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Scrutinizing “The Academic Body”

June 3, 2019
Daniel Chester French, <em>Maquette of Painting and Sculpture</em>, 1896–97, bronze, 12½ x 4¼ x 3½ in. (left); and <em>Maquette of Architecture</em>, 1898, bronze, 12½ x 3¼ x 2 5/8 in. (right)
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By Claudia Trezza.

The human body has gone through a lot since the American Academy in Rome was founded more than a century ago.

When the Academy first opened its doors in 1894, the Greek and Roman notion of perfect balance and chiseled beauty was still the standard for study. In the postwar period, Academy Fellows rebelled against the classical canon by covering an ancient muscular Roman torso in graffiti. In the following decades, they depicted the body in painting and sculpture, photography and video, in myriad ways, from a skeleton hanging on an easel by its skull to a still of a Fellow’s aging husband meant to contrast with the ideal of Greek masculinity.

Many of those depictions were on display in The Academic Body, an exhibition at the American Academy in Rome that opened in May. The show demonstrated how the body has reemerged, according to the curators, “not as a standard, canonical form—but as a fulcrum for contemporary meditations on identity, gender, sexuality, and race,” as “lightning rods for contemporary social issues—including the violence committed against the marginalized, the recognition of transgender individuals, and the replacement of workers by robotics, to name only a few examples—bodies have assumed unprecedented visibility in political discourse.”

Or, as Peter Benson Miller, the Andrew Heiskell Arts Director of the Academy, declared on opening night, the academic body has “once again returned to the floor.”

The exhibition, curated by Miller and AAR President and CEO Mark Robbins, was the coronation of a year-long series at the Academy focused on the human body. Titled New Work in the Arts & Humanities: The Body, the series kicked off last September with a talk by the renowned classicist Mary Beard on how we look at Greek and Roman statues today. The pieces on show at the exhibition track the trajectory of artistic interpretation—and the cultures they emerged from—on the theme of the body throughout the Academy’s almost 125 years.

Two of the artists who have made recent contributions to that evolution joined Robbins in a discussion before the opening. Patricia Cronin (2007 Fellow) talked about a sculpture that she created for her burial plot at the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. It depicts two female nude bodies, reminiscent of classical Roman and Greek sculptures, lying next to each other in bed. The work was a way to “commemorate the love with my partner,” Cronin said, but also as a “poetic protest piece” for same-sex marriage.

Stefan Sagmeister, a designer, topographer, and 2019 Resident, talked about using his own body as canvas for a poster that he made for 1999 AIGA Detroit. In it, an intern carved his torso with information about the event using an X-Acto knife. It was an “anti-modernist statement,” Sagmeister said, to place emotions and subjectivity back into the picture. “I wanted to bring the personal back.”

Cronin’s and Sagmeister’s pieces are on display in the Academy galleries, along with other works—some made specifically for the exhibition.

Pieces of driftwood reassembled in the shape of a large skeleton greeted visitors at the entrance of the Academy. The piece, named Driftwood, by Sissi (2007 Fellow) is meant as a reminder of the migratory waves flooding the Mediterranean coasts. Across from it stands a restored copy of Polykleitos’s Doryphoros torso, which the Fellows scrawled graffiti across in the 1940s, and which has recently been used by various artists as a cast model.

Conventional scenes of classical sculptures and architecture form the background of a portrait of the very unconventional and provocative Italian writer Pier Paolo Pasolini. He is sketched with a black Bic pen by Giuseppe Stampone (2014 Italian Fellow).

A photo by Lyle Ashton Harris (2001 Fellow) of a black male ballet dancer looking directly at the camera, his genitals exposed, with bare feet, is an image that contrasts “the sterile idealization of the classical ballet dancer’s body,” in the words of the artist.

Catherine Opie’s portrait of a football player wearing a Superman T-shirt and posing similar to classical sculptures suggests how “vulnerability and androgeny” can hide beneath uniforms and “constructed behavior.”

A musical composition by Jesse Marino (2019 Fellow) was displayed on opening night, when body, voice, and facial gestures were performed according to strict and synchronized musical beats.

Five portraits of African American artists by Beverly McIver (2018 Fellow) were highlighted amongst the rows of portraits of past Fellows at the Academy bar.

The exhibition demonstrated once again the willingness of the American Academy in Rome to act as a home for cutting-edge thinking and artistic expression, but also as a place to ask questions about the way it sees the world and itself.

Also on display in The Academic Body until July 13 are works by Sanford Biggers (2018 Fellow), Daniel Chester French, Stephen Greene (1954 Fellow), Ann Hamilton (2017 Resident), Tom Johnson/Adrienne Kennedy, Paul Manship (1912 Fellow), Ana Mendieta (1984 Fellow), Wangechi Mutu (2019 Resident), David Schutter (2016 Fellow), Catherine Wagner (2014 Fellow), and Deborah Willis (2019 Resident). A performance between the playwright Adrienne Kennedy and the artist Tom Johnson, inspired by Kennedy’s reading of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, was presented on May 14 as part of The Academic Body.

The exhibition and performances were made possible by the Roy Lichtenstein Artist in Residence Fund, the Robert Mapplethorpe Photographer in Residence Fund, and the Terra Foundation for American Art.