Andrew Lambirth

Mixed blessings

<strong>Summer Exhibition</strong><em><br /> Royal Academy, until 17 August</em>

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Summer Exhibition

Royal Academy, until 17 August

The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, now in its 240th year, is still an event, even if visitors don’t dress up quite as ornately as once they did. For the first time I attended Buyers’ Day. The atmosphere is convivial but competitive, as people jostle to see exhibits and further thicken the crowds round the provenly popular. It’s not always easy to look at art in these conditions, but the acquisitive hum in the air almost compensates for the lack of calm. The more affluent, or relaxed, sip from glasses of champagne or Pimms while pondering their purchases, as the Academy offers its usual cross-section of contemporary art-making, though this steadily becomes more polarised between what people actually buy and the sensationalist exhibits that make newspaper headlines.

This year the show starts on the very highest note with Gallery I given over in tribute to R.B. Kitaj, whose tragic and unexpected death in 2007 shocked the art world. The room is divided into two, the first section containing six paintings which demonstrate unarguably what a fine and inventive painter he was, including one of his marvellous early ‘cowboy’ pictures, the classic ‘Jewish Rider’ and ‘Catalan Christ (Pretending to be Dead)’, a particularly moving image in this context. The second section includes a number of small recent paintings, a couple of Kitaj’s brilliant charcoal drawings and three of his poignant and evocative pastels, particularly ‘The Street (A Life)’ from 1975. Some of the 30-odd works are for sale, which seems unusual for a memorial display, while others have been borrowed from private and public collections as far away as Oslo. For the first time in my experience, with such a beginning the Summer Exhibition looks really serious. It’s beautifully selected and hung, unlike the sadly overcrowded tribute to Patrick Caulfield two years ago, and indeed this room on its own justifies a visit to the RA.

Gallery II features another memorial display, a more modest one this time, devoted to the life of Sir Colin St John Wilson, architect of the controversial British Library, art collector and benefactor of Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. He’s represented by four of his own paintings from the 1940s, abstract and very much of the period but rather effective, and some drawings and prints of the British Library. Nearby is a big Basil Beattie oil, featuring heavily worked architectural imagery at the bottom of a brightly coloured diagonal like a ski-slope. Also in this room are such European ‘modern masters’ as Tàpies and Paladino, and the American Ed Ruscha, showing a group of text pictures, which seem now after so much repetition to have completely lost their point. This year the print room (Large Weston Room) has been hung by Stephen Chambers, himself a highly talented and innovative printmaker. More dramatic and clear in its effects, the hang reveals the work better, whether it’s Jim Dine’s sexy pink nude, Paula Rego’s drinking lithographs or the elegant hand-coloured drypoint by Matthew Tyson, Hetty Haxworth’s bold screen print, Sara Lee’s gentle ukiyo-e woodcut landscape, Craigie Aitchison’s Scottish lyricism, or the potent abstract visions of Clyde Hopkins and John McLean.

The Small Weston Room is hung in a very popular floor-to-ceiling jigsaw by Mick Rooney and was almost impenetrably jammed with people the day I visited. Peering between viewers’ legs or over their heads it was possible to discern such treasures as a pale yellow quince by Robert Dukes, a couple of robust yet minimal flower paintings by Jean Cooke, a pair of subtly coloured abstracts by Philippa Stjernsward, marvellous inky traceries by Leonard Rosoman, along with characteristic things by Mary Fedden and Quentin Blake. A deliciously sensitive Diana Armfield, ‘Sheep on the Llanberis Pass’, caught my eye as did the moody ‘Carbury Castle’ by Catherine Mann, and Adrian Berg’s long ink drawing of Kew Gardens, done with a reed pen.

