Whatever you think of the outcome, the Dayton Art Institute’s exhibit of 100 paintings from the collection of the National Academy of Design has been curated multiple times and by multiple standards. Since its founding in 1826, current members of the National Academy (NA) have chosen the artists who will admitted each year to add to their ranks; the artists who are chosen each must select a self-portrait or portrait of themselves to donate to the Academy when they are nominated to be associate members, along with one additional “diploma” work when they become full members; and finally, Diana Thompson, Director of Collections and Curatorial Affairs with National Academy of Design, and Jeremiah William McCarthy, Associate Curator with American Federation of Arts, culled the works for this show from among the nearly 8000 works in the Academy collection by now, representing the work of more than 2000 artists over the nearly two century-long lifetime of the NA. There were, in short, a lot of judgments and deliberations that went into telling this particular story of what American painting was and could be. Though there are a lot of other ways to put together stories of achievements and potentials in American art, and though it makes no claims to be the definitive one, there is a sense that this is a sort of authorized history, an anthology of a still-ongoing tradition created, in large part, by its participants.
One may shudder at the slender distinction between knowing that these are paintings from a national academy and accepting that the works are therefore, by definition, academic, but there it is. There are certain expectations likely to be raised by seeing American art through the eyes of its academicians. Because Academy membership is self-perpetuating, it is only natural that changes in tastes, standards, and visions are going to come slowly. Moreover, the Academy’s students are trained with an eye to tradition (it would be interesting to know in what year, for example, the very last artist learned anatomy from drawing plaster casts of Greek and Roman statues). Academies naturally pay attention to craft, deliberateness, and discipline. It is fair to say that chronologically, it is going to be a long stretch in the history of the National Academy before one sees an impulsive brushstroke, let alone painting. As always, of course, there are exceptions, such as Albert Pinkham Ryder’s lovely “Marine” (1907), but it is the nature of an academy to encourage adherence to rules rather than opening the floodgates of exceptions. An academy also cannot help but reflect its social context. Women painters were always free to join, but their numbers were added slowly; African-American artists still more slowly; Native American artists more slowly still, as the exhibit is frank to observe.
Outstanding historical surveys of American painting could be assembled—and many typically have been—from the sorts of work that are excluded from this show. There are virtually no self-taught artists, though that seems a reasonable exclusion for an institution that values formal training. Other omissions are more fundamental and more surprising. We do not see much of the grand and sublime American landscape, nor most of American impressionism, nothing from Whistler, nor the Ashcan School, nor abstract expressionism, and very little work shaped by surrealism, pop art, or photo realism. Overall, there is little, especially until we get well through the 20th century work, that would have been thought “modern” in its own day; it is, in some ways, the opposite of the vision of American painting currently on view at the Taft Museum from the collection of Duncan Phillips, a collector who explicitly valued the modern. In terms of the hierarchy of genres, we do not see still lifes (though the catalogue explains that omission as a conscious decision), or many paintings of the city, or even much of what is oddly called “genre” painting, which I prefer to think of as narrative paintings or paintings of people at work. A collection that depends upon the generosity of the members of a club is going to be at the mercy of the claims an artist wishes to make for his work. Fresh from finishing his stint as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, Winslow Homer gave the modest “Croquet Player” (1865), which is about the size of a sheet of typing paper. (The collection and selection principles of the National Academy more than once bring it into contact with artists whose life work has roots in illustration.) By contrast, Guy C. Wiggins, whose career would largely consist of highly salable, suitcase-sized snowy scenes of midtown Manhattan, donated a remarkable, 30 x 60 epic view of a snowless Manhattan from across the river, done in a Fauvist style—a work of an artist who is asking to be taken seriously.
What one would expect to see from such a collection, overall, are works that, taken together, have interesting and even important things to say about the nature of representation, particularly in the field of figurative work. And from this perspective, “For America” does not disappoint. Figurative realism can be vibrant, powerful, and even haunting. Charles Courtney Curran submitted a portrait of himself done by his friend and fellow-painter William J. Whittemore (1888-89), who would become an Associate of the Academy about a decade later; there are many stories of artists’ friendships in who painted the portraits that are not self-portraits. In Whittemore’s canvas, Curran is working at his easel in the Louvre, copying the Venus de Milo, with the highly polished marble skin of the Couching Aphrodite of Tyre behind him. Curran cuts quite a figure: dapper, meticulously barbered, with his clean white collar and his bowler hat, he is absorbed in his work, which we cannot see. It is not important that we see his work; it is important that he sees it, and is completely absorbed by it in a workmanlike way. The painting addresses the question of what sort of person makes art. This is a portrait of the artist as a gentleman and a respectful craftsman, uncomplainingly laboring at what hundreds of artists before him have done. Under close examination, we can see how adventurous the composition is, relishing the sharp diagonals of the various restrictive railings and the unresolved empty spaces surrounding the various statuaries. Nothing at all is out of order except for the splotches of paint on his palette. The show’s great strength is in its presentations of many thoughtful versions of realism. “Jade” (c. 1918), a portrait of a woman with a green bangle by Gertrude Fiske, is another remarkable piece. Against a backdrop of what appears to be wallpaper with frolicking animals suitable for a children’s room, a red-haired woman sits, wearing a reddish-orange coat or cloak. The picture has considerable psychological intensity, though it is hard to pin it down and name it. She looks out in our general direction through a loose veil attached to her hat. There is some glamor to her, some sultriness, too, but also some world-weariness. She may be depicted in a child’s room, but she is not a mother now.
