Monday, September 17, 2012

Buffalo - Albright-Knox Art Gallery

For a relatively small city, Buffalo's Albright-Knox Art Gallery  has a very impressive and eclectic collection.  Open since 1862, it considers itself a collector of contemporary art as opposed to a museum, with a large portion of its inventory being purchased while the artist was still alive.

Before you even enter the building, there are many sculptures of varying styles, situated around the expansive grounds.  One of the oldest is called "Eight Caryatid Figures" (1907) and looks much like the female greek sculptures found in the Pantheon.  More recent highlights include "Built to Live Anywhere, At Home Here" (2010) featuring a bunch of stacked up stainless steel/aluminum canoes pointing in all directions,  the colourful cube called "Stacked Revision" (2005) and a yellow pretzel-like structure called Meeting Point 3 (2004).  The one that fascinated me the most was Karma (2010) which depicts a man standing erect, carrying a squatted man on his shoulders, who in turn supports a smaller squatted man on his shoulders, and so on...

The gallery is made up of several buildings - the Albright building built in 1905, the Knox Building added in 1962, and Clifton Hall.  The Albright and Knox buildings each reflect the times in which they were built and the juxtaposition of old and new architecture gives a similar contrasting feel to Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum.  In the same vein, it was an interesting to see the ultra modern Stacked Revision cube positioned in front of the ancient looking Eight Caryatid Figures.

In one part of the gallery, it was amazing to see paintings from all the great names of the late 19th to early 20th century like Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Gaugain, Modigliani, Monet, Surat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Degas, all hanging side by side.  There were only a few sculptures from this era including magnificent works by Rodin and Picasso.

A wide variety of art styles were well represented, including art by Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollack and Clyfford Still, Surrealists like Dali and Joan Miro, and Pointillism from Georges Seurat.  Frida Kahlo's self portrait with monkey was a nice preview for us in preparation for the big exhibition that is coming to Toronto's AGO in October.

There were works by iconic modern artists like Andy Warhol (100 Soup Cans), Roy Lichtenstein (Red and Yellow) and Robert Indiana (Year of the Meteors).  We spotted what looked like a giant pill with a colourful striped knitted cover, reminiscent of the giant pills created by the group of artists known as General Idea.  We were first exposed to Yves Klein at an exhibition of General Idea where their "XXX Klein" spoofed Klein's performance art.  Klein instructed nude models to use sponges to cover themselves with paint and then roll around to generate paintings.  On display at Albright-Knox were these sponges, now turned into art works themselves.

Even more interesting were some innovative and exciting works by lesser known modern artists.

Erwin Wurm's Jackob/Big Psycho is a humorous sculpture of someone struggling to either put on or get out of a big sweater.  It is meant to represent the concepts of hiding, anonymity, insecurity and trying to cover up for protection. Wurm asked a friend to actually model this pose in order to capture the proper form and then caricaturized the results.

Synecdoche by Bryon Kim is comprised of square tiles painted to represent the skin tones of each of the board of directors of Albright-Knox at that time.  The tiles are arranged alphabetically by first name but not labelled in order to eliminate any sense of hierarchy and promoting the concept of team as opposed to individuals.

Baby Girl by Venezuelan artist Marisol shows a large scale smiling baby with a relatively small figure of the mother.  The indication is that the baby is the master in this situation and the mother is there to cater to her needs.  Marisol painted her own face on the mother.

 Claes Oldenburg's Postal Zones depicts Manhattan in a different way, grouping together mail bags, each representing a different zip code.  The centre vertical bag represents Central Park.

 A very creepy series of "Self Portrait as..." photographs by Gillian Wearing show her dressed up as different members of her family.  She wears prosthetic masks, wigs, makeup and dresses up like each person, takes a photo of the result and blows it up so large that you can see the lines of the masks around her eyes.

Albright-Knox has three very interesting examples where the architecture of the building is incorporated into the artwork.

The first is Zobop Stairs by Jim Lambie, who took a wide staircase and applied brightly coloured vinyl tape to it.  He described this as a cross between painting and sculpture, as he controlled the widths, lengths and colours of the tape, but the shape of his art was predetermined by the existing staircase.  The vibrantly coloured stripes made it difficult to discern where one step ended and the next one started, so you had to tread carefully.

