Well, they finally attached a name to it: “The Buffalo Avant-Garde.”
The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has undertaken a study of local history, collecting artworks, artifacts and anecdotal treasures of a time — don’t laugh, kids — when Buffalo led the world in forward-looking art. That time was not that long ago, and the exhibit “Wish You Were Here; the Buffalo Avant-Garde in the 1970s,” on view until July 8, offers a stunning look at over 300 examples of influential and homegrown art.
The short form of the history, for those who remember the era only in terms of Bills-Sabres-blizzard-Jimmy Griffin-unemployment, goes thusly:
As has been pointed out elsewhere, what Florence was to the Renaissance, Buffalo was to post-modernism. Artists Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Charles Clough and several hundred others worked here (a retrospective of Sherman’s career is currently on view in New York’s Museum of Modern Art). Sherman attended Buffalo State College; she and her circle of friends moved into an old Essex Street ice house and founded Hallwalls (now the Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center); Artpark was established as a laboratory for large-scale art experimentation.
The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra had Lukas Foss and later Michael Tilson Thomas pushing the symphony to the farthest reaches of modern music and recording compositions by Stockhausen, Xenakis and Cage. SUNY Buffalo’s “Creative Associates” were similarly gifted with the foremost names in experimental music. The college’s English department expanded furiously and became a Who’s Who of literary criticism and poetry; Robert Creeley and Leslie Fiedler worked there.
These were heady times for artists on the cutting edge of things. Buffalo, now better known in most circles for chicken wings and snowstorms, had something of a hothouse atmosphere that likely takes about forty years of historical distance to appreciate.
“Wish You Were Here” examines the loosely organized artistic communities that flourished here, offering film, painting and sculpture, a variety of installations and a splendid assortment of “studies” and other detritus that artists tend to leave in drawers and cabinets, those preliminary sketches and crossed-out ideas that have secrets to tell.
Curated by Heather Pesanti, who has pointed out she knew all about these artists but did not realize their confluence of influence in Buffalo until she began this four-year investigation (which included interviewing more than 60 of the artists and gathering the artwork), the exhibition is massive, occupying five rooms of the Albright-Knox, and therein lies another part of the story.
What prompted this explosion, or rather implosion, of the start of post-modernism, was the fertile and ready landscape of Buffalo in the 1960s.
In 1962, the Albright Art Gallery (named after its founder, the president of Republic Steel) became the Albright-Knox with the donation of art works by Seymour Knox, beginning the organization’s headlong rush into modernism. The same year Foss was hired by the Philharmonic to shake up the orchestra and the University of Buffalo was absorbed into the State University system, suddenly filling it with funding enough to hire America’s best professors in music and art.
Buffalo had cachet in the art world. The Albright-Knox’s “Festival of the Arts” in 1965 caused Time magazine to comment that it was “perhaps the most all-encompassing, hip, with-it, avant-garde presentation in the U.S. to date.” The Second festival, in 1968, was reviewed in a colorful six-page spread in Life magazine thusly: “Can this really be Buffalo? Buffalo exploded in an avant-garde festival that was bigger and hipper than anything ever held in Paris or New York.”
It is not hard to think of Buffalo as a pass-through destination. Historically we’ve been at it since the Erie Canal days, immigrants and business people and grifters coming and going, coming and staying, maturing and leaving. Buffalo as Timbuktu. Buffalo as O’Hare Airport.
Something similar occurred in the arts in the 1970s. Low rents, great teachers and a welcoming environment brought in students who walked out as breakthrough artists, (one of Sherman’s evocative works, as always a disguised self-portrait, will be auctioned for $3.8 million this month) and are now regarded as icons of the post-modernist movement.
The current exhibition at the Albright-Knox is something of a breakthrough for the art itself. The Western New York art world has long had a scattershot, floating-crapgame sort of ethos, with small galleries opening, closing and moving; art created in apartment back rooms; art constructed in abandoned factories and corners of welding and collision shops. The centerpiece, the jewel in the city’s crown, through, is the world-famous Albright-Knox Art Gallery, with all the pillars and the space and the provenance. That these experimental prototypes for a new way of seeing things got to the big stage, and influenced the public’s taste in art, design, music and video, is indicative of the prominence now given to what happened in Buffalo, just a few years ago.
Those of us who lived through the era are better for it (this columnist was never an artist but definitely a patron of these arts back then). Those who did not will be surprised to learn of a time when Buffalo was synonymous with a progressive, if not radical, outlook.
The phrase “Made in Buffalo” never sounded as sweet as when strolling through these halls.
Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident. He can be reached at EdinKenmore@gmail.com
IF YOU GO
• WHAT: "Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-Garde in the 1970s"
• WHERE: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo
• WHEN: Until July 8. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. the first Friday of every month
• COST: Adults $12; seniors $8
• MORE INFORMATION:882-8700