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Long Story Short: Art defined and hamburger origins


The BUFFALO sign at 1391 Hertel Avenue

Photo by Bruce Adams

But is it art?


Last week, silver and blue letters were installed on the lawn at 1391 Hertel Avenue, spelling out “BUFFALO.” The five-foot-tall sculptural forms were designed by Iskalo Development Corporation, a socially conscious commercial real estate development company active in Western New York, and fabricated by blacksmith and metal forger Andy Chambers of Arc Iron Creations.


The Buffalo News calls the installation a sign. Buffalo Rising refers to it as a sculpture. A link to the Buffalo Rising article was posted on the Facebook page Design Block, prompting a lively discussion about the nature of public art.


How it came to be

Buffalo Common Councilmember Joel Feroleto had seen similar block letter signs in other cities and pitched the idea of doing something comparable to the Hertel Business Association (HBA). They were enthusiastic, as were nearby businesses and residents, so Feroleto met with Chambers, Iskalo, and the HBA at the proposed site to hash out a plan. Funding came from district funds, Iskalo, and the HBA. Chambers generated preliminary renderings, and an Iskalo design team worked with him on the specs.


Yeah, but is it art?

People typically think of artwork as something produced by a lone artist by hand. But there are dozens of examples of artist collectives throughout history, where people work together toward shared goals. Notable examples include Fluxus, Ant Farm, and Colab. Most large-scale public sculpture is manufactured by someone other than the artist, and, of course, every work of architecture is constructed by a team other than the architect. So, collaboration itself doesn’t detract from a work’s art cred.


The Design Block post drew a fair amount of negative or dismissive comments about the work (and like most Facebook discussions, it went off in various directions). One commenter asked, "’Buffalo’ in big letters is art?” Then answered his own question: “It's just a sign.” “Fabricated signage,” as another put it.


For some, the project seems too easy. “Anyone can do that” is the criticism. Seeing it in person though, it’s clear the design is anything but simple. The letters are placed at different angles and distances on the lawn, so that from one perspective it reads “BFLO,” and as viewers continue down the street it morphs into “BUFFALO.” In planning this effect, the team drew-up precise diagrams, and constructed full-size wooden prototypes to test the concept.


Sculpture that changes as you view it from different angles isn’t new. It’s actually kind of a thing now in art. But every big idea has been done before, and this innovation certainly ticks BUFFALO up a notch from everyday signage.


Come on, is it art or not?

In my view, it doesn’t really matter. Call it an art sign, like art furniture or landscape art. Elsewhere online, public response has been positive, the biggest criticism being its innocuous location. Yet, since it’s not intended to designate a city gateway, it becomes more of an artistic statement than sign. Conceptually, it’s thin, but using letters and numbers (as noted in the article below) in art, has a long history, going back at least to the sixties. So, as long as I’m not the one who has to mow the grass around it, this critic has no complaints.


Well then, is THAT art?

In the Design Block discussion about BUFFALO mentioned above, the subject of Robert Indiana’s ONE through ZERO (The Ten Numbers) came up. “Anyone can get a big number or letter made,” says one commenter of the eight-foot-tall steel numbers on view from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor until the end of September, “It's nothing special.”


What makes it special?

Andy Warhol appropriated other people’s images, turning them into silkscreen prints. Picasso attached handlebars to a bicycle seat and called it a bull. Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal on its side and signed it R Mutt (now widely viewed as perhaps the most important work of the twentieth century). Duchamp went on to “create” many more "readymades," objects of visual interest that he, as the artist, declared to be art. This concept changed the direction of art for more than 100 years and counting.


Anyone can do what Warhol, Picasso, and Duchamp did, but they are the ones who did it. And there were reasons behind their actions. Today’s art isn’t generally judged by its technical difficulty. Not like a Renaissance painting, where skillful methodological accomplishment was often the point. Today’s art is more about its underlying concept, the idea behind it.


What was Indiana’s concept?

It’s important to understand that Indiana was a leading member of the pop art movement of the nineteen-sixties. At the time, text and numbers were frequently used as cultural signifiers. To Indiana, numbers carried great meaning, linked to his childhood and stages of human life. Numbers are so significant they are among the first things we learn as children. Numbers aren’t random shapes either; they’re the product of centuries of cultural evolution, highly evolved and interesting forms, as engaging as any abstract sculpture. The typeface Indiana used for his numbers was derived from an old printer’s calendar he found in his studio.


Not a one-off

Indiana used numerical symbols in numerous paintings and prints throughout the sixties and seventies and began exploring them as three-dimensional forms in the eighties. He created these sculptural structures in a variety of media, and the material used in ONE through ZERO (The Ten Numbers)—Cor-Ten stee—was selected because, as it weathers in the elements, it develops a rich red-brown patina.


