Looking Backward

John Haber
in New York City

The 2006 National Academy Annual

William Wegman and Bo Bartlett

Not every artist breaks new ground. Even when artists take risks, they risk telling old stories.

As summer 2006 approached, three exhibitions got surprising mileage from rather conservative vehicles. William Wegman and his dogs have become so beloved that it takes a full retrospective to disentangle him from calendar art—or gamely to try. The 181st National Academy Museum Annual holds onto the assurance that painting still rules. Last, Bo Bartlett keeps nudging academic art past nineteenth-century rules, at least as far as Surrealism, but cagily as anyone can. William Wegman's Reading Two Books (Robert and Gayle Greenhill, 1971)

Together, they make one ask what kind of conservatism makes sense in an art market that struggles to find new challenges. What indeed defines conservative when it comes to art—an accessible artist, an academy of fine art, or a sober realist at home in one? I have at best mixed feelings about all of them, but thankfully so do they.

A dog's life

Pictures of one's Weimaraner sound even less like art than when William Wegman first made his, more than thirty years ago. When he shoots his dog lying on the sofa and calls the video Snowflake, he could almost be blogging. Wegman's combination of heartwarming and utterly self-involved has a great deal to do with his peculiar appeal. Oddly enough, it also makes him worth remembering.

As the bits of torn paper start to fall, Man Ray raises his head—pardon me, her head—to catch and lick each one. As their descent continues, her fascination becomes a Sisyphean labor, only this time the rock wins. The flakes slowly become a blizzard, until the dog limply accepts her impending burial in the snowdrift. Or she does until one last moment, when she raises her head once more to snag the paper, and the video comes to an abrupt end. As Albert Camus ends his telling of the myth, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy." I never really believed that bit of Existential wisdom, but perhaps it applies to artists and house pets.

Much of Wegman's charm lies in that arbitrary ending, leaving the outcome forever in doubt while cushioning the blow. He dumps flour over the dog, and she emerges stately and shining. He has the viewer doubting and cheering as the dog retrieves a treat from a jar, including minutes on end after she has given up on the jar's small mouth, broken the glass, and staked her small happiness on avoiding the jagged edges. He pretends to correct her spelling, but she ends the lesson by walking off, leaving in doubt who has humiliated whom. He does not even need the dog in much of his work to subject himself to his mock rituals, as when he presumes to read two books at once, ever so warily, one with each eye. Photographs by Man Ray, and I mean the Surrealist this time, have more beauty and bite but much the same economy.

Like it or not, Wegman has become calendar art. One remembers the canine Man Ray or her successor, Fay Wray, with the Weimaraner's lean, quizzical countenance a natural extension of the creative artist's. One remembers Wegman with his blank delivery and early 1970s' haircut, like everyone's favorite college roommate. However, he owes more than one thinks to the rigor of early video art, performance, and conceptual art. The artist straddles both sides of the camera, even when he hovers just offstage to make it snow, and he uses only the materials at hand. His happy endings allow a concept and chance to determine a video's composition and length.

The Brooklyn Museum calls its enormous retrospective "Funney/Strange," arguing that Wegman treads the line between funny ha-ha and funny peculiar. Actually, he suggests a much larger range of connotations, from funny absurd to, alas, funny cute. His retrospective includes more than ninety videos, along with photographs, drawings, and, most recently, large paintings. The paintings drop conceptual touches and self-images entirely, in favor of sprawling travelogues, as bland as much late Robert Rauschenberg. Some incorporate actual postcards. Again like too many bloggers, Wegman leaves no doubt what he did on his summer vacation.

The retrospective hopes to rescue Wegman from furry calendar art. I left, however, thinking of that old cliché: he has not been the same since his dog died, even if he keeps buying new ones. Like the show's title, plenty on display did not strike me as all that funny, especially now that he can comfortably afford oil paint and postcards. The paintings drop any hint of conflict, challenge, or resolution. If I stayed for so much film, it comes back to the dog and her philosophical dilemmas—a reminder that Minimalism, too, had room for the artist's predicament and the viewer's laughter.

This year's model

Sick of the gift shops and calendars? Exhausted by yet another art fair or shopping weekend in Chelsea, another survey of emerging artists in Queens or Harlem, open studios and "Open House" to all of Brooklyn, Biennales and Biennials, and more? The National Academy Museum goes the Whitney one better—with its 181st Annual. Yes, that means every year now for 181 years. Rather than a postscript, however, the 124 works might bill themselves as the anti-Biennial.

The contrast begins with the method of selection. Where the Whitney turns in 2006 to just two curators, the Annual represents a committee decision, packed closely into a narrow, four-story Fifth Avenue mansion. (I know you want a winding stairwell like theirs.) Make that three committees, counting one for award winners. Where the Whitney pays its dues to America and now even Europe, the Academy's artists generally have ties to the New York area. And where the Whitney accords artists an alcove or a few works, the Academy takes just one work apiece.

As a result, it becomes a profile not of two pairs of critical eyes, a hundred artists, the state of art now, or sheer chaos, but of an institution. To detect it, consider a few more contrasts. Where the Whitney often avoids established artists except to play off their influence on emerging stars, the Annual has few youngsters and one eighty-year-old—at times with work dating back years. Where the Whitney looks either well off the beaten path or to a few terribly hip dealers, the Annual draws on a wider range of galleries, but largely established ones. Last, where the Whitney increasingly scorns two-dimensional media, the Annual includes little sculpture and just one short video. Nothing spills far enough into a room to pass for installation.