Gallery III, the main room of the exhibition, is this year dominated by Christopher Le Brun, on fine discursive form, and Tony Bevan (‘Studio Tower’ I particularly liked) at one end, with Barbara Rae, searching out the patterns in landscape with her richly distinctive palette, at the other. Too much to mention in between, though I recommend the three big Maurice Cockrill drawings in ink and acrylic, Eileen Cooper’s ‘Taking the Long Way Home’, and Anthony Whishaw’s satisfyingly crusty ‘Stubbled Field with Birds’. For a startling piece of infelicitous hanging notice Bert Irvin’s paintings juxtaposed with Maurice Cockrill’s — it does justice to neither. But with a huge mixed exhibition like the summer show, it’s always a surprise that this kind of thing happens as infrequently as it does — a tribute to the hanging skills of the Academicians.

Gallery IV is dominated by a highly reflective stainless-steel ‘Ping Pong Table’ by Ron Arad, which throws back at the visitor distorted bits of the paintings on the walls. Gillian Ayres benefits particularly from this treatment, her bright and joyous paintings, more frondy than ever, repeated and fragmented by the games table. Another large abstract here, by Paul Tonkin, is also effective, and hung with the likes of Humphrey Ocean, Shanti Panchal, Jock McFadyen (meticulous urban landscape) and Paul Winstanley makes striking and informative contrasts. Mixed in are Georg Baselitz (looking better in this company than in his own overblown RA solo show) and Anselm Kiefer. A powerful room, with a group of smaller pictures, especially ‘Barry’ by Jamie Partridge and ‘To GM’ by Elizabeth Meadows, bringing a welcome change of focus.

Gallery V glorifies the expressive and borders on the frenetic: Roy Oxlade searches for a sock, George Rowlett churns the Thames like a dynamo, Alex Ramsay trails whimsical but beguiling lines and glitter over a dark ground. For moments of calm, turn to Fred Cuming and Karn Holly. Gallery VI is devoted to architectural models which look increasingly like cabinets of curiosities, such as Zaha Hadid’s New Museum for Vilnius, or Renzo Piano’s sculptural wooden hut. Gallery VII has too much photography in it, but is saved by a couple of Michael Kidner’s big geometric drawings and Bryan Kneale’s sculptures, more inventive than ever and variously patinated in dreamy blue or silver and black. Gallery VIII, selected by Tracey Emin, is full of silliness and childish attempts to shock. Rumour has it that Miss Emin invited Peter Blake to show a large picture in this room and then didn’t hang it. A shame: it might have raised the tone.

Sculpture and sculptors’ drawings feature in Gallery IX: here are Nigel Hall (fresh from a signal success at Yorkshire Sculpture Park), Ivor Abrahams and a series of powerful charcoal drawings by William Tucker. The Lecture Room seems to be dominated by columns and lumps, the latter prevailing (W. Tucker again, and Tony Cragg). Richard Long contributes an extensive row of floored and sharp-ended slates, Phillip King a strange wall-rack in pink, green and yolk-yellow. The Central Hall is disappointing apart from a group of glowing coloured reliefs by Ken Draper and some sharply effective wall sculptures by Ann Christopher. We don’t need to see Jeff Koons at the RA, the space his ‘Cracked Egg’ took up could be better used.

Gallery X has been hung with more traditional art and was therefore, of course, packed, since that’s what people come to the RA Summer Exhibition to buy. Here are such old favourites as Freddy Gore and Anthony Green, some lovely Leonard McCombs (including ‘Cyclists by the Sea, Cyprus’), bracing green landscapes by Ben Levene and a couple of powerful Anthony Eyton canvases. Particularly memorable is the big night i nterior of his studio, a gloriously complex still-life. Jeffery Camp contributes five new oddly shaped pictures, ‘Red River Thames’ being especially eye-catching. Below, a subtly painted sculpture by Neil Jeffries makes an eloquent companion. On the way out is one of Simon Palmer’s exquisite watercolours and a powerful abstracted landscape by Derek Balmer, ‘After Rain’, its forms slightly melted, rather as I felt after the onslaught of this vast mixed blessing of an exhibition.