Three Institutions, Three Visions
The next time a New York Times cultural critic declares in print that, in essence, "Painting is dead—long live installation and video art!" I may have to be restrained bodily from dragging him to the portals of the Art Students League, the National Academy of Design, and the New York Studio School, there to declare that painting—and drawing, and sculpture—are indeed alive, and well, and living in Manhattan. It’s been this way, in all three cases, for many years, through the coming and going of movements, fashions, and trends; it will continue this way as long as there are students who aspire to fine art and teachers who hope to inspire them.
The three institutions have histories as diverse as their faculties and student bodies. The National Academy of Design was, for most of the 19th-century, America’s premier art institution; its schedule of exhibitions over the years up until today has had much to with helping New York become the art capital of the world.
The Art Students League opened in 1875 as an alternative to the Academy; past faculty has included William Merritt Chase, Thomas Eakins, Robert Henri, and John Sloan. Latest but not least is the New York Studio School, which, under the aegis of teacher/artist Mercedes Matter, faculty, and 60 “founding students,” opened in Manhattan in 1964, headquartering itself three years later in its National Landmark buildings at 8 West 8th Street.
What explains the holds these three institutions have upon our collective artistic unconscious? Non-accredited schools though they may be, they have steadfastly exhibited the high ideals and generous visions that have made each of them a model of artistic integrity. At the same time, their appeal to youth and to mature artists alike have shown them to be, at any given moment, and to usually greater extents, hotbeds of meaningful painterly, “draftsmanly” and sculptural activity. In other words, the three schools have always been, in the parlance of the 1960s, “happ’nin’ places.”
But, what better way to demonstrate the quality of art at the Art Students League, the Studio School, and the Academy than to cite, however briefly, the works of some of the great talent represented—as “artists/mentors” —in this Bibro exhibition? From the Art Students League, we have the cryptic but buoyant geometries of Knox Martin; Harvey Dinnerstein’s coolly impassioned studio nudes; Bruce Dorfman’s handsome, quietly explosive metal collages; and Richard Poussette-Dart’s pigment-encrusted, multi-orbed oils.
From the National Academy come Will Barnet’s stately, utterly mysterious women in black; Lois Dodd’s hearty, lyric realism; and Wolf Kahn’s coloristically sublime landscapes.
Finally, from the New York Studio School are Esteban Vincente’s grand, painterly abstractions; and Louis Finkelstein’s teeming, high-toned expressionist canvases. Space considerations preclude my mentioning any more of the artists on hand. I can only forward a salute to Denise Bibro and company on the event of this truly auspicious, definitive, and—for those of us who might sometimes prefer a headier brew than that provided by video and installation art—heartening show.
Winter 1999, New York, NY