A Tammany Hall Salon
The National Academy’s 180th annual exhibition; plus Hubertus Gojowczyk’s bewitchments at Achim Moeller Fine Art
THE EXISTENCE OF A SELF-SELECTED NATIONAL ACADEMY OF ART implies a shared cultural belief system that no longer exists. Art historian Robert Rosenblum insists that, today, "the idea of defining art is so remote” that he does not think "anyone would dare to do it." Yet the National Academy Museum [until recently, the National Academy of Design], an art school-cum-museum, clings to the hope that a grammar of fine art—if we could just get it right—will cure us of our own failed seriousness. It will cure us, too, of the burden of taste.
|Self Portrait (Life Masks), Mary Beth McKenzie
When art can be anything at all, the title of Academician—granted for life—is quaintly droll, like Britain’s Order of the Bath. With the passing of old catechetical structures, the reassurances of imprimatur ring hollow. More fatally, when confidence in established categories and standards is weak, cronyism expands to fill the vacuum. Academy exhibitions of members’ work, bereft of any unifying sensibility, resemble a Tammany Hall salon.
The title of this year’s annual exhibition, “Disegno,” recalls the name of the first art academy, founded by Georgio Vasari in Florence, 1562. His Accademia del Disegno was soon followed by Rome’s Accademia di San Luca, which served as model for the French Academy, established in 1648. Shorty before the colonies revolted, George III instituted the Royal Academy on which our own is based. Vasari’s “arti del disegno” translated into “beaux arts,” then “fine arts,” on down to our own endearing “whatever.”
There is very good work here, too much to list. But it hardly hangs together in a way suggesting an academy, the cream of an inherited tradition. And there are enough lacklustre entries to remind you of last year’s report by a select committee in Britain charged with examining the viability of continuing to award knighthoods: “Increasingly, titles appear to be an embarrassment rather than a cause for celebration.”
On what grounds was X granted the laurel and not Y? Why did white smoke go up for pattern painter Joyce Kozloff instead of Robert Kushner or Kim MacConnel? Does every transient movement require representation? By what standard is a Philip Sherrod granted equal status to Wayne Thiebaud? Everett Raymond Kinstler’s smarmy “President Bill Clinton” (1995) trumpets all the sins of commissioned portraiture: facile, vacant and dishonest. Where does court flattery fit on the scale of achievement? So it goes, from one genre and artist to the next. Omissions are as significant as the inclusions.
At the risk of adding to the arbitrariness, I have to mention some sweet surprises. One was a small, fiery watercolor by Susanna Coffey, worked as a background study for a self-portrait. Two large-scale impressive nudes are here: a woman arrested in motion, by Francis Cunningham, co-founder of the New York Academy, and Mary Beth MacKenzie’s resonant back view of a woman at a bathroom sink. Bruce Gagnier’s red chalk studies are haunting, beauty of realization elevating the grotesque anatomies depicted. Martin Levine’s delicate, dizzying line drawing of Wall Street made we want to know his prints.
We are a large and populous country with fine work being produced in countless places. It is anachronistic to say that all 178 artists exhibited here have reached a level of aesthetic achievement unequalled elsewhere.
My favorite graffiti was spotted by one of my sons penciled in the stacks of his college library: “Free the bound volumes!” If only the scribbler could know that they are, indeed, free at last. Hubertus Gojowczyk has liberated them, to the joy and wonderment of bibliophiles and art lovers alike.
The artist is part sculptor, part conceptual performer with a Dadaist bent. But above all he is a book-besotted magician exquisitely sensitive to the beauty of typeface, the resonance of old paper and leather, and the elegiac aspects of typesetting and bookbinding in an electronic age. He has the hand and eye of a jeweler and the heart of an alchemist.
Worn and frayed German texts are cut, carved, gauged, torn, scorched, pierced into elegant and witty improvisations: a spiral staircase, an amphitheater, a Black Forest log, a reliquary for dried botanicals or the mythical candle burned at both ends. “Latest News from the Year 1732 and 1733” (1999) is an open book looking back at us—reading us—with glass eyes. “Wink of an Eye” (2000) is similarly taxidermed: one tiny eye peeks at us through a break in the book’s spine. Mr. Gojowczyk incorporates gossamer seed pods, tufted grasses, dandelion fluffs, flea bane with consummate delicacy, transmuting the stuff of witchcraft into metaphors for the fragility of the life of the mind and of cultural memory.
His pre-war materials are printed in the ancient Fraktur, a gothic script used throughout Western Europe for centuries, continuing into the 20th century in Germany. A beautiful, less labor-intensive descendent of Carolingian minuscule, Fraktur was chosen by the Nazis as the official typeface of the Thousand-Year Reich. Consequently, a certain frisson attaches to it, an unease. Perhaps to counter this, the gallery’s check list repeats the artist’s birth date (b. 1943) wherever his name appears on an entry. I left the gallery reluctanly, trying to remember where I had read of an old librarian who wandered his collections stopping to stroke the books and muttering: “Don’t worry, my darlings. They’ll never turn you into microfiche.” In our post-Gutenberg world, communication is increasingly disembodied. it flickers across a screen, fugitive and insubstantial. Mr. Gojowczyk reminds us that every book is an embodiment of mind; in its way, an incarnation. If microfiche annihilates, here is an art that transubstantiates.The enchantment of it is as poignant as it is delightful.
“Disegno: The 180th Annual Exhibition” at the National Academy Museum (1083 Fifth Avenue, 212-369-4880).
“Hubertus Gojowczyk: The Book as Object” at Achim Moeller Fine Art (167 East 73rd Street, 212-988-4500).
The reviews first appeared in The New York Sun, May 2, 2005
Copyright 2005, Maureen Mullarkey