In other words, any Academy Annual still believes in painting. It still sees itself as central to an idea of art unshaken by crisis. That makes sense, given the Academy's divided mission. It has a school dominated by academicians, a distinguished roster of invited "members," and a museum that is definitely finding its identity. A recent show of F. E. Church fit the dilemma perfectly. One saw him at his most quirky, annoying, and academic—with loans from his retro fantasy castle on the Hudson—but also as a great American painter.

Fortunately, the Annual does not fuss unduly over academic painting, and at times a residual conservatism pays off handsomely. Donald Baechler downplays his pop-culture references in favor of subdued colors and a skull that makes frightening eye contact. Thomas Noskowski's dashes build toward color, almost like Morse code without a message. Jonathan Lasker gives oil squiggles the informality and visceral color of crayon, and Rochelle Feinstein's white acrylic almost fades into canvas before one's eyes. In Phong Bui's hands, a Sol LeWitt wall drawing appears to suffer a nervous breakdown, although Bui's work looked better in Williamsburg, where it really could warp the gallery. I had fewer surprises with the representational art, but views of the 2004 MoMA garden extension by Donald Richardson could pass for landscape painting.

As a symptom of what the Academy leaves out, I liked especially the rare forays into three dimensions. In Kiki Smith's white porcelain, Alice in Wonderland's extended arms and down-turned, open palms seem to fend off her own dream. Cordy Ryman extends the corner of a room into an alternative architecture, and Lynda Benglis perverts her lava-like bronze into a laugh-out-loud freestanding fountain. In the sole video, Maren Hassinger dares one to discern blackness from blackface. I do not dare to ask a show like this for more direct reflections of artistic and social realities. At least, however, I could enjoy pretending that art had stood still, back when I thought I understood it.

The American way

All critics should review a show they have not seen. It breeds humility. Besides, it offers a practice in playing not just the art-world referee but also the theorist. Bo Bartlett could easily pass for a student at the National Academy, but I once reviewed him at least a week too soon.

A couple of years ago, I gave a talk on "What Was Realism?" Because Bartlett was about to open at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where I spoke, I took my final examples from him. I had little by which to judge, beyond the Web and a sneak peak into the back room at his New York gallery. Did I get it right, then, assuming such a question makes sense when it comes to art? Not exactly, but Bartlett has evolved in both style and subject matter anyhow—toward a dark undercurrent of the American tradition that, as it happens, I saw coming.

In Philadelphia, I meant to explore how realism came to serve as a criterion for painting, especially at academic institutions like that one, and the different aims that such a criterion has encompassed over the centuries. In other words, I did not promise a social history of art so much as how a social history of art ever became possible. I ended with a cliché—the rootlessness of contemporary life, including how people have abandoned the cities and rural communities that long supplied the subject matter for realism. Think of the great ages of American art from Hudson River landscapes to the urban scene. While postwar abstraction aspired to new definitions of realism, including art as an object firmly embedded in this world, traditional forms felt the pressure to represent something new, too—a world of neither natural light nor street lamps in the fog of night, but rather a uniformity that sees them all in the light of a TV screen. Bo Bartlett's Au Matin (P.P.O.W., 2006)In late work by Edward Hopper and Pop artists like James Rosenquist, Americans are bowling alone, eating alone, and having sex alone, and representation, too, is changing.

Bartlett occupies a place between the American scene and Surrealism, academic art and rebellion, nostalgia and irony. His even sunlight, subdued color, and tendency toward "face painting" recall many a stagnant art class, but he uses those features to assert a distance between painting and immediate vision. Seeing a man and his son after reeling in the big one, I asked to consider them a happy family portrait—or perhaps American Gothic—but with the wife replaced by a dead fish. His latest show brings his Surrealism closer to the surface.

Bartlett's light has grown dim. People dress in darker clothing, like men in topcoats and hats escorting a woman toward an unseen fate. They prefer the cover of evening, like a group enacting a lynching or a man posing in his bathrobe like a sleepwalker. When they do not stare rigidly forward, they often turn entirely away. They move slowly, if at all, as in a ritual or a dream. The men in trench coats lean at an odd angle, and one hardly knows whether their strict parallel belongs to a police state or a dance.

Their conservative dress makes me think of René Magritte. Like Magritte's suits and bowler hats, they situate the threat not just amid fears of terrorism and warrantless searches, but in the banality of everyday life. Most often, however, when Bartlett reaches for prewar Modernism, he has something grander in mind. He claims, for example, that the composition of his lynching derives from Guernica. Maybe, and maybe his more overt Surrealism encourages his facile or pretentious sides, like the lynching that leaves entirely behind serious considerations of race. Still, he does what my listeners in Philadelphia worried that I had not—reflecting on the styles and techniques of realism quite as much as on its subject matter.

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"William Wegman: Funney/Strange" ran at The Brooklyn Museum through May 28, 2006, the 181st Annual of the National Academy Museum through June 18, and Bo Bartlett at P.P.O.W. through May 27.


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