Tuesday, October 23, 2018

A trip to Western New York

The early seventies found me in Buffalo, New York -- conveniently located near an international border where draft dodgers like myself might seek refuge.

love these bay windows

 I had obtained a graduate student fellowship in American Studies -- and happily enough, I coupled with a beautiful young Anthropology professor.  Her financial bona fides enabled a group of fellow students, or near students, to buy the Victorian structure shown above.

We were a little too straight to qualify as hippies.   None of us did psychedelic drugs or read Tarot cards-- but we called our domestic arrangement a "commune".  We  had a job wheel, collective decision making, communal meals, and  felt ourselves to be pioneers of a post-capitalist, post-nuclear family, brave new world.

I can't remember doing so -- but I'm told that we ceremoniously planted that London Plane tree in the front yard -- back when it was a mere sapling.

After nearly fifty years, it's amazing that the house looks much as it did back then.  Even more amazing is the fact that my sweet young anthropologist  -- now a proud grandmother and professor emeritus-- still lives there with her husband and keeps in touch with almost all the former communards still living.

And more amazing still is the survival of this decorative frieze that I painted on masonite and hung near the ceiling of the dining room.  It offers portraits of each inhabitant.

A  portrait of the artist himself

The scholar who loved him

The commune's unofficial rabbi who officiated over the weekly Sabbath dinner.
(many of us were not Jewish -- but ceremonial dinners are fun). He was also a gay activist and poet.

The woman on the right has continued to live in a scaled down communal arrangement 
in Portland with two other Buffalo alumni.

(I haven't shown all of the portraits - not for any less fondness for the subjects
 -- but for less satisfaction with my design)

One of the home's current treasures is this ABX  masterpiece by Phil Durgan - a free spirit who came to Buffalo about thirty years after I left.  He had taught himself how to make exciting paintings before his tragic death in 2014.

It really crackles with energy - almost like the eccentric calligraphy of the Ming Dynasty.

The painting was acquired at a raffle at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center.

Bruce Adams

This visit coincided with Allentown's  First Friday - where all the neighborhood art galleries stay open late.

Above, two white, middle class American couples in the 1940's  have gathered around the radio to enjoy a cup of tea.  That's the world I was born into.   Today, I suppose, their great grandchildren would all be looking at their smart phones when they gather together.

It feels a bit nostalgic -  which is O.K. with me.   I'd be surprised to find this such work shown in  Chicago - which tends to have more nostalgia for the 1950's.

Felice Koenig, "Feeling Good" (Nina Simone)

I enjoy these puzzle pieces where the challenge is to find the pattern.  The title of the piece does seem appropriate..

I've seen this kind of thing in Chicago -- indeed, the artist herself grew up in one of the northern suburbs.  It could also probably be found anywhere in the United States -- or even the world.

John Dickson, "Sun and Moon"

This artist mostly does conceptual installations on environmental themes.

So it's surprising that he's so good with black and white graphics.

Nathan Naetzker

This is a plein air depiction of Lake Erie. 

A bit foreboding -- wouldn't you say?

I can't imagine Lake Michigan being presented this way
 -- though I'm sure you could find similar views on its shores.

Polly Little

Another piece that would have to be called sentimental, but 
just a little too well composed to be called naive.

Richard Angelo Runfola

There was an entire gallery filled with this young man's work.  He studies architecture at a local university.

All his pieces were fun -- though I'm not sure I'd want to look at them every day.


Then it was on to the Albright-Knox Gallery - 
which, conveniently , was open the evening we arrived.

Emile Pierre Branchard, 1928

A  self taught  New York City laborer whose paintings caught the eye of a dealer -- and then MOMA - and then me.

I did not note the title -- but I would all it "The Road to Death"

William Glackens, Jetties at Bellport, 1912

.a happy, watery little detail

Philip  Clarkson Elliott, 1943

A Buffalo painter who taught at the local university for many years --
and apparently admired Charles Sheeler.

There's a loneliness and severity that is hard to find in Chicago painting from that period.

Georg Baselltz, 1976

Not really one of my favorites at the museum,
but I did wonder how it  looked
before the artist turned it upside down.

This small image cannot really show us how the painting would
have appeared were it not inverted.

It does look kind of funky, dramatic, urban, edgy.

It might  have even caught my eye.

Willem DeKooning, Gotham News, 1955

This piece is so much more enjoyable than the more famous, and more painful,
 DeKooning painting, "Excavation" (1950) ,
 that I see frequently at the Art Institute of Chicago.


It may be depicting a disaster.... but it's a vibrant and beautiful one.

Possibly the artist was happier in 1955 than he was in 1950.


