Exhibitions: The show must go on - for the 229th summer

The Royal Academy was recently damaged by fire, but that hasn't stopped. the grand old men of Burlington House from putting on their annual Summer Exhibition
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The Independent Culture
SADNESS has a regular place in the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, for it always includes special tributes to members who have died in the last year. In the 1997 show there are three such mini-exhibitions. With a touching and unusual gesture, the Academy has given an honoured place to Alistair Grant, who was not an RA but Professor of Printmaking at the Royal College of Art. People appreciated Grant because he welcomed so many independent painters to his workshop, then helped them (sometimes by shameless bullying) to make prints of surprising expertise. The canvases at Burlington House are among the last of Grant's paintings. They are vivid, happy and relaxed, and feel as if they are straight off the easel - not always a characteristic of art by Royal Academicians.

Another commemorative wall is given to William Gear. He was unusual among British artists because he was part of a continental movement. Gear belonged to the Cobra Group, so called because its leading members came from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. They were active in Paris in the late 1940s, as was Gear. My impression is that this was the best time for his jagged, abstract painting, but evidently his tachiste impulse lasted for decades more. The other Academician who has died since the last summer show is Ivor Robert-Jones, one of those sculptors whose name is not familiar but who made one piece that everyone knows. This is the lumbering and insensitive statue of Sir Winston Churchill that stands in Parliament Square. Alas, the few heads and small sculptures of animals now at the RA will only detract from Robert-Jones's tiny reputation.

Churchill (a good friend of the Royal Academy) should have been the subject of a national icon, but was unlucky in his portraitists. Did no RA of the 1940s attempt his likeness? He may indeed, with de Gaulle, have been the first great statesman to have been captured more by the camera than the brush. Such thoughts are prompted because it cannot be long before the RA elects its first photographer, and also because portraiture in this year's show is thinner than ever. The tradition of the public portrait appears to have come to its end, though there's no reason why it should not be revived. Most competent artists can do portraits, but don't bother unless they are painting their own features for quite private reasons.

Someone who ought to paint self-portraits is Ron Kitaj. It 's odd that he has never attempted the genre, since everything he paints or writes reveals such an interest in his own personality. For this reason, I believe, Kitaj has never absorbed the influences on his art. He cites the painters he admires - masters such as Degas and Manet - but does not thereby join their company. The need to give a patchwork of quotations is common in people who assert themselves through self-education but is unusual in artists. The habit doesn't help Kitaj's painting, as is seen from his Manet-derived Sandra Three, an attack on art critics. As with most art controversies, the fuss surrounding Kitaj's work is less important than it seems, and the RA was mistaken in giving him a room to show with his friends.

Kitaj's selection isn't strong enough. In his gallery are paintings by Peter Blake, David Hockney, Frank Auerbach and Richard Hamilton, none of them of much interest. On the other hand Kitaj is aided by a genuinely fine picture by Allen Jones, Catwalk. Jones looks better these days than at any time since he began to exhibit. That was in the early 1960s, when Kitaj first appeared. Jones is the better artist. He has more control over his painting, a more intelligent palette and a more various and expressive touch. Jones also manages to overcome the vulgarity of his subject matter. Kitaj goes for subjects taken from high art and culture, but he brings them down to an embarrassing level.

Because of the recent fire at the RA the architectural exhibits will be shown separately and in a different venue, with the details to be announced this week. The present result is that sculpture looks enfeebled while painting gets a more airy hang than in most years. Here's a problem. Artists who usually provide big, dominating canvases are at less than full strength. Gillian Ayres, Sandra Blow, Bert Irvin, John Hoyland, Anthony Wishaw and Garry Wragg have all sent paintings which mix inspiration with routine.

I was disappointed by Jennifer Durrant's big pictures. Similar canvases last year looked wonderful. But now she has come to the end of that fruitful series of V-shaped abstract patterns and should look for something new.

Durrant's smaller and more spontaneous pictures will no doubt provide her with a new route. The best of them is to be found in the Small Weston Room, the awkward gallery which is traditionally the home for miniatures. Here are dozens of pictures not more than about two feet square. It's difficult for the spectator to concentrate on any single work, but the overall message is clear. Portraiture is going into small pictures which are about the same size as photographs. So is painting of the nude. So also is personal fantasy; and maybe abstract invention will now be found in paintings of a limited size.

Every year one goes to the RA in the hope of seeing convincing sculpture. But it's always awful. Think how bad the exhibition would be if it consisted of sculpture alone! The RA would not dare to put on such a show. Art in three dimensions is still the Academy's principal weakness. However, one or two pieces this summer give some hope and set standards. David Annesley always has a correct eye for abstract spatial relationships, though his current work is too modest. He ought to imagine himself as Vulcan.

Phillip King's contributions are also self-effacing. Yet his The Watcher is obviously the best work - in any medium - in the exhibition. This limpid ceramic sculpture has so much meaning within its economical form. It is both contemporary and classical; rural and domestic; architectural and ornamental; wet and dry; male and female. Such opposites make a beautiful whole, and these days we all need to be reminded that sculpture can be beautiful.

! Royal Academy, W1 (0171 439 7438), to 10 August.

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