London's Royal Academy of Arts claims that its Summer Exhibition is "The largest open contemporary art exhibition in the world." It has been held annually since 1768. This year's show includes 1,200 works by more than 700 artists. Much to my surprise, I loved it.
The Royal Academy takes itself very seriously, and clearly has made an effort to be sure that many of the art world's aristocrats are represented. Even before entering the building, a tall, colorful Jeff Koons sculpture, Coloring Book (catalogue no. 1) greets visitors in the academy's formal courtyard, and on walking into the show's first room visitors are confronted by a large Cindy Sherman photograph (no.13). The famous names continue to pile up thereafter: an enormous lead submarine by Anselm Kiefer (no.433), a large Mimmo Paladino oil (no.435), two small Jim Dine lithographs (nos. 153,156), an Anish Kapoor sculpture (no. 1046), and on and on: Baselitz, Cragg, Caro, Ruscha, Emin, Saville, Hadid, Kirkeby, Wearing, Rego, Rae. Gavin Turk pays homage to a more famous predecessor with a screenprint of himself as Andy Warhol in a fright wig (no. 128).
For me, the highlights of the exhibition did not come from the marquee names. In no particular order, my personal favorites were the following:
1) Cornelia Parker's dramatic photographs of her own hand holding the battered wooden document cases traditionally used by English government officials, Self-Portrait with Budget Box (no.28).
2) Ken Howard's oil, Rain Effect in the City (no. 48), a wonderfully atmospheric scene of Trafalgar Square on a gray day.
3) Mona Kuhn's sexy nude photograph, Marina on White (no. 29).
4) Jenny Wiener's elegant pencil and screen print, Study, Still Life with Fruit (After Cézanne) (no. 689), that combines technical analysis with a sure aesthetic sense.
5) Room 6, devoted to architecture. There are some wonderfully whimsical models -- e.g. ATMOS's Ascending with Grace, by Paper (no. 725) -- and some stunning photographs, including Kendrew Quadrangle, St. John's College, Oxford (no. 741), blanketed in autumn leaves.
6) Peter Brown's nostalgic small oil, Britannia Junction, Camden Town (no. 512).
After the enormous success of the Young British Artists in the 1990s, the question arose of whether this would be a one-generation phenomenon, or whether London would become established as a genuine art world center, where important artists would continue to emerge. Many people in England firmly believe that London has already become the capital of the world of advanced art. Ultimately, artists will decide this by their actions: Whatever dealers and critics say, the key will be whether London's emerging artists of recent years will prove to be as influential as the YBAs. Americans can perhaps be forgiven for believing that London's preeminence is not yet a settled issue. But the optimistic atmosphere and the impressive diversity of the Summer Exhibition speak well of London today: it is difficult to imagine many other countries matching its quality. It will be on display through August 15. If you're in London during the next month, I strongly recommend it as an enjoyable way to spend a summer afternoon.
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