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May 31, 2004

Conflicts of Interest
(Review of The 179th Annual Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary American Art 
At the National Academy Museum)

The challenge for any institution wishing to present a survey of contemporary art is whether to participate in the ongoing trivialization of art or to stem the tide.  Put another way, Does a museum capitulated to the status quo and reap the momentary cachet such a relationship confers, or does it risk accusations of conservation in making the case for art as phenomenon with its own ornery and independent life?  The distinction is neatly put forth by the two sculptures that greet viewers at the entrance to the National Academy of Design's 197th Annual Exhibition: William Tucker's Homage to Rodin (Bibi) (1999) and Nina Levy's Greeter, Exhibitionist and Jeer* (2002).  Mr. Tucker's bronze monolith is a hulking muscular mass of primordial matter.  Ms. Levy's piece is comprised of three self portraits: a photo, a seated nude and a standing figure with a grotesque, oversized smile.  The differences between the two artists are huge and unbridgeable.  Mr. Tucker considers art a serious, even noble calling and a means for extracting meaning through the shaping of form.  Ms. Levy regards art as an agent of its own denigration and a byproduct of theory.**

New Yorkers who value the "transformative potential of the visual" (to borrow the words of the Academy's president, painter Gregory Amenoff) will be tempted to hightail it out of the museum after encountering Greeter, Exhibitionist and Jeer*.  Who can blame them?  It's a nasty piece of work.  Ms. Levy isn't a member of the Academy, nor is Mr. Tucker or the other 100 or so invited artists--a conscious attempt to make the Annual more "diverse."  Though it doesn't take a firm stand for high culture, no one will mistake the exhibition for the Biennial, not least because it features some consequential art- the sculptures of Natalie Charkow, Harry Roseman and Jim Osman, say, or the paintings of Sharon Horvath, Ben Aronson and Laura Harrison,  In fact, by my count, there are 21 solid-to-stellar artists at the National Academy;  that's 20 more than currently at the Whitney,  Now tell me where you should be standing on line.

Copyright 2004 The New York Observer


*The title of the photograph in question is "Small Head"
**If I can take this opportunity to respond... My work may well be an agent of its own denigration.  (I am certainly an agent of my own denigration.)  In the practical terms of my studio practice, my work is definitely not a byproduct of theory, and is probably not even a neighbor of theory.