“The Review Panel: An Evening of Critical Conversation About Art”

At the National Academy, Four Esteemed Critics Take On Four Local Exhibitions Live


Published February 18, 2010

“Do I really need to see someone masturbate in a box? I’ve done that enough myself.” There I was listening to poet, author, professor, and critic John Yau take the floor at the National Academy Museum to discuss the merits of modern art, at a forum of esteemed art critics, “The Review Panel.” Though he was not the only one who challenged, entertained and educated me that night.

A friend asked me recently if I’d like to accompany her to what she referred to as a “debate” between art critics at a Museum uptown. With a bitter chill encompassing Manhattan, and most everyone stubbornly indoors, there were few prospects for this particular Friday night. So with details still sketchy, we ventured up to 89th Street and Fifth Avenue, on the famed Museum Mile, and found ourselves at the historic National Academy Museum of Fine Arts.  Inside the five-story mansion, my friend and I were a few minutes early, so we stood in the museum’s beautiful marble rotunda until we were allowed to walk up the spiral staircase en masse to the second floor. There, an eager staff continually lined the space with clunky folding chairs as people crowded in. The “debate” was “The Review Panel,” a monthly event where four art critics critique current art exhibits in New York City’s galleries.

More than 30 panels have been held at the National Academy so far, moderated by critic and editor of artcritical.com, David Cohen, with new voices joining him each month. The board of the National Academy, including famed artists like minimalist painter Robert Ryman and silhouette artist Kara Walker, choose the established artists to fill each eclectic panel.

On this particular night, New York Observer art critic Mario Naves, New Yorker critic Andrea K. Scott, and Brooklyn Rail arts editor John Yau, waited to critique Frances Barth’s work from the Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Marlo Pascual’s work from the Casey Kaplan Gallery, Susannah Phillips’ show from Lori Bookstein Fine Art and Stanley Whitney’s work at Team Gallery. After scenes from each gallery, squeaky footstep sounds and all, were projected directly onto the wall, the panelists took their seats.  Though it took them some time to become comfortable at the front of the room, eventually they each feverishly brought their own identities and opinions to the forum.

Cohen ardently reigned over the event with his stately London dialect and sarcastic wit, giving the proceedings an early air of unwanted snobbery, though he turned out to be charmingly self-effacing. Naves’ role on the panel was the opposite of Cohen’s, with his quiet contemplation lending him credibility even when his answers were unique and polarizing. Scott was the shyest of the panelists, lending only brisk yet sharp remarks to her attentive audience, though her brevity was understandable once Cohen explained that she was an 11th hour replacement. Finally Yau provided a much-needed casual yet critical voice in the room that felt at once informed and unfiltered. Yau was my favorite of the panelists: a funny, clever man with nerve.

While I admittedly found the discussion dry at first, the panel’s discussion and audience both grew more interested and lively as the hour went on. While the panelists largely agreed on Barth’s abstract horizontal landscapes, none of them found much to like in Pascual’s juxtaposition of vintage photographs and props, finding little meaning or correlation between installations in the Casey Kaplan Gallery. I, too, wasn’t sure if Pascual’s work on display was successful, though I did find her familiar black-and-white images captivating and I appreciated that each panelist’s dissent was fully supported by their own artistic sensibility. Phillips’ abstract interior scenes and Whitney’s geometric paintings fared better with the panelists though their opinions again varied on whether the works were entirely successful.

My sole complaint about watching the panel is that my brain kept shuffling the images from the shaky home video shown at the start of the review, making it difficult to remember what artists and work the panelists were addressing. However, because I had stumbled into the event, I had not previously visited the galleries and therefore was taking a video that was likely meant to conjure up memories for the audience as my only account of the artists’ work. I was lucky that night that Mr. Cohen informed the audience that all the night’s remarks would be posted as an ongoing podcast on artcritical.com. Next time, when I visit the galleries prior to the review, the quick reminder will be just that.

Nevertheless, the evening at the museum was well spent and the rest of the audience shared my opinion, enthusiastically questioning the panel’s thoughts after the review. Though the turnout has grown with each panel, the audience seemed remarkably close-knit and congenial. Artists, professors, writers and local art goers of all ages shuffled around greeting each other and laughing with old friends before and after the panel. It was a diverse crowd with tastes to match. There were wealthy patron-of-the-arts-types, chins up, sweaters wrapped gently around their necks, and starving artists, dressed down, their experience showing in the wrinkles on their faces and the dirt on their jeans. Yet all of the people who crowded into the ornate room were polite and eager to listen, united in their interest to take what had once bothered them alone, and discuss it together, huddled close on a freezing January night. I hope the next wintry Friday night leads others to find “The Review Panel.”