The show would be an excellent place to gather material to think through what we can learn from the range of artists’ self-conceptions. John Singer Sargent’s casual “Self-Portrait” (1892) seems like a rendering of the young artist as a wise guy. Cecilia Beaux’s “Self-Portrait” (1894) sees the artist as startlingly alert and ready to receive commissions. Eastman Johnson’s wonderful “Self-Portrait” (1859-60) stares out at us from the shadows with unflinching bravado; if he had epaulettes on his shoulders, he could have been a Civil War general. In “Collagist, Self-Portrait” (1994), Benny Andrews stands in front of a blank canvas set up on an easel, his head filling up the white space where a self-portrait would go, but is not yet. He looks down at the work he is currently absorbed in, the cutting up of some red and white striped fabric; he has plans for the American flag. In his “Self-Portrait” (1969), George Tooker has some of the wide-eyed intensity mixed with a sculptural placidity of the dream-like figures in his other paintings. He combines a detached self-appraisal with a touch of self-love: who can resist a painter looking at you with such serene seriousness? And the brilliant Eakins “Self-Portrait” (1902) is so psychologically complex that the wall tag offers several scholars’ competing interpretations of his searching look: he is tired, he is defiant, he is keeping his own secrets. (Representation of character complexity is one of the show’s strong suits. William Merritt Chase’s diploma piece is so psychologically fluid that it had been exhibited under three different titles: “Portrait,” suggesting merely that he is reporting what he saw; “An Idle Moment,” suggesting that the reclining figure is dreamily, and perhaps even languorously, at rest; and “The Young Orphan,” which highlights the crumpled handkerchief in her elegant fingers, suggesting that she is still in mourning.)
Among the exhibition’s most satisfyingly bizarre works is Peter Saul’s “Self-Portrait” (2013), which displays all of the artist’s blazing playfulness and cartoonish grotesqueness. Saul will not allow himself to be admitted to the Academy under the guise of anything other than what he is. (But here’s a question: Why would an artist as associated with anarchy and rebellion as Peter Saul have wanted to be a member of the National Academy in the first place?). One of the fine features of the Dayton show is that quite a few of the works have assessments and appreciations written by current members of the NA; they are frequently deeply sympathetic to the issues in an artist’s work and can be very, very sharp. Of Saul’s “Self-Portrait,” painter Tom Burckhardt writes that the artist’s “savage and funny anger against all sacred cows” includes himself; this is a self-portrait appropriate for an artist who “never [has] any heroes.” Burckhardt concludes with the shrewd characterization of Saul as “a low-expectation humanist”—someone drawn to the human mystery but not given to illusions or romanticizations. This suggests an arresting if improbable sort of connection between Saul and Eakins. Another low-expectation humanist might be W. Lee Savage, whose “Self-Portrait with Cup and Narragansett Beer” (1988) shows the painter as if he were somehow both an aging artist and a puzzled child. A few elegantly painted props sit on a white surface (a table top of some sort): an elegant white teacup and saucer, gold-framed glasses, a dinner knife and the beer bottle of the title. The artist, his chin barely able to reach the table and peer over the edge, looks on as if they are clues that he must interpret, but finds them baffling and elusive. “Low-expectation humanist” might also draw us to the work of Ann Gale, whose style is the very opposite of, say, the seductively gestural line of Sargent; her paintings are built up of multitudes of fragments or small patches of pigment, and the figure often seems to be on the verge of being devoured by its background. Gale’s vision is austere and powerful; her “Babs with Ribbons” (2007) expresses both the gravity of the moments in which artist and subject exchanged stares, and the gravity of the human body itself. Babs is unglamorously partly nude, with a blanket or bathrobe over her lap. She is solid, statuesque, and patient. She looks out at us searchingly but not aggressively. Perhaps these humanist expectations are not so low after all.