Willem DeKooning, Untitled V, 1977

And I find this later piece more enjoyable,dramatic,and satisfying  than Untitled XI (1975) that sometimes hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago

Arshile Gorky, "The Liver is the Cock's Comb" (1944)

IMHO this is the great piece in the Albright-Knox Gallery -- and one of the masterpieces of  mid 20th Century heroic painting -- on the level of  José Clemente Orozco's  "Man of Fire" (1936–39).

It never quits.

It's at the verge of figurative--- within a pictorial space that approaches
a romantic tableaux by Delacroix.

Piero Dorazio, 1976   (detail)

Jackson Pollock, Convergence (1952)

This is the first Pollock that I've ever enjoyed.
 - though these small, spectral  screen images do now make me wonder why.

(The Albright Knox also had a few pieces by Joan Mitchell -
and I'm still waiting to see anything by her that 
doesn't feel awkward and half baked.)

I'm sure that the De Kooning, Gorky, and Pollock were all up on the walls of the Albright-Knox back when I lived in Buffalo, fifty years ago ---  though I never noticed them.

I was much more interested in their small collection of pre-modern art -- most of which was auctioned off about twenty years ago.  These days,  the closest city with an encyclopedic collection would be Cleveland or Toronto.

The Milwaukee Art Museum also abandoned any attempt to be encyclopedic after they remodeled and re-installed their collection two years ago.  They still have a much greater variety of stuff than the Albright-Knox -- but they got rid of everything that was not within their areas of strength.  (so they still show all their Haitian art - but no longer show their Chinese Buddhist sculpture)

It's an arrangement that may better serve the reputation of the museum and its staff -- but poorly serves young people who are just beginning to discover the world of art.


Apparently the museum still owns the Gainsborough portrait of Miss Evans --- though now it's partially  attributed to the obscure nephew instead of the famous uncle.


The ostensible purpose of this trip was to attend a Miller family wedding in Chautauqua, New York.

The bride and groom were both unusually attractive,  and since all of the parents are talented theater performers, the reception was unforgettable..

The only photos I took, however, were of the miniature sculpture garden next to the family cottage.

When my father died,  a house full of sculpture was left behind 
-- and several small bronzes have ended up here.

A perfect setting for them ! 

They compete quite well with the foliage.

This is a  lyrical vision of humanity as
 strong, sane, sexy,  and gentle.
--- totally out-of-sync 
with the Post-War American artworld.

 these pieces will escape being melted-down 
before the aesthetic quality
of the surface is given greater monetary value
than the bronze metal beneath it.


Returning to Buffalo, we visited the Burchfield-Penney Art Center.  I don't recall ever visiting it before the move into its impressive new  facility across the street from the Albright-Knox.  It mostly used to focus on  Charles Burchfield, the local art hero.

Now it's  dedicated to all the "distinguished artists of Buffalo, Niagara and Western New York"

There's nothing quite like it in Chicago -- where local art has yet to become the exclusive focus of any institution other than the Illinois State Museum. (currently suffering from the state's budget crisis) Local art is only shown if it relates to the contemporary artworld or a specific ethnic identity (Mexican, Greek, African American etc )

I'd like to take this opportunity to write about some of these artists -- as well as compare them to the artists of Chicago.

(It  should  be noted that photography, and all other kinds of primarily conceptual art, does not interest me. )

Jonathan Rogers, self portrait, 2001

During our visit, the museum featured a large solo exhibition by Niagara artist, Jonathan Rogers.

I love this self portrait of the gap-toothed artist as a happy, active,  man-of-the-brush.

I'm less satisfied with his cartoonish expressions of self contempt.

The craft and manic energy of cartoons has a special place in Chicago art -- but due, perhaps, to the city's tradition of political activism, the anger is usually directed outward rather than inward.


The pictorial space -- as well as the small people on the sofa above--does, however,  remind me of the Chicago  Surrealist,  Seymour Rosofsky (right)

Our visit also coincided with a large survey of  local artists -- just like the annual "Chicago and Vicinity Show" that the Art Institute mounted until the mid 1980's - after which leadership presumably felt that their museum was too important to be concerned with local art.

Thomas Kegler, September Afternoon, Delaware Park (Buffalo), 2009

19th C. Romantic landscape painting is still practiced, and sometimes quite well, but no Chicago museum or gallery will hang it unless it was made back in the day.

Here is similar work by Chicago artist, Scott Powers, who eventually moved out west to find a better market for his work.

