Contemporary artists — especially those who make objects, like painters and sculptors —live in the past. We study art history, freely friending artists from different generations, appropriating styles, and creating imaginary salons of like-minded spirits both living and dead. The National Academy Museum’s Annual Exhibition, often seen as the Whitney Biennial’s dowdy cousin, still privileges the rich traditions that bigger museums, galleries, and curators often overlook when they focus on younger, sexier media like video, installation, and social sculpture. This year, due to the economic downturn, the 185th NAM Annual includes less art than usual, but has continued to choose outstanding artists deeply engaged in traditional studio practice.
At first glance, the show looked so awkward that I worried that the exhibition diminished the work selected. Since 1942, the museum has been housed in a Beaux-Arts style mansion on the “Millionaires Row” portion of Fifth Avenue at 89th Street. The galleries, originally living quarters for the philanthropic Archer Milton Huntington family, were renovated for exhibition use years ago, but much of the original architectural detail and hardware remain intact. The walls were designed to hold small-scale easel paintings in heavy frames, perhaps stacked salon-style to the ceiling. They don’t work so well for six-foot tall abstract work that begs for breathing room. Large-scale paintings like Judith Bernstein’s aggressive “Dick on a Head #1” hang incongruously on drab curving walls, overlapping the waist-high wooden molding.
Chris Martin’s “Untitled (Glitter Painting),” one of his fantastically exuberant compendiums of neon spray paint and glitter, hanging in a larger room on a flat wall, fares better. Even so, it still anxiously overhangs the molding and seems cramped next to Petah Coyne’s darkly gothic five-foot tall mixed media relief, which breathlessly comprises a taxidermy Canadian Goose, silk flowers, specially formulated wax, pearl-headed hat pins, pigment, tassels, silk/rayon velvet, thread, plywood, chicken wire fencing, quick-link shackles, cable, and metal hardware.
Blame it on Dada. Context has played an important role in how we apprehend contemporary art ever since Duchamp unveiled “Fountain” at the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. Yet each iteration of the Annual Exhibition at NAM seems to implore that we ignore context, and look only at the work itself. Seen another way, however, the anachronistic gallery spaces at NAM function as time-capsules, presenting an additional conceptual component in which we can imagine the artwork interacting freely with that of previous generations. Like ghosts of art history past, the architectural details of the Huntington mansion remind us that the work in this exhibition, like that in the 184 that preceded it, is not just the art of our time but part of art history.
Observed individually, plenty of well-crafted, thought-provoking pieces grace the off-white walls. Notable works on paper include Elise Engler’s “Everything I Brought Back From The Galapagos” (2008). Engler, who recently returned from an austere artists’ residency with the National Science Foundation in Antarctica, creates illustrated lists of the objects in our lives, suggesting that meaning can be found in the material manifestations of our existence. On the second floor, Andrew Cooks’s “And The Ponds Broken Off From the Sky” (2009), a 60 x 60,” mixed-media piece, mysteriously combines deftly-painted East-meets-West psychedelic patterning and ethereal silhouetted shapes. Nene Humphrey, who has been an artist-in-residence at Joseph LeDoux’s neuroscience laboratory at New York University, presents “Small Worlds #030308” (2008), a compact, layered, predominantly black-and-white drawing on Mylar that investigates the part of the brain where fear and anxiety reside. Though it is inconspicuous among larger, louder paintings, the little drawing’s tiny, agitated marks compel a closer look.
On canvas, veteran painter Timothy App brings non-objective geometric abstraction to the party with “Nuptial” (2008), a handsome, refined meditation on shape, line and color relationships, evoking a quiet, single-minded classicism. Ghada Amer’s crewel-and-paint “For a Friend” (2008) brings to mind both the domestic and the obsessive. Stardust Atkeson’s small oil painting, “The Night Watch—Bernie Mac” (2009), wryly depicts an old molded plastic portable television on a dresser, tuned-in to comedian Bernie Mac’s TV show. The image of Mac, who died prematurely in 2008, poignantly reminds us that there are ghosts in the house.
The 185th Annual: An Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary American Art at the National Academy Museum (1083 Fifth Avenue – at 89th Street) continues until June 8, 2010.
Three Looted Antiquities at the Met Repatriated to Turkey
Nine other repatriated works were seized from Met Trustee Shelby White, whose collection was subject to a criminal investigation.
This week, the world’s lightest paint, Pakistan’s feminist movement, World Puppy Day, and were some of Vermeer’s paintings created by his daughter?
The Wider World and Scrimshaw
On March 28, join the New Bedford Whaling Museum online and in-person for a symposium on global carving traditions from across the Pacific Rim.
Who Will Decide on the Future of a Miami Native Burial Ground?
Native activists say sacred remains and objects dug up from a Brickell construction site should remain there, but mega-developer Jorge Pérez is pushing back.
How Can a Curator Approach South Asian Futurisms?
How do I acknowledge my shortcomings while reckoning with obscured histories and the exclusion of subaltern narratives in the fine art landscape? A working checklist for curators.
MCA Chicago Presents On Stage: Frictions
Will Rawls, Shamel Pitts | TRIBE, and Barak adé Soleil explore Blackness, queerness, movement, and dance in performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
The Complicated Legacy of Camilo Egas
The Ecuadorian painter, a leading figure of Latin America’s Indigenismo art movement, has been both praised and scorned for his representation of Indigenous peoples.
Tom Jones Zeroes in on Ho-Chunk Visibility
“I think about the young kids, the teenagers, and I think being able to see yourself represented in art is so powerful,” says the artist.
Haggerty Museum of Art Presents Tomás Saraceno in Dialogue With Dr. Somesh Roy
The artist and researcher will explore soot’s effects on climate change and public health in this online conversation.
Hundreds of Artworks by NYC Teenagers Go on View at the Met
The talented seventh through twelfth-grade students are recipients of the 2023 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.
NYC’s Flatiron Building Sells for a Whopping $190M
The sale to outsider bidder Jacob Garlick puts an end to the protracted legal battle between the iconic skyscraper’s five former owners.
McKnight Visual Artist Fellows Discussion Series at the Minneapolis Institute of Art
The series features 2021 Fellows David Bowen, Mara Duvra, Rotem Tamir, Ben Moren, and Dyani White Hawk in conversation with renowned curators and critics.
The Best Memes Roasting the “We ❤️ NYC” Campaign
A graphic designer on Twitter created a hilarious send-up of the universally reviled logo, and the rest is history.
Did You Know These Museums Were Free for New Yorkers?
The “Free Admission” campaign is advocating to make ticket pricing information more transparent to visitors, who may be confused or misled by institutions’ language.