The cleverness of Burckhardt’s term is that the show has its share of what we might call high-expectation humanists as well. In Wyatt Eaton’s “The Artist in his Studio” (1873), the painter reclines in his chair, gazing longingly at the painting of a young woman on his easel. Plainly, he’s love-sick, though it’s not quite clear whether he is enamored of the woman or of his painting of her. A Pygmalion-in-training, he paints in order to have this earned moment of dreaminess. There is a dreamy quality as well to N. C. Wyeth’s “Self-Portrait” (1940). Some of the artists in the show joined the Academy very early in their careers; Wyeth joined quite late, only five years before his death and only three years before his son Andrew became a member. N.C. Wyeth paints himself as a fantasy figure, a fully-evolved regionalist with a folksy and reassuring presence. Behind him, billowing clouds tower over a New England landscape, down to the red covered bridge. He has his pipe in his hand, a pen in his shirt pocket, and a Hollywood smile that is both relaxing and bashful. I couldn’t help feeling that he didn’t need to try so hard. One of a fair number of artists who were connected one way or another to the traditions of illustration, it would be hard to think of a more influential painter in the show.
What is it that a painter does, and does a painting do? The NA may not have the most radical answers to either of those questions, but it certainly takes those questions to heart. Elihu Vedder, in the final year of the Civil War, found himself drawn to use as a model an African American woman, Jane Jackson, who had fled from slavery and whom he found selling peanuts in front of his building. Vedder paints her both as herself and mythologized her subsequently as the Cumaean Sybil; he sees her as both a fellow-citizen and a prophet. This—along with Paul Sample’s “Unemployment” (1931) and Walter Ufer’s sympathetic work on Indian reservations in the 1920s–is one of the few pictures in the exhibit that explicitly center around painter’s need to respond to and engage with the pressures of American history. Aaron Bohrod’s “Artist in Residence: Self-Portrait” (1943) is one of relatively few self-portraits where the artist is envisioned fully contextualized, rather than just holding a pen or brush or sketchbook. Here, the artist is at work at his easel, palette knife in hand. In an open and drafty space—most of the people are still wearing coats, hats, scarves, and sweaters—a half dozen people are watching him work. Perhaps they are in a decommissioned church. It looks as if he is far from his urban roots. He is intense and sincere as he performs the role of artist for his compact audience—with maybe just a bit of a smirk.
Like Bohrod, the roots of NA are strictly urban—New York City in particular—but there are relatively few traces of those roots on display. One of the most striking urban paintings in the show does not actually show the city at all. George Henry Hall’s remarkable “A Dead Rabbit” (1858) is not a still life, but a painting of a tall young Irishman, stripped to the waist, leaning against a wall of dressed stones. It looks as if he has been hurt. In his right hand, he carries a brick. The Dead Rabbits, for those who have forgotten Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movie The Gangs of New York, was one of several groups of young men involved in waves of deeply violent gang wars in the Five Points area of Manhattan in the 1850s. (To help orient you, Leonardo DiCaprio played the son of the assassinated head of The Dead Rabbits.) Hall’s young gang member is looking away and up; this could be a baroque painting of a saint carrying the instrument of his martyrdom. It is both touching and threatening. Urban lyricism falls—surprisingly–to Richard Estes. It is surprising that there is not more photo-realism in the show; I would have thought that the craft involved would have appealed more to the Academy. In “NYC Parking Lot” (1969), we see parts of about a dozen cars; they come in pretty much any color you want, as long as you want blue. The painting dates itself: not a Japanese car to be seen. The glory of the painting is in the urban world as it is reflected on the hoods and front windows of the cars. Flowing over the curves of the glass and the shaped metal are twisting images of brick buildings, warm in the sunlight against the cool blues of the cars, amidst the reflected puffery of some high clouds. The intense commitment to realism keeps the picture anchored (that might even be some bird poop on the of the car’s trunks); the loveliness of the more painterly reflections plays off against the industrial and impenetrable slickness of the body paint.
I would have thought that the show would have more landscapes, the genre where American artists tend to go to take measure of time. Is there more land left? What is my relationship to it? Asher B. Durand’s “Landscape” (1850) shows the expanse of the Hudson River world, but there is a fairly substantial settlement in the middle distance, and in the foreground, two sketchers converse, ready to resume the process whereby nature is absorbed by art and transformed into something else. John Frederick Kensett’s “The Bash-Bish” (1855) is immersed in the forest, but there is a wooden bridge crossing over the top of the falls. True wilderness is hard to come by, and these American landscapes are partly about how the land is coming under human stewardship, for living with your neighbors, walking by yourself, or hanging on your walls. One of the most striking landscapes in the show is Childe Hassam’s “The Jewel Box, Old Lyme” (1906), which has everything that is best about Hassam: there is a barely contained blizzard of short brushstrokes (paying homage to both impressionism and post-impressionism), marking out careful geometries under the trees; there is a striking clash of warm colors and cool ones; and the horizon line is literally overgrown by rocks, lichens, leaves, and grasses.