So yeah, anyone can get big numbers made, but Robert Indiana did it. He was the one who conceived of numbers as interesting sculptural forms carrying cultural, historical, and personal meaning.


The nature of Facebook

Design Block is one of several Buffalo-based Facebook pages concerned with issues related to local development. Design Block describes itself as “a forum for architects, designers, concerned citizens, preservationists, environmentalists, urban designers, and armchair urban designers (to name a few) in Buffalo, NY who care about design: urban, architectural, interior, furniture, etc.”


Sites with similar or overlapping missions include Green Code Watch, Residents of Elmwood Village, West Side Alive!, South Buffalo Neighborhood Watch, and PUSH Buffalo. To varying degrees, discussions on these sites skew toward the downbeat. I recently found myself counting positive and negative comments on one of the sites mentioned above. Out 100 comments that could be categorized as positive or negative (neutral comments were few, and not counted), seventy-one were negative and twenty-nine were positive. The balance is usually even darker on discussions about new architecture or various kinds of public enhancements (see But is it art? above). Interestingly, mural art tends to receive almost universal approval (six of the twenty-nine positive comments were about a single mural). No negatives.


What does this mean?

People like to bitch. Facebook provides a forum for unrestricted carping, moaning, and fault-finding (though some administrators minimize personal attacks). If you took these comments at face value, you’d have to conclude that nothing built in Buffalo today is any good, the city doesn’t do anything right, and anyone attempting to accomplish anything is to some degree corrupt, racist, or incompetent.


Just saying.


Myth-busting the burger

We’ve discussed notable Buffalo foods previously in LSS. Two weeks ago, we wrote about Buffalo-style pizza, which one national critic considers the best in the land. Last week, we featured a Buffalo invention—beef on ‘weck—and along the way we mentioned wings and sponge candy. Our region has a lot to be proud of, but there’s something we can’t really lay claim to, no matter how much we would like to.


The hamburger (probably) wasn’t invented here

Yes, Hamburg, NY, we know you’re raising a million dollars to paint your water tower to look like America’s favorite fast-food, but that doesn’t mean you get to claim a win in the great burger debate.


No one knows for sure who invented the hamburger as we know it today. But the too-cute story of Frank and Charles Menches, of Akron, Ohio, who claimed they conceived it in 1885 while at the Erie County Fair, is unlikely because it purportedly happened in Hamburg, NY. The story goes that the brothers ran out of pork for their hot sausage patty sandwiches, so they ground beef to make patties, which they served between bread. Someone asked Frank what it was called, and instead of saying something logical like ground beef sandwiches, he looked up at the Hamburg Fair banner and said, “This is the hamburger.” Haven’t we seen that trope in dozens of movies (most recently in Rocketman, when Young Elton gets his last name from a picture of John Lennon (also untrue)? If the Menches named the sandwich, it didn’t catch on until the 1930s, when restaurant menus stopped using “hamburger steak” and adopted the shorter “hamburger.”


What are the odds?

Ground beef from Hamburg, Germany, had long been known as Hamburg steaks. It was a gourmet food initially, eventually making its way to America with German immigrants, where the price dropped. Hamburg steaks were common on American menus of the eighteen-hundreds, particularly in New York and Chicago. Somewhere along the line, someone began sticking the patties between bread, likely to make it easier for factory workers to eat. What are the odds that the originator just happened to be in a town with the same name that the patties had been called since the seventeen-hundreds?


There are several other oral traditions, most appearing after the fact, based on family recollections, which claim to be the true origin story of the hamburger. Most historians credit a cook from a small town in Texas with the invention.


A summary of claims

  • The story historians favor is that of Fletcher Davis of Athens, Texas, who is supposed to have had the idea of putting ground beef between two pieces of Texas toast. By 1880, the sandwich was a staple of his restaurant. Dairy Queen filmed a documentary about the birthplace of the hamburger featuring Davis' story. He’s also mentioned in Ronald L. McDonald's book, The Complete Hamburger.
  • Charlie Nagreen of Seymour, Wisconsin, claimed that, as a fifteen-year-old, he flattened Hamburg steaks and put them between bread so that the public could move freely at the Outagamie County Fair. His hometown of Seymour holds an annual Burger Fest.
  • In 1891, German cook Otto Kuasw served a version of the hamburger (topped with egg) at a military post in Hamburg, Germany. It became popular among sailors, who later asked for "Hamburg style" sandwiches at American steakhouses (a likelier origin story for the name).
  • Oscar Weber Bilby has a credible claim to serving the first hamburger on a bun in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1891. There’s a lot of proof for this one, making it the likely birthplace of the burger as we know it today.


None of it is American!

Regardless of which origin story you believe, not one of the components of the hamburger originates in the US. Ground beef, buns, the ingredients in mustard and ketchup, cheese, and even onions, lettuce, and tomatoes, all came here from other countries. Usually brought by immigrants.



Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.


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