EXHIBITIONS / A few late-blooming perennials: It's the older Academicians who dominate this year's Summer Exhibition - some of them are producing their best work ever

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AS IS traditional and proper, the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy includes special tributes to three Academicians who have died within the last year. They were Patrick Symons, Norman Hepple and Michael Rothenstein. Another loss has been that of Helen Lessore, whose death last month came too recently for any memorial display of her painting.

Her presence is none the less felt. She was one of the oldest Academicians, a survivor of the Slade School of the 1920s. That tradition is still represented by her son John Lessore and numerous other painters within or outside the RA, including many former pupils of Symons.

With the collapse of traditional Academic painting, figurative styles associated with patient naturalism have now become the RA senior house-style. Here we may find some satisfying, though hardly earth-shattering canvases. One is by the former RA president, Roger de Grey, another by his cousin and former colleague in Academy politics, Frederick Gore. Retirement obviously suits them both, and their landscapes - of the country around their second homes in France - are contented and a little fresher than in former years.

This is the first Summer Exhibition in the presidency of Sir Philip Dowson, an architect best known for his work with Arup Associates. The show is more rationally hung than usual, and for once the architecture gallery looks alert as well as confident and self-satisfied. Here are interesting models by Norman Foster for the Lycee Albert Camus in Frejus, by Richard Rogers for the Zoofenster Building, Berlin, and by Richard MacCormac, who has designed the new Ruskin Library for Lancaster University. The architectural project with most relevance to our lives, or at any rate mine, is Michael Hopkins's scheme for the new Tottenham Court Road Underground station. It's all smart and efficient, but of course one looks at the model as from the air. One is given no idea of the downstairs part of the building in which passengers will be processed and transported.

As for so many years past, none of the architecture strikes one as issuing from a truly aesthetic mind. Sad to say, this is also true of 90 per cent of the Academy's sculpture. We expect architecture to be disappointing, but there ought always to be hope for sculpture. Anyway, beside a piece by David Annesley there are impressive works by the Spaniard Eduardo Chillida (an honorary RA) and by Phillip King. Chillida's is compact, King's extravagant, but both have an architectural understanding. How many architects have a sculptural sense?

King's large construction continues the series of meditations on ruined Tyrrhenian empires that he began in 1989. Obelisk with Flame has triumphal, maritime and tragic connotations. Yet there is no pomp or merely theatrical gesture. Obviously the sculpture is not at its best in the Academy and demands another setting. King has a private imagination, but is also our leading public sculptor. In recent years, too few of his works have found a proper home in architectural space. Could not the new president of the Academy make people in his own profession aware of the virtues of contemporary British sculpture?

Nobody expects the Summer Show to shelter quiet and undemonstrative art: it's just too busy. But the crowded rooms also are a stern test of large paintings. Sandra Blow's vast white and green abstract has been given one of the prizes that Academicians like to award to each other. It dominates both its own wall and the vistas from other rooms. Impressive though Blow's canvas is, at least one of John Hoyland's recent works proves that he is still the most daring and commandeering painter within Burlington House. The picture of his that I like best is in the great central gallery. It has all of Hoyland's vigour and a palette that is bizarre and artificial, yet also deep and rich. No one else currently uses colour in this way. Furthermore, with gobs, trickles and (I guess) squeezes from a tube, Hoyland is now drawing with pigment in a way not seen before. Other painters are relatively conservative with their medium. They may have a right to be content with their means of expression, but still one notes how much new life there is in Hoyland's art.

A new deftness, not quite experiment, has entered Anthony Whishaw's collaged interiors and windowscapes. Here again is a painter of an older generation who may now be doing the best work of his life. Basil Beattie's picture

is also noteworthy. He's taking on younger artists and beating them at their own game.

Although there's a lively room devoted to student work from the RA Schools, the Academy's first obligations are to old blood. Victor Pasmore, Carel Weight, Anthony Green, Philip Sutton, Terry Frost, Josef Herman, Robert Medley, Sonia Lawson, William Bowyer, Olwyn Bowey, Norman Adams, Elizabeth Blackadder and Fred Cuming all do what we expect of them. More vital pictures from the older generation are by Donald Hamilton Fraser (still an underrated artist) and Mary Fedden. She has a grieving but bright little picture, Ben's Box. Every single element of the picture could have been thought of by the artist (or by Ben Nicholson) six decades ago. But that doesn't matter, since the painting is so good.

I spotted only one unkown artist with an innate pictorial gift of a high order. So I think did the hanging committee, for they have placed Charlotte Kienitz's Mortal Valley in a nice position next to the door of Gallery IV.

At pounds 700 this is a good purchase for someone. The price list in the catalogue is of unfailing interest, as are the home addresses of the artists. There's not too much overpricing. Even the best Hoyland is only pounds 19,500, Whishaw is at pounds 2,500- pounds 3,500 and the Fedden costs pounds 2,000

which the Tate ought to be able to afford, for that's where the picture belongs. As for

the addresses, contributors to the RA annual open exhibition are still predominantly from the South of England. This venerable show (now in its 226th year) would be improved

by including more contributors from elsewhere

in the British Isles.

Summer Exhibition: Royal Academy of Arts, W1 (071-439 7438), to 14 Aug.

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