Summer brings spring for the RA

EXHIBITIONS: The sun is shining in Piccadilly. The RA has a new Secretary, bold plans for the future, and an encouragingly strong summer show
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The Independent Culture
A new era for the Royal Academy began last Monday morning when David Gordon took up his position as the RA's Secretary. This may not sound dramatic, but the new Secretary is high-powered in a way his predecessors have never been. Gordon was Chief Executive of the Economist Group from 1981-93 and Chief Executive of ITN from 1993-95. He also has some art qualifications. He is the elder brother of the late Max Gordon, the architect and collector who designed the Saatchi Gallery. He's a Trustee of the Tate and for some time has been Chairman of the Contemporary Art Society, a body originally founded to enable museums to buy new art but which nowadays has wider commercial interests.

Gordon's first task at the Academy is to prepare its application for huge funds from the Lottery. The RA has a big, and sensible, scheme. They want to take over and convert the building which at present is the Museum of Mankind. It's in Burlington Gardens, literally at the Academy's back- door. At present the Museum of Mankind houses the British Museum's ethnographic collections. They will be moved to the Bloomsbury site in 1998. So it's logical and desirable that the RA should move in. If the bid is successful the Academy can expand, especially in its exhibition programme, and with other undisclosed projects.

Therefore Gordon's importance. Within Burlington House it's predicted that future Presidents of the Academy will be figureheads rather than leaders. Who will be the next PRA when the architect Sir Philip Dowson, now 72, retires? The three candidates at the moment are: the former Pop artist Allen Jones; Tom Phillips, who is best-known as a print-maker; and the sculptor Michael Kenny. They have their individual talents, but none of them would claim high dignity as an artist. Least of all would they claim to be able to run a multi-million-pound business, which is what the Academy now is.

Talking of money, sales at the Summer Exhibition are even better than usual, and I'm not surprised. There's a different atmosphere. At summer shows one usually finds memorial displays of Academicians who have died in the previous 12 months. This year, happily, there are none. The show looks more youthful and optimistic than I had expected. The hang is excellent, and has evidently given pleasure to the people entrusted with this crazy task. Grandiose set-pieces and academic portraits have now gone forever. Mostly, though, the new feeling is because there has been a general lightening in the palettes of the exhibitors. This must be to the good, though it's possible to miss the usual attempts to provide a heavyweight "picture of the year". The 1996 prize for the most distinguished work in the exhibition has gone to Jeffrey Camp for his Spring, a wonderful exercise in froth, but not quite adult.

Anthony Wishaw has also won a prize for his Matadero, suggested by the Spanish art he has so long admired, and this is a serious work. So is an uncharacteristic painting by Ken Howard, Ulster Child. It's a long panel-shaped canvas, mostly concerned with reproducing Belfast graffiti. RB Kitaj's equally elongated The Critic Kills is a graffiti in itself, for it is scarcely painted and mainly consists of scrawled, half- threatening messages. Yet another dark longways picture is Carel Weight's Watteau Walked Here Every Day, while the one picture with political weight is Josef Herman's In Memory of the Victims of Our Time. Herman has been rather neglected of late (and why is he not considered a member of the "School of London"?) so it's good to have this token of his concerns.

There are no great surprises in the exhibition, but then one doesn't go to the RA to be astonished. Abstract painting, led by such veterans as Bert Irvin and John Hoyland, has a familiar air. Maybe we are so used to their art that we forget that it's pitched at a courageous level. Hoyland in particular is an exponent of aesthetic brinkmanship. Sandra Blow's annual appearance once more reminds us that she cannot conceive a painting without taking risks. Gillian Ayres' Sucked Up Sun Slips is a beauty. This is one of her occasional pictures when she seems Picasso-esque. I wrote about Jennifer Durrant's new paintings when she had a solo show a few months ago. Seen now in difficult mixed company, they impress all the more with their combination of firmness and grace. John Holden's impressive pictures are not as "geometric" as they at first appear. Maurice Cockrill's Ash: Rose Fracture is the best painting of his that I have seen.

It does appear that the Academy is getting more youthful. I hope it does not forget its obligations to a group of artists whom I shall call old gentlemen, though others would call them old buffers or perhaps some other word. Often we don't see their paintings except at the Academy and it would be sad if they disappeared. This year the old gents are led by the splendid Adrian Berg, whose disregard for any principles other than his own I have long admired. His Beachy Head, 20th July has a luxuriant, almost Caribbean feel. Perhaps he has forgotten where he set up his easel. William Bowyer has left his usual seat at Lord's to give us an oddly symbolist picture, The Burning of the Boat. Two Francophiles of advanced years, Frederick Gore and Alistair Grant, contribute French landscapes.

The Academy remains a good market place for many artists and is especially useful for people without dealers. Unfortunately no sensible patron or occasional punter would go to the Academy to buy sculpture. Every year a new effort is made to improve the presentations of three-dimensional work but these attempts always fail. In the forecourt there's one work of genuine class and dignity. It's the Arco de la Libertad by Eduardo Chillida, who is an honorary Academician. But this and other works in the open air look out of place, and so do sculptures indoors by David Annesley, Stephen Cox and Tony Cragg. I've never felt that the RA has a direct relationship to sculpture, either in the summer shows or in temporary exhibitions. Maybe the opportunities presented by the Museum of Mankind's building will help to solve the problem - and I should add that there's an excellent sculpture department in the RA Schools.

228th Summer Exhibition: RA, W1, (0171 439 7438), to 18 August.