Pale Faces

The Boca Museum's portrait show is sooo 1950

On a recent Sunday-afternoon visit to the Boca Raton Museum of Art, I discovered quite a few people competing for viewing space at "Seeing People: Paintings from the National Academy Museum," an exhibition of 45 works from one of the oldest arts organizations in the country. It made for a fitting circularity: seeing people "Seeing People."

It also made perfect sense. Any latecomers to the Boca Museum's popular "Andrew Wyeth: American Master" exhibition, which had just ended, would probably be comfortable sticking around for these fine examples of American academic art. There's even a Wyeth self-portrait among them.

According to the exhibition brochure, the New York-based National Academy Museum was established in 1825 by a group of artists that included inventor Samuel F.B. Morse. A short essay characterizes the organization's collection as mostly figural art that lends itself to "an investigation of how people see people" and goes on to point out that "nothing interests people more than people... Alone or in a crowd, palpable or implied, dead or alive: we are the stuff of art."

Boyle's Ulysses S. Grant
Boyle's Ulysses S. Grant
Greene kept trying to integrate the figurative and the abstract.
Greene kept trying to integrate the figurative and the abstract.

A point well-taken, as far as it goes. But as impressed as I was by individual paintings, I was also struck by the limitations of the work featured in this tidy little show. With few exceptions, the art here is profoundly conservative. Roughly half of the paintings are from the latter half of the 19th Century, and most of the remaining ones are from the first half of the 20th Century. You could be forgiven for coming away from this exhibition with hardly an inkling that the upheavals of modernism had ever taken place. It's the sort of show the current self-appointed guardians of public morality might endure without having their delicate sensibilities upset.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, as the Seinfeld crowd might hasten to add. It's just that academic art can be, well, academic -- traditional, formal, conventional. The work, in other words, of dead, white, most likely straight men, with a couple of women artists thrown in for good measure. A lot of it is easy on the eyes, all right, but it's also a bit boring.

Perhaps to compensate, David Dearinger, who organized the show for its late-2004 run at the UBS Art Gallery in New York, has grouped the paintings based on thematic categories that are fairly self-explanatory: "Brush and Palette," "Tete-à-Tete," "American Classicism," "Naked or Nude?," "Working It," "Pleasure Grounds," "Self Study," "For God and Country," "To Be Reckoned With," and "All in a Family." That's ten categories, which smacks of overconceptualization for a show that includes just 40 canvases and five panels.

That said, there are incidental pleasures. One of the most satisfying is an inspired pairing right at the beginning of the exhibition: the late-1880s portrait Charles Courtney Curran, by William James Whittemore, and Edwin Walter Dickinson's 1949 Self-Portrait. Both portray bearded, bespectacled men seen in left profile, and their juxtaposition makes for a marvelous study in contrasts and similarities.

The previously mentioned Wyeth self-portrait, undated, is put to good use as the centerpiece in a makeshift triptych completed by self-portraits of his father, N.C. Wyeth, from 1940, and son Jamie, an undated canvas probably painted in the 1960s. (In keeping with the show's seeming fascination with triple names, the artists are identified as Newell Convers Wyeth, Andrew Newell Wyeth, and James Browning Wyeth.) Three generations of painterly continuity of this sort is virtually unheard of in American art, and the contrast between the latter two Wyeths is worth noting. Andrew portrays himself as somewhat aloof and dour-looking, outdoors in a wintry landscape, wearing a jacket zipped almost all the way up to his face and carrying what's probably a sketchbook under one arm. A much younger Jamie stands half in shadows against a dark, featureless background, either shirtless or nude -- it's impossible to say because the painting ends about halfway down his chest -- with a look on his face that conveys tentativeness.

One other portrait stopped me in my tracks: Ferdinand Thomas Lee Boyle's 1867 Ulysses S. Grant, painted two years after the general accepted Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox and two years before he became president. It's an exceptionally nuanced image of such a public figure, with intimations of vulnerability and perhaps even doubt evident alongside the expected poise and self-assurance -- in short, it's a tremendously human painting, and much of the rest of "Seeing People" pales next to it.

At the far end of the first floor is a good reminder of one of the things the Boca Museum does so well: a beautifully balanced solo exhibition by an underappreciated artist. "The Many Faces of Balcomb Greene: Abstractionist Against the Tide"features more than 50 works spanning more than 50 years in the career of the American artist, who was born in 1904 and died in 1990. The show debuted last year at the Harmon-Meek Gallery in Naples, Florida, in commemoration of Greene's centennial. It's heavy on oil paintings, supplemented by a collage and a few drawings and gouaches. The handful of pieces from 1930 and 1931 suggest a strong Picasso influence, although by the mid-'40s, most notably in the striking Black Angels of 1946, Greene had moved on to jagged geometric forms painted in bright colors.

The end of the 1940s found the artist staking out territory he would explore for the rest of his life. The bright colors all but disappear, replaced by a palette so muted that at times it approaches monochromatic. The human figure and, increasingly, the human face become more and more central for Greene as a way of avoiding what he saw as the sterility of pure abstraction.

There's a remarkable consistency to the look and feel of the paintings included here, even though they're drawn from the next four decades. Greene never stopped experimenting, but he also never abandoned his efforts to integrate the figurative and the abstract.

In 1947, Greene and his wife at the time -- fellow painter Gertrude Glass, who died in 1956 -- bought some land at Montauk Point, on the eastern end of Long Island, and built a house and studio there. The sea and the sky had a profound impact on Greene, and they reappear in his paintings for decades to come, often to great effect. Consider, for example, the cascade of human faces and body parts in the painter's reinterpretation of The Birth of Venus(1975) or the dunes that turn out to be a jumble of naked bodies in Life on the Beach(1981).

The 1940s and '50s were good to Greene, who spent 17 years teaching art history and aesthetics at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Institute of Technology. Andy Warhol and Philip Pearlstein were among his students, and his work was in demand by such institutions as New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum. His 1950 solo show at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery in New York was named one of the year's best by ARTnews, and in 1960, he got a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In the years since, unfortunately, Greene's reputation has faded. This excellent exhibition is a small but significant step toward remedying that injustice.

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