Ellen Steinfeld (b. 1945) , Spring, 2012

I'm sorry I missed her 2013 solo exhibit here at the museum.  She works in metal and stained glass, as well as the watercolor shown above. Clear - sharp - dynamic - aggressive --- of all the artists now on display here, she feels closest to the legacy of Charles Burchfield.  She loves nature -- but knows that nature is not your friend.

Visually overwhelming though marginal to the conceptual concerns of contemporary academia,
the most likely place to find this kind of work in Chicago would be the Elmhurst Art Museum.

Gary Kyte, Shadow Road

The legacy of Edward Hopper lives on in the lonely buildings painted by the above local artist -- as well as in the work of the Wisconsin artist, Andy Fletcher, that I saw in Milwaukee last April.

Barbara Insalaco (b. 1946) , Colonnade Garden, 1987

A rather straightforward view of the good life.  Wouldn't you like to afford such an estate?

It's not a dream that I share -- but it does feel good to run the eye through this tan, blue and green pictorial space.

It reminds me of a Chicago painter, Nancie King Mertz who appears to serve the same market.

Monica Angle (b. 1962), River Crossing V, 2012

More suggestive than descriptive, this artist shows in Minneapolis as well as Buffalo -- and would not seem out of place in any other American city.

I like vaporous -- but I also want it to deliver a little more punch.

Virginia Cuthbert (1908 - 2001), The Quiet Street, 1952

An even more explicit homage to Edward Hopper - this artist also did more bright, colorful, and somewhat goofy paintings that might be called 'magical realism'.

Bruce Barber (b. 1925) , Biak Sunset with Tree, 1945

This is a very nice expressionist landscape done by a nineteen year old serviceman in the South Pacific.  Biak island was a major battleground where 10,000 Japanese men fought to the death.

Nothing else by this artist can be found on the internet.  Apparently most of his subsequent life was spent as a businessman.

Trevor Ritchie (b. 1979) ,Larva Vessel

This cockroach coffee table is as elegant as it is creepy.  Another salute to Charles Burchfield?
It's fun to have in an art museum --- but I can't imagine anyone putting it in their home - unless,perhaps they work as an exterminator.

Note -- the shadow is creepy too.

Peter Stephens (b. 1958), Atom Crush, 2015

I enjoy this kaleidoscopic mind boggler - like an amusement park ride for the eyes. The artist, however, showed entirely different work this year at  Zolla Lieberman in Chicago -- and it did not interest me.

William Y. Cooper (1934-2016), Naming  Ceremony, Ghana, 1964

The above Afrocentric work appeared just as the Africobra collective was emerging in Chicago.

Cooper's piece seems more celebratory and folkloric -- while the Africobra  artists seem more politically engaged as well as psychedelic.

Jennifer Regan (1934-2016)

Even upper class women can be celebrated as outsider artists.

Jennifer Regan, the wife of a Buffalo Republican politician who served as New York State Comptroller for 15 years, took up narrative quilting to express her resentment of the patriarchy after her divorce in 1988.

And it turned out she was very good at it.

A special exhibit of her work was just about to open.
(we only got to see a few pieces in an adjoining hallway)

She was wonderfully talented.
Even if hung in the collection of the Doge's Palace,
this lively piece would have caught my eye.

Though imitating paint with fabric
is not quite as impressive
as imitating fabric with paint.

(right - detail of Giovanni Bellini's
portrait of Doge Loredan)

 “The point is to subvert, turn upside down, reject labels, break all rules as a triumph over a long life living according to rules imposed from the outside"

Jennifer Regan's quilted version is fun and pleasant --  but hardly as thrilling as the original "Rape of  Europa" (at least, to my masculine eyes)

Harvey Breverman (b. 1934), self portrait 1967 (charcoal)

It was quite bold to pursue a career as a figurative print-maker and painter in the face of post-war abstraction.

So why did the aritst depict himself as a comic, mincing, shriveled old man at the age of 33?

As with political cartoons, formal power has taken a back seat to delivering some kind of punch line.

Joseph Orffeo (1926-2013), Iraq , 2003

Not much different from how I think about this misbegotten international crime.
A pointless crusade that only resulted in cemetery crosses.

Also not much different from how I recall the vibrancy of urban Buffalo as
  "The City of No Illusions"

Many of the artists I've noted above had careers in education.  Orffeo was a serious artist - but he earned his living as the proprietor of a small barber shop.


Lin Xia Jiang

Lin Xia Jiang,  currently the Professor of Painting at Buffalo State University (located immediately behind the Burchfield-Penny) is in that generation of Chinese artists and intellectuals who grew up during the Cultural Revolution - and spent their teenage years "learning from the peasants" in the countryside.  After Mao died, and universities were allowed to re-open, Jiang would have been one of the millions who competed for admission.

