Gallery Sightings: Beyond the Classical

What: Beyond the Classical: Imagining the Ideal Across Time

When: through January 11th, 2015

Where: National Academy Museum (Upper East Side)

Admission: Pay What You Wish (In partnership with Macaulay’s Cultural Passport Program)

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Photo courtesy of the author

The Bounty KillArt (artist), L’Histoire et la Paix (History and Peace), 2004.

The National Academy Museum, a tiny gem among the giants of Museum Mile, has for decades displayed the work of the best American artists and architects: the National Academicians. From now until January 11th, the Museum’s Beaux-Arts style mansion is devoting all four floors to an eclectic and thought-provoking exhibition called Beyond the Classical.

The exhibit explores a single theme: the interpretation of classical ideals by artists of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Classicism refers to ancient Greek and Roman ideals of order, balance, harmony, and beauty that were rediscovered first in the Renaissance and again in the neoclassical period. In the first half of the 19th century, the founders of the National Academy embraced classical ideals and advocated for “moral and aesthetic integrity” within their elite artistic society. A century later, artists belonging to the Dada movement rebelled against these same ideals, often irreverently and iconoclastically. (A perfect example is Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. – the famous Mona Lisa with a mustache – currently on view on the second floor of this exhibit.) Beyond the Classical examines these artists’ contrasting responses to classicism.

By exploring a theme, rather than a certain artist or period, this exhibit becomes delightfully eclectic. There is something here for everybody, regardless of whether one prefers a neoclassical bronze statue or a digital-age photomontage. Although the majority of the exhibit explores classical ideals of the human form, it also considers classical features in landscape paintings and architecture. For example, on the fourth floor’s Henry Justin Gallery, Ashler B. Durand’s Landscape (1850) is presented alongside a model of Robert A. M. Stern’s Neoclassical Farmhouse from Oldham County, Kentucky (1983). It is an interesting pairing, especially when considered in terms of man’s influence on the natural environment. These two works illustrate how the exhibit brings together art from different periods, different media, and different styles to juxtapose seemingly unrelated works in clever and thought-provoking ways.

Thoughtful curation is this exhibition’s hallmark, and thus, the remarkably diverse collection fits together well. A particularly successful example is found in the F. Donald Kenney Gallery on the second floor, which brings together modern reinterpretations of classical motifs. Here we find Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (1919) alongside Kathleen Gilje’s Lady with an Ermine, Restored (1997), which depicts Da Vinci’s original Lady heavily tattooed. These two works are a natural pair. On the opposite wall is Bruno Zanichelli’s San Giorgio e il Drago (1982), a pop-art rendition of the classic legend of St. George. In the center of the room is Barry X Ball’s Purity (2013), a remake of Antonio Corradini’s early 18th century bust of a veiled woman. Barry X Ball’s choice of material, Mexican onyx, disfigures Corradini’s original with its gaping cavities and reddish-brown stains. Considered alongside these three pieces, Purity suggests how modern art, like acid, has eaten away, distorted, and disfigured icons of the classical tradition.

In this room, as in the whole exhibition, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. However striking each work is on its own, the juxtaposition of these works adds another layer of meaning. As a result, the exhibit as a whole is intensely thought- provoking. Each room poses questions: How do artists reject order, balance, and harmony? How do they reinvent beauty? How do classical ideals persist in a mechanized world?

Still, this exhibit is neither thought-heavy nor overly analytical. Beyond the Classical avoids these pitfalls and achieves a fine balance between philosophy and visual delight. (How about an upside-down Mona Lisa made out of spools of thread?) Perhaps the exhibition’s only flaw is its layout. Since it’s spread throughout different floors and rooms, the presentation feels jumbled and disjointed. This may irk someone accustomed to exhibits in larger museums where a few spacious, adjacent rooms progress smoothly and logically. Of course this is no fault of the curators but simply a consequence of the museum’s space. However, perhaps the curators could have found an ingenious way to use the disjointed space to their advantage, rather than simply accepting it as a container.

Nonetheless, it is a magnificent container: the rooms are beautiful, and the architecture of the National Academy’s Beaux-Arts style mansion is itself worth a visit. This mansion has housed the National Academy and its school since 1942 and was recently renovated and reopened in 2011. Its neoclassical style is a fitting setting for Beyond the Classical, and the building is itself a testament to the persistence of classical ideals in modern times. More than just a rich array of artistic styles and conventions, the exhibition prompts us to reflect on our own personal relationship to tradition. Like the artists, we must choose whether to accept, reinvent, or rebel against what came before us. How can we define ourselves using the past? Are we an irreverent Duchamp or a balanced and harmonious Durand? This exhibition’s rooms not only cast a revealing light on modern times, but also, encourage us to reflect upon ourselves.

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