Gallery View: The perfect decade
"Visual Diary of Artpark Residency", Catherine Jensen, 1975.
Photos courtesy of Albright Knox Art Gallery
While channel surfing recently, I came across the movie The Perfect Storm just as the fictional meteorologist was listing the highly improbable weather conditions leading to the film’s title event. “You could be a meteorologist all your life,” he says in awe, “and never see something like this.”
It occurred to me that something approaching the inverse of the perfect storm occurred among the Buffalo arts community in the 1970s. The Perfect Extended Sunny Period has less dramatic flair, but it’s an apt metaphor for the unlikely confluence of rising funding conditions, social change, burgeoning cultural trends, and plain dumb luck that led to a period of unparalleled artistic achievement. You could be an artist all your life and never see something like this.
And now that legendary decade has come to a museum near you. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery presents Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-garde in the 1970s. For longtime fans of the Buffalo art scene, it’s a mega-waltz down memory lane. Four years in the making, the show chronicles the institutions, individuals, and circumstances contributing to the period, with an all-star cast including Vito Acconci, Sol LeWitt, Jonathan Brofsky, Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, Dan Flavin, Paul Sharits, Robert Creeley, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Lukas Foss, and the Cast of Artpark, among many more.
I’d also recommend the book by the same name, a smartly written exhibition catalog with interviews, reflections, and reminiscences, and an insightful and highly researched essay by the exhibition’s organizer, curator Heather Pesanti. Shortly after arriving at the Albright-Knox, Pesanti proposed the show, fully aware that she was looking at it from the outside in. “I think the reason that I saw the whole thing from a kind of bird’s eye view was because I was an outsider,” says the energetic Pesanti. “I was just so amazed being in Pittsburgh and looking onto Buffalo knowing all this stuff had happened here. I couldn’t believe it, having had an extensive art history education; no one ever talks about the Buffalo avant-garde in the 1970s. I thought that’s so strange.” Pesanti discovered that people who played a role in the period often knew only one part of the bigger story, so she conducted extensive interviews and research to form her own perspective. “I find it interesting to tell a story in a way it hasn’t been told before,” she says.
Pesanti tells the story by dividing the exhibition and catalog into institutions: the Albright-Knox, Hallwalls, CEPA, the UB English Department, Media Studies, Artpark, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra/Creative Associates. They act as the warp of a complex arts community tapestry in which numerous individuals form the weft interweaving between them.
For the Albright-Knox, the theme provides another opportunity to bring out lesser seen works by such artists as Gilbert & George, Suzy Lake, Jiří Kolá, Rafael Ferrer, Dan Flavin, and Bruce Nauman among others. Dream Displacement, an elaborate four-projector film and sound installation by the late UB Media Study professor Paul Sharits, consists of four centrally positioned projectors throwing side-by-side bands of saturated color onto the wall. The result is something like a long, shifting, reductive painting. Radical for its time, Sharits’ “film environment” nevertheless fits comfortably with the museum’s minimalist painting collection.
Considering that art in the seventies was, as Pesanti writes, “highly aggressive and political, even combative,” displaying “a flamboyant disregard for taboos,” items in the museum’s collection from this period seem surprisingly benign. To its credit, the museum owns a work by feminist icon and sexual provocateur Hannah Wilke, produced as part of a four-women residency in 1976. Video documentation on view includes an impromptu partial striptease by Wilke outdoors on the caryatid portico, but the faintly vulvic chewing gum sculptures she produced are among her most restrained work of that time. A printed program cover for the residency includes an image from Wilke’s more daring Starification Object Series, but the conveniently placed title covers the artist’s exposed breasts. Still, led by curator Linda Cathcart, the museum showed moxie in bringing Wilke and other ground-breaking emerging artists to Buffalo, often in collaboration with Hallwalls.
The multi-disciplinary Hallwalls and its photography-based counterpart CEPA enter the scene in 1974, though individuals associated in one way or another with either space weave throughout the exhibition. For Hallwalls, these include co-founders Longo and Charles Clough, along with Nancy Dwyer, Michael Zwack, and visiting artists such as Borofsky, Acconci, and LeWitt (whose early Hallwalls wall drawing is recreated here). Cindy Sherman, who is associated with Hallwalls but had her first solo show at CEPA, is included with both institutions and again downstairs near the café.
A large separate gallery contains a rarely seen early Sherman work, A Play of Selves. The room-spanning autobiographic psychodrama of allegorical cutout photographic characters (all played by Sherman) offers a fascinating view of a young artist developing her signature style. Several video monitors offer glimpses into the wild and woolly Hallwalls of the seventies. A taped performance of the Kipper Kids involves Popeye-like prosthetics, silly singing, and a puerile penile display, underscoring the distinction between Hallwalls and the Albright-Knox. CEPA is remembered for its long running Metro Bus Show, in which photographic art was placed on NFTA buses. Also included is work by founder Robert Muffoletto, Biff Henrich, and Bruce Jackson, among others.
The sculpture court is dedicated to Lewiston’s Artpark. The Albright-Knox has landed a major coup with a loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York (after rumored extended haggling) of Gordon Matta-Clark’s Bingo. Matta-Clark is known for radical architectural excavations he called “anarchitecture.” For Bingo, he sliced the façade of a condemned Niagara Falls house into nine rectangular fragments, five of which were thrown into the gorge at Artpark. The three remaining segments on view here, removed from their urban context with their hidden strata revealed, feel like ancient archeological specimens.
Other rooms provide opportunities to listen to recordings of the Buffalo Philharmonic led by Michael Tilson Thomas or poet Robert Creeley. A video documents the premiere of D.A. Pennabaker’s dance performance RainForest, part of the Albright-Knox’s second Festival of the Arts Today. These festivals, which occurred in the sixties, featured choreography by Merce Cunningham, music by David Tudor, set design by Andy Warhol, artistic advising by Jasper Johns, musical direction by John Cage, and production by Dennis Oppenheim. They set the tone for the decade to follow.
Several large rooms are dedicated to Media Studies, founded by UB professor Gerald O’Grady. They include film and other work by Hollis Frampton and additional art by Sharits. Installations by Steina and Woody Vasulka occupy another gallery. Steina Vasulka’s attention-grabbing multimedia installation, Allvision, includes two opposing mounted cameras rotating around a central reflective ball. The resulting distorted reflections are viewed on now-antique monitors. It’s both deceptively simple and visually riveting.
A large room is appropriately dedicated to installations and media work by UB professor, artist, and musician Tony Conrad, one of the few artists from the era who remain in Buffalo. Conrad’s Examination comprises two beds upon which oversized copies of the artist’s actual hand-written, teacher-corrected school papers are lashed down under Plexiglas. The work explores Conrad’s early preoccupation with authority and was first displayed at Hallwalls.
Anti-authoritarian sentiment runs throughout the work of Conrad and many other artists of a period that was defined by protests, the generation gap, and the Vietnam War (and, in Buffalo, one notable blizzard). Those who missed the period, after seeing the show, will wish they were here too.
Bruce Adams is an artist, writer, and educator.