In the final interview of our series exploring the current state of major survey exhibitions, National Academy Museum curator Marshall N. Price explains the unique selection process for the Academy’s Annual, the longest running group show in America. Earlier this week, we spoke to curators from the deCordova Biennial, the People’s Biennial, and the Queens International.
Could you tell me a little about the curatorial approach of the Annual? I’m particularly interested in how artists are selected for inclusion by Academicians, members of the academy’s association of artists and architects. I’m also interested in the intergenerational aspect; the juxtapositions really produce a stunning conversation.
The Annual has a new format this year. One-third of the Academicians are eligible to exhibit a work of their choice. The Exhibition Committee (made up of Academicians) invited six artists and two architects to exhibit without jury review. I worked closely with the committee on these selections. The remaining artists and architects in the show were submitted by the two-thirds of Academicians not showing this year and juried by a committee of Academicians (also not eligible to show this year). The jury selected thirty-four artists and architects.
I would say that the overarching theme in the discussions among the committee members was the intergenerational potential of the show. The Annual, established in 1826, has always been a place where emerging, mid-career, and well-established artists and architects have shown side-by-side. The other important thing to remember with regard to the Annual is that, while I as the Academy’s curator have input into the process, ultimately it is artists and architects selecting artists and architects.
Are there any overarching themes that emerge in the exhibition now that it’s up? Was a theme or theoretical framework in mind during the curatorial process?
There was no theme per se other than the exhibition committee and the jury were insistent that the show be intergenerational. There are themes that emerge however (as there always are). An interest in materiality by women sculptors is a common one this year with works by Lesley Dill, Alison Saar, Arlene Shechet, Barbara Chase-Riboud, and Ursula von Rydingsvard. So is abstract painting and the legacy of modernism (also across generations) with Karl Benjamin, Stanley Whitney, Stephen Westfall, and others. There are three generations of women who work with video: Joan Jonas, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kate Gilmore. Interestingly, all three engage with narrative, as do a number of other artists in the show. Landscape and figure painting is being rediscovered by younger artists such as Emma Tapley, who takes a phenomenological approach to painting, and Ellen Altfest. Each of these two artists echo in some way and are deeply indebted to other “master” artists in the exhibition such as Philip Pearlstein and Janet Fish. I could go on, but you get the idea.
A lot of invitationals this year claim to be subverting or reinventing the idea of the genre itself. Could you perhaps speak to the shape and intention of putting on a large group show?
The Academy’s Annual was always intended to be a reflection of contemporary American visual culture. I would say that because the show is both self-selected and selected by artists/architects (i.e. not a curator or curatorial team) it is in many ways more democratic than an exhibition chosen with a particular curatorial agenda in mind. It is not bound by a specific ideology. Now, this has both benefits and drawbacks as I see it. It means that the show can be very eclectic and seemingly lacking in focus. However, as mentioned above, specific themes always emerge that perhaps would not be considered otherwise.
How does architecture weave into the show?
Architecture has always been part of the Academy. There were two important early American architects among the founding members in 1825 (Martin E. Thompson and Ithiel Town). Recently, we have undertaken a more inclusive approach to architecture at the Academy and bolstered our programming with regard to the discipline. This has been reflected in a recent installation of architectural holdings from the collection (in 2011), the establishment of an annual distinguished speaker series (the first one back in October was Thom Mayne), and the recent election of architects such as Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown; Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio; Tod Williams and Billie Tsien; Walter Chatham; Robert Stern; Laurence Booth; and others. The committees and I felt that architecture should be prominent in this year’s Annual, and we made a concerted effort to include it and highlight it. I installed a number of architectural projects in our first-floor gallery as an introduction to the exhibition. Included here are Jeanne Gang and Laurence Booth (another intergenerational connection, as early in her career Gang worked as Booth’s senior designer), Tom Phifer, Bruce Fowle, Rafael Viñoly, and Billie Tsien. I also integrated works by David Diao and Donna Dennis, both artists whose work engages with architecture in conceptual ways. I wanted to subtly illuminate one of the intersections of art and architecture.