Hostile Planet” (2017) oil on linen, 58 x 42 inches

Sherry Camhy, “Father Time” (in progress) graphite on black paper, 30 x 10 inches

Costa Vavagiakis, “Connie IV” (2017) graphite on paper, 26 x 20 inches

Sharon Sprung, “Woman Warrior” (2014) oil, 30 x 30 inches

Mary Beth McKenzie, “Renée (with easel)” (2017) oil, 54 x 40 inches

John Varriano, “Ira in the Studio” (2016) oil on canvas, 42 x 36 inches

The Instructors’ Exhibition continues at the Art Students League of New York (215 West 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 28.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...