Artists Battle Amid Red Riot at Royal Academy Exhibit

Royal Academy
The Central Hall at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2012. The bold color of the walls is a tribute to Matisse's Red Studio. Photographer: John Bodkin/Royal Academy via Bloomberg

Red is always the most important color in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London.

That’s the hue of the spots that traditionally indicate sales, which run riot this year for example around a framed print by Tracey Emin, “Small and Beautiful,” so sweetly affordable at 275 pounds ($427), in an edition of 300, that the dots almost upstage the actual image of a little bird. Red is also the color of conflict, and that’s at the heart of the Summer Exhibition.

This year’s edition, the 244th, is no exception. In a way, it’s just like all the 243 other Summer Exhibitions: a visual jumble, a cacophony in which every single work simultaneously tries to shout, “Look at me!” You could say that this is the equivalent in art-world terms of a totally unregulated market.

Except that in recent decades there have been attempts to impose some order on this Georgian chaos. Tess Jaray, a Royal Academician and the coordinator for 2012, has made bold efforts to stamp curatorial authority on it all. Her first move was to paint the first gallery a strong pillar-box red.

This naturally fights with many of the pictures on its walls. The idea is, she writes, partly intended as a homage to Matisse’s “The Red Studio,” partly a bow to John Singer Sargent who once proclaimed that red was the only proper color to hang pictures on. Actually, his late Edwardian portraits would look good on red, though a mellower one than this.

Red Tide

In practice, the landscapes hung in tribute to the late Adrian Berg RA thrive on these pillar-box walls because they are mainly a complimentary blue/green (not for sale). But the memorials to John Hoyland, another RA who died last year, struggle against the red tide surrounding them.

Another counterintuitive move is to take a lot of the smallest works in the exhibition, and put them in the biggest room, while putting just one video work in the usual place for the littlest pictures, the Small Weston Room. The latter is out of place in the Summer Exhibition for the simple reason that it lasts 25 minutes, and there are 1,473 other items on view.

Meanwhile, it’s definitely survival of the fittest in Room III, where more than 400 little paintings are hung in a wave formation that oscillates around the gallery. A few items caught my eye: an abstract by Virginia Verran seemed to pop out despite or perhaps because it’s largely a soft gray (3,750 pounds). The competition to be noticed is ferocious.

Scully Abstract

In general, there are more small pictures this year, and fewer big items and star names. What heavy hitters there are make a mark. An abstract by Sean Scully not only dominates Room IV, framed in a series of doorways, it commands the whole view down Burlington House.

Several paintings of romantically misty rearing horses by the new president of the RA, Christopher le Brun (33,600 pounds to 96,000 pounds), make an impression, as do abstracts by Ian McKeever (gouaches at 9,400 pounds) and the team of Matthew Collings and Emma Biggs (18,000 pounds).

Since 1768 the Summer Exhibition has been a battle for attention. Famously, Constable once hung a large painting of his next to a small, gray Turner. When he came back later, he found Turner had put a single circle of strong color on his canvas, effectively pulling the eye away from Constable’s.

It was a small red dot.

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition runs through Aug. 12 at Burlington House, London. Information:

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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