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Gallery View: Chronicling Buffalo's Woodstock decade

Photos courtesy of Albright Knox Art Gallery

Chances are that many reading this article were present during at least part of the halcyon period memorialized in the Albright-Knox’s current exhibition Wish You Were Here. If so, you’re probably not so much wishing you were there as wishing you could remember what you saw.

Here’s a chance to relive it all. Unlike the previous Long Curve exhibition, which dealt, mainly, with the building of the art museum’s collection over decades, Wish You Were Here surveys a relatively brief and exciting moment in Buffalo’s cultural history: the 1970s. This decade witnessed the freewheeling birth of three seminal Western New York arts organizations: Artpark, Hallwalls, and CEPA.

It was an era when longstanding institutions like the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Buffalo Philharmonic, and the University at Buffalo took chances, reaching out to the community and collaborating with smaller arts groups in ways they never had before. It was a time of star power. The notables  based in Buffalo then include: writers Robert Creeley, John Barth, and Leslie Fiedler; media artists Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad, and Hollis Frampton; and composers Lukas Foss and Morton Feldman. As for visual artists, thanks to the curatorial vision of the Albright-Knox, the physical opportunities available at Artpark, and the brash entrepreneurship of the Hallwalls founders, the list of groundbreaking artists who chose Western New York for major exhibitions and projects is jawdroppingly impressive: Vito Acconci, Richard Artschwager, Lynda Benglis, Jonathan Borofsky, Gilbert & George, Alfred Jensen, Gordon Matta-Clark, Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, Joel Shapiro, Hannah Wilke, and Jackie Winsor are just a few.

As for the Hallwalls founders—Charles Clough, Robert Longo, Diane Bertolo, Nancy Dwyer, Cindy Sherman, and Michael Zwack—these artists didn’t just start a major Western New York arts center; in various degrees, they inaugurated an attitude toward image-making that influenced the international art world for decades to come. The transformation of photography as a worldwide art form was pushed forward by CEPA, Hallwalls’ onetime neighbor.

While the Albright-Knox was in some ways the gorilla in the room, maintaining itself as the institutional power player, it also joined the kids in the sandbox, by collaborating on joint exhibitions with Hallwalls and CEPA, hosting evenings of new music organized by Creative Associates, and paying close attention to the work of media artists based in Buffalo, like Sharits and Frampton. For this, Wish You Were Here curator Heather Pesanti gives director Bob Buck and curator Linda Cathcart much of the credit.

The excitement of the avant-garde arts scene of the 1970s in Western New York can never return. But there is hope that a new excitement can continue, as this contemporary acknowledgement of the Albright-Knox’s debt to Buffalo’s artists and arts organizations makes clear.

Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-garde in the 1970s is on view at the Albright-Knox through July 8. A Wish You Were Here celebration will be held Friday, May 4, 4–10 p.m.  A full review of the exhibition will appear in the June issue of Buffalo Spree.  




 Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree.

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