But the more typical form in which we find nature in the show is as part of a working landscape. This is the genre where natural forms and human interventions must find room for each other, and where the line between landscape and property is not easy to draw. Peter Hurd’s “Evening in the Sierras” (1938-9) shows a working ranch nestled in the New Mexico foothills—probably his ranch, located off Billy the Kid Trail. A truck speeds towards a ranch house along a dirt road, raising a cloud of dust behind it. The great resource of the west is distance—it certainly isn’t water—and it pays off in solitude, which makes the gathering places for people all the more precious. The truck is headed towards company; the building at the end of its road has smoke coming from its chimney. Altoon Sultan’s “Tractor and Disc Harrow, Pawlett, Vermont” (1987) is a small panoramic view of the land, the work people do on it, and the tools that are required to do it. Trees have been harvested and stacked, the bark stripped off some of them; the disc harrow is ready for planting; the distant silos are ready for the harvest. Both ordinary and grand, random and tightly organized, this painting treasures a landscape that is civilized, and celebrates the small community needed to get the most out of a commitment to the land. The position of people on the land may permit the stolen moment of rest—the tractor has merely pulled off to the side of the dirt road—but not idleness. Regardless of the weather, the work will go on—and that is a heroic perspective in itself.
We are left with a big hole in the narrative growth of American painting by the Academy’s undue caution towards all things abstract, from luminism to abstract expressionism. The artists of the Academy seemed to have decided that, for the most part, there was no such thing as a well-painted abstraction—at least until the final quarter of the 20th century. (The show does thoughtfully juxtapose George Bellows’s “Three Rollers”  with Reuben Tam’s “Monhegan Landform” , two diploma pieces from the same place which between them suggest the roots of American abstraction and abstraction’s subsequent usefulness in expressing landscape several generations later.) The loss is not just in the absence of the sprawling energy of the great abstract expressionists, but in the lyricism and spirituality that accompanied their work and spread into the work of other artists with other ideas (much as, say, impressionism did some 75 years earlier). Two paintings in the exhibition’s final room suggested what might have been added to the show—and its implied sense of a canon—had abstraction been allowed as much presence as, say, illustration. One is Jane Freilicher’s “Telephone Poles” (1963), a venture into the well-tamed landscapes that surround suburban roads. In it, we can see the influence of her study with Hans Hofmann, in the design, color schemes, and the determination to call attention to paint as paint—in this case, the wet paint the gravity calls down to the bottom of the canvas. The water, white road posts, and weeds everywhere are all deftly suggested by the simplest and most evocative abbreviations. It is a low-stakes landscape, the world around the artist observed from a respectful distance, mournful, diverse, and lovely. The other is Gretna Campbell’s “Garden in Brazil” (1983), with its extraordinary feast of color and line that evoke the richness of nature when truly felt. It honors the romance of the backyard, suggesting that even a relatively ordinary patch of nature, carefully seen, is teeming with unaccountable amounts of energy. There are lawns and yards and the rears of houses and hedges, but mostly the sense that when nature runs wild, it can best be captured by paint that is allowed to run wild.
In its most recent decades, the NA’s membership has come more to resemble the vastly varied population of the United States, and generations of more iconoclastic artists support the membership of subsequent generations of equally iconoclastic artists. But for better or worse, as we enter the world of the last decades of the 20th century and beyond, the works and the artists have a more distant relationship to the implied narrative about American art that dominates much of the show. Self-portraits have not been required of new members for two decades or so, and figurative work altogether is less dominant. Who knows what directions portraiture is likely to take in the coming years? Andy Warhol was not a member; Chuck Close is; Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald—not yet. Again for better or worse, the final room of the exhibit looks more like the spaces for contemporary art at many smaller comprehensive museums, filled with fine individual paintings but not guided by clear directions or common purpose. It is fair to ask even whether painting itself will remain the dominant mode of artistic expression, the top of the hierarchy of media, though people have wondered this before. Artists will no doubt continue to value the privilege and responsibility of honoring artists from younger generations, but will they think that they are continuing anything like a common set of values? Critics and curators have had to recognize that as soon as you have identified the elements of a sort of authorized version of a canon, new circumstances, arguments, talents, and discoveries will disrupt it. Just ask the folks at MOMA. The gamble of the National Academy has always been that its curators are themselves the previous generation of artists being curated. Can they do any better at it? If the Academy successfully recasts itself as an institution that supports working within traditions so as to stretch them, it is likely to continue to grow. But who knows in what new directions postmodernism will take the young people graduating from art schools across the country? A casual enforcement of shared concerns, styles, and assumptions served the NA well in developing an anthology of various realisms and an implied narrative framework to support it. It was all made possible by an extensive set of social and aesthetic exclusions, both spoken and unspoken, and all, generally, acknowledged now. Around what sets of convictions can new work cohere—and would the coherence be worth the effort and the price?