Painters of a bygone era
A show full of history and beauty at BPAC
Seymour Drumlevitch, Trellis, 1955
image courtesy of the burchfield penney
Through March 1
In the Fullness of Time
Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Avenue
In the Fullness of Time: Painting in Buffalo 1832-1972—now on view at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC)—will delight history buffs, painting enthusiasts, and fans of regional art. Comprising 100 historical paintings by area artists, gathered from collections throughout the country, the engaging show spans 140 years of Buffalo history.
The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalog with information on each artist—which would make an elegant addition to any coffee table. It was organized by curators Scott Propreack and Tullis Johnson, with extensive input from collector and Buffalo State History professor Albert Michaels. Michaels initiated the idea for the exhibition, as he did with a similar 1987 show, The Wayward Muse, at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (AKAG). A committee of collectors, art dealers, and historians assisted in selecting the work, with the goal of compiling a comprehensive overview of Buffalo’s painting scene from the Gilded Age through its post-industrial Rust Belt decline.
In the catalog’s well-researched essay, the organizers chronical Buffalo’s storied bygone era. A lot of it will sound familiar: the prosperous city attracts itinerant portrait and landscape artists; wealthy socialites buy, make, and sell art to each other; the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy (BFAA, known today as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery) is founded and promptly turns up its nose at local art. In response, the Buffalo Society of Artists (BAS) forms, but is later branded too conservative, and rival artist groups form. Many artists leave Buffalo as affluent local collectors exclusively purchase art from New York and Paris, and the BFAA deaccessions traditional art in favor of modernism, angering old-school art advocates.
The exhibition itself is arranged thematically, which has its pros and cons. As you walk into an entrance teeming with schooners, clippers, and waterways, for instance, you might think you’ve stumbled upon a nautical presentation. The earliest work, The Port of Buffalo, depicts the city’s familiar lighthouse—then brand new—amidst a bustling harbor. Entering the main gallery, an exceptional 1865 realist work titled, Interior with Portraits, by Thomas Le Clear, on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, owes a thematic and compositional debt to Diego Velasquez’s Las Meninas. Evelyn Rumsey Cary’s familiar emblem for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, The Spirit of Niagara, is on view. Grace Romney Beals displays command of bold brushwork in a 1918 work, Niagara River. Louis Wolcott Hitchcock’s Cigarette Girl (1896) could have been painted by John Singer Sargent. All of which is to say, a lot of work in the show is awfully good, if not groundbreaking.
Thomas Le Clear, Interior with Portraits, ca. 1865
Traditional styles and subject matter—trees, buildings, flower vases—dominate, until artists like Charles Burchfield and William Rowe began embracing modernism, albeit thirty-plus years behind Europe. As Paris was captivated by Cubism—and long after Malevich painted Black Square—Buffalo artists like Arthur Kowalski, Toni Sisti, and Alexis Jean Fournier were painting like it was 1899. This tendency to trail the avant garde at a distance was not unique to Buffalo; pre-WWII American artists in general remained defiantly behind the modernist curve.
By the 1950s, artists like Robert Lyall Flock, Seymour Drumlevitch, and Lawrence Calcagno joined vanguard New York abstract expressionists with their own strong offerings. By comparison, Virginia Cuthbert’s Untitled (1955) must have seemed out of step with the times, but its sharply delineated forms feel fresh today. Kudos to Elizabeth Tower for the show’s only overtly political work. Birmingham, painted in 1963, the year of that city’s violent civil rights campaign, darkly depicts two black victims—of what it’s not clear—prostrate on the ground. Sally Cook, Sheldon Berlyn, and Richard Huntington bring us into the 1960s with hard edge geometric paintings, and Donald Calvin Robertson delves into op art. Agnes Robertson’s symbolist/surrealism painting is one of the few works resembling naïve art. At 100 works, the exhibition is packed; two smaller shows would have allowed more room for the art to breathe.
The exhibition ends “the year before Gerald O’Grady founded the Center for Media Study at the University at Buffalo,” says Johnson. “This, along with many other signifiers, represented a local and national shift in the arts.” The 1970s was, in fact, the decade Buffalo stepped out of the shadows and emerged as a leader of contemporary art.
There won’t be another exhibition like Fullness of Time anytime soon; catch it while you can.