So we can assume that he is a very smart man.  He acknowledges, however, that he did not qualify to enter art school. Instead he studied philosophy -- and only entered art school after he had moved to the United  States.

(BTW - I know one of the lucky few who did get admitted to central, Beijing art school -- and he's also a brilliant man.  He came to Chicago - immediately began decorating restaurants - became a general contractor - built and sold his own buildings - and now devotes all his time to painting)

Despite that American art education,  his work is 100% twentieth century Chinese -- which is to say it is Russian Impressionism:  thick paint, raw color, earthy, somewhat materialistic.

Several such artists showed in Chicago about eight years ago.

A few of them live here - though it must be noted that their work sells much better in China than it does in Chicago. (right: Zhi Wei Tu)

 Professor Jiang's kind of  painting contrasts dramatically with that of  Michelle Grabner, the chair of the painting department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Which art school is more progressive?

Minimalism and conceptual art date back a hundred years -
while Konstantin Maksimov introduced  Russian Impressionism to Mao's China in 1954.


We are  moving now to the second floor of the Burchfield-Penney, and its collection of local art from the  earlier decades of the twentieth century.

Charles Cary Rumsey(1879-1922), Stargazer 
(or possibly David facing Goliath)

I would not call this great sculpture -- but it could have been, A formal grammar of figurative sculpture is all there. - combining naturalism with design.

Charles Cary Rumsey

Some wonderfully dynamic details - though, as a whole,  this complex tableaux ends up
feeling small and disappointing to me.

Smart, rich, brave, ambitious, talented, well educated --the artist had everything but longevity.

Rumsey died in an auto accident at the age of 43.

Some of his smaller bronzes of horses and nudes, found online, look much better.

Here is one of his bas reliefs.

It's hard to  tell what Rumsey accomplished here since the above relief was so poorly lit.

It does seem to compare well with the work of Hermon Atkins MacNeil (1866-1947) on the facade of the  Marquette Building in Chicago.

Claire Shuttleworth (1867-1930)
 Niagara Industrial Horizon from Chippewa Shore (1913-18)

This well educated, well traveled, daughter of a local banker seems more of a gritty realist than a sentimental romantic. Her Buffalo home and studio was about a mile down  Elmwood  Ave. from where I once lived.

There is nothing saccharine,  comforting, or even pleasant about this image.  With all of its prominent triangles, it's almost a geoform abstract painting.

Anthony J Sisti (1901-1983), Last Load for Winter

Something of a local hero, Tony Sisti had a gallery in Allentown and organized the first Allentown art walk ( a monthly variation of which I wrote about earlier in this post)

This painting feels claustrophobic, grim, and depressing to me.  It might have been a set for "On the Waterfront" with Marlon Brando.

Anthony Sisti, Frozen Assets, 1926

Here's another piece,  made when the artist was 25.
(Buffalo often gets some very heavy snowfalls)

It's more cheerful - but it also seems to belong
in a book made for children..

 Some of his landscapes and cityscapes online promise to be much more thrilling.

Wilhelmina Godfrey (1914-1994) , City Playground, 1950

A strange, dystopian urban scene in which two black youth are fighting while two white youth are standing by - one of whom is apparently thinking of something else. 

Ben Shahn was far more important to American art then than he is today -- and this painting echos his graphic style. Unlike Shahn, however, Godfrey does not seem to be delivering a left wing political message.

Looking online, this piece appears quite different from everything else that she did.

She is best known as a pioneer of African American art in Western New York.

Mildred C.Green (1874-1951), Tanker Train

Love the sense of mystery.

Green was another iconic Buffalo  artist - one of the founders of the Patteran Society (1933-1980)     that was devoted to bringing new art to western New York : " "to foster free and independent thought and approach with individual rather than group excellence of the total "


Charles Burchfield, untitled, June 28, 1916

But Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) remains the most iconic Buffalo artist of all -- and rightfully so -- judging by watercolors like the above.

His early work done in Salem, Ohio, is my favorite.  Apparently under the influence of Henry George Keller, his instructor at the Cleveland Institute, this piece is brimming with enthusiasm for both design and nature. (and I'd love to see a exhibit of Keller -- the Art Institute of Chicago has only one watercolor)

Charles Burchfield, 1941

heading toward calligraphy.

Charles Burchfield, July Sunlight Pouring  Down, 1952

I'm less enthusiastic about his later, more spiritualized work -- but then, I don't care much for William Blake either.  (so the fault is probably with me)


And finally --- here's a group shot of three tired senior citizens 
at the end of a long day of art watching.  
(Roger is behind the camera --so he is not shown)