Gallery View: Go big or go home
Installation view of the Room for Contemporary Art. February 1939
There is no acceptable facsimile for looking at a work of art in person. As we contemplate the death of the newspaper, the post office, and landline telephone service, we do so with some equanimity because we know that we can still read news, receive mail, and communicate over long distances using alternate delivery systems. That doesn’t work for visual art, theater, live music, dance, and most other art forms. Even with digital or video art, the surrounding environment of the gallery is a key element. This was certainly the case with the spectacular video installations recently on view in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s Videosphere show. In particular, the supersized, exquisitely timed presentation of Phil Collins’s The World Won’t Listen created a magical, tragicomic space that would be impossible to replicate anywhere else than a gallery.
If there were no other justification for the AKAG’s continued relevance than that it is an art museum, and thus offers a by-definition unique experience, its existence would still be celebrated. Fortunately, we don’t have to resort to such a basic validation. This museum has done much more than simply exist during the 150 years since its founding in 1862. WNYers will learn or relearn the story of the Albright-Knox over the next twelve months. Here’s the part covered by the first of three anniversary exhibitions: The Long Curve: 150 Years of Visionary Collecting at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
As the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, the gallery began collecting in 1863, demonstrating its commitment to contemporary art with its first accepted gift: Albert Bierstadt’s Marina Picola, Capri (1859). The Academy’s galleries were located in several structures, including (from 1881 to 1886) a building at Franklin and West Eagle streets now known as the Ticor Building and originally built in 1833 as the First Unitarian Church. Just before moving to its current home, the Academy was storing and exhibiting art at Buffalo’s old public library (now demolished) at Lafayette Square. From its inception, the museum looked to national and international precedents, including the five American public art institutions that had preceded it—in Philadelphia, Boston, Hartford, New Haven, and Washington (NYC’s Metropolitan was founded in 1870). The charge to construct a dedicated gallery worthy of the increasingly distinguished collections was led by John J. Albright, who lived to see the Green & Wicks-designed Albright Art Gallery formally dedicated on May 31, 1905. That year, the Academy’s bulletin quietly noted, “From the standpoints both of utility and beauty, the structure is most admirable.” (Trivia: the Albright-Knox façade has 102 columns—just a few less than Washington’s Capitol.)
In the beginning, there were plenty of innocuous gifts—including a marble bust of Millard Fillmore, many “school of” paintings, and a giant herd of plaster casts. The early acquisitions were mostly distinguished by American Impressionists (including Childe Hassam and William Merritt Chase), Hudson River School painters (such as Bierstadt and George Innes), German Impressionists, and the Photo-Secession group (founded by Alfred Steiglitz). All great stuff, but the truly “visionary” (as AKAG curators call it) collecting began in the 1920s, led by a key board member, A. Conger Goodyear. In the face of near-hysterical protests by many of his fellow board members, including the gallery’s architect, E. B. Green, in 1926 Goodyear urged the acquisitions committee to accept, among other controversial artworks, Picasso’s La Toilette (1906). Goodyear was forced off the board in 1929—after relocating to New York in 1928, where he helped found the Museum of Modern Art, becoming its first president. But as soon as progressive leadership made it possible, he resumed his donations to the Albright, giving over 300 artworks—including pieces by Vincent van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Edgar Degas, Fernand Léger, Camille Pissarro, Jacob Epstein, John Ferren, and Isamu Noguchi—over the three decades of his involvement.
A room with an agenda
Goodyear’s commitment to modern art inspired the Albright’s unusual Room for Contemporary Art, which was guided by Albright director Gordon Bailey Washburn with considerable help from a young board member, Seymour H. Knox, Jr., as well as others. The Room, which opened in 1939, had the purpose of introducing to the public contemporary artworks on loan from collectors, artists, galleries, and institutions. It was a kind of crucible where works could be accessed, discussed, and—in many cases—considered for acquisition. Funded by donations from Knox (the lion’s share) and others, acquisitions made by the Room were different than those made for the permanent collection. Supposedly, they could be exchanged or sold, though in the end, this rarely happened. Snidely called a “probation plan” by some critics of the day, the Room’s architects staunchly defended it, calling it “the progressive agent inside of the Museum … where the past can live in peace with the present and vice-versa.” The first works to be shown in the Room were by Maurice Utrillo, Giorgio de Chirico, Marc Chagall, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Charles Burchfield, and Edward Hopper, among others. Visitors could actually fill out ballots naming the works they liked, and a series of public talks and forums was held, including art talks on radio’s WGR. By 1949, the Room—which will be represented by a special installation in The Long Curve—had acquired 216 works from 117 artists for the gallery’s collections.
Smith and Knox—the dynamic duo
Gordon Smith inaugurated his directorship of the Albright Gallery in 1955 with these words: “In buying works in the contemporary field, I think it is important to be daring, experimental, and fearless.” He had a like-minded partner in Seymour Knox, Jr., who had been collecting contemporary art for ten years by that time. Here are just a few of the choices Smith and Knox made and shipped back to Buffalo during exploratory trips to New York in 1956 alone: Arshile Gorky’s The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1944), Jackson Pollock’s Convergence (1952), Franz Kline’s New York, N.Y. (1953), Adolph Gottlieb’s Frozen Sounds II (1952), and Mark Rothko’s Orange and Yellow (1956). You may have noticed one or two of these.
As curator Doug Dreishpoon’s catalog essay documents, Knox and Smith “aggressively collected almost every major twentieth-century movement—Abstract Expressionism and Pop art to Op art, Color Field painting, geometric abstraction, Minimalism, and post-Minimalism …” over the eighteen years that they worked together. And thus, the institution as we know it now was born—renamed the Albright-Knox in 1962 when Gordon Bunshaft’s sleek addition, necessary to contain the greatly expanded collection, joined Green’s neoclassic temple.
The Long Curve shows that the continuing vitality of the Albright-Knox is fueled by long-term, collegial relationships between the gallery’s leadership and civic-minded collectors like Goodyear and Knox. The exhibition also tells of the important role played by Buffalo-born art dealer Martha Jackson, as well as the more recent contributions of collectors Giuseppe Panza di Biumo and Irving and Natalie Forman. Over eighty works acquired through these partnerships will be on display in the exhibition.
Visionary is the right word for the people who made this collection possible. Some would even say ballsy. The shapers of the AKAG had privileged exposure to the international art world and the confidence that often comes with wealth and success. Even so, theirs is an awesome accomplishment, one that took spot-on instincts, great intellectual curiosity, and the desire to create a magnificent institution for future audiences they would never know.
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree. The information in this article was drawn, in part, from essays by AKAG curator Douglas Dreishpoon and head of research Susana Tejada.