At first, Scribbles: Staircase by Sol Lewitt looks like shades of grey toned paint or wall paper covering the main stairway corridor connecting the old and new buildings.  Closer examination shows that the walls were actually inscribed with thousands of hand-written "scribbles" made using graphite pencils, following patterns determined by Lewitt.  It took 16 people 5026 hours to complete the 2200 square feet of wall space, using 1717 graphite lead pencils.

Finally a beautiful video light display is projected on the floor at one end of the building, shimmering and morphing into different patterns.  I didn't take note of the name of the art or artist but it definitely made an impression on us and was mesmerizing to watch.  You get a different experience depending on whether you view this video looking down from above, or standing beside or on top of it.

The two things that made this gallery visit extra special for me was their policy on photography and their audio guides.  Unlike the AGO which prohibits photography altogether, even for art within their own collection, the Albright-Knox welcomes photography as long as it is not of an exhibit which is on loan from other galleries.  This makes the visit so much more memorable for me (and of course makes blogging easier).

The content in the free audio guides that describe highlights from the Albright-Knox collection is superb.  Each audio clip provides with just enough detail to help you grasp artistic nuances of the work, sometimes adding interesting anecdotes about the artist or his creation process, without being so drawn out and pedantic that it becomes information overload.  Listening to the audio guide descriptions added so much to our enjoyment and understanding of the works.  Below are some of my favourite examples:

Dynamism of Dog on Leash by Giacomo Balla is a delightful example of Futurism, an art style associated with speed, motion, growth, industry and technology.  The illusion of motion is created through the repetition in form as seen in the dog's feet, the owner's feet, the leash and the diagonal shaded lines on the ground.  When I first saw this painting, I chuckled in delight as I could feel the exuberance of the little dog as he shuffled along.

Hotel Lobby is painted by Max Beckman, who was a German staying in Amsterdam after WWII.  Although he hated the Nazis and fled Germany after he was forced out of his teaching post and had his art confiscated for being subversive, he was still treated with suspicion and animosity because of his heritage.  The dark colours, somber tones and subject matter in this painting depict his feelings of emotional and psychological isolation even while standing in a crowded hotel lobby.  Imagined or not, he feels like everyone is staring at him and whispering about him.

Without the audio guide description, Double Portrait by Felix Gonzalez-Torres just looked like a stack of large paper sheets with the top sheet displaying two gold coloured circles joined in a figure 8.   Instead, we learn that Gonzales-Torres created this piece as a tribute to his partner who died of AIDS complications and is a symbol of love, commitment, solidarity and togetherness.  Now the two gold circles look like they may represent wedding bands.   We are instructed to take a sheet of paper with us to share in the art, and the gallery would print more to keep it at the correct height (of 10 1/4 inches).  This promotes the themes of loss and regeneration and breaks the taboo that art should not be touched or interacted with.

Kelley Walker created Black Star Press by  blowing up a black and white photo of a 1963 race riot in Birmingham, Alabama, where a white policeman grabs a black youth while a German shepherd leaps into the action.  She then scrawled over the photo with white, chocolate and dark brown coloured paint to represent the skin tones of the protagonists in the picture.  The version hanging in the Albright-Knox rotates the photo by 90 degrees and is significantly covered with paint so the photo is almost imperceptible.  I found other versions on the internet that showed more of the underlying image.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Buffalo - Mansion on Delaware ave, Anchor Bar

In keeping with the theme of the architectural tour that brought us to Buffalo, we wanted to stay in lodgings that were architecturally and historically interesting.  We considered staying in the newly renovated Hotel Lafayette, but chose the Mansion on Delaware Avenue instead.

Originally built in 1870 as a private home, this 4-storey mansion with 18 foot ceilings and over 175 windows has gone through multiple transitions.  It was turned into a hotel, then a brothel (with rumoured secret tunnel connecting to the neighbouring gentlemen's club), then a restaurant before finally be restored in 1998 to become the high end boutique hotel it is today. 

The rooms are spacious with extremely comfortable beds, a huge tub with jacuzzi jets and multiple shower heads aimed at the body in addition to the usual overhead one.  Business cards and letter head with our names on it were printed out to provide the personal touch.  The hotel prides itself on its "butler and concierge services", offering 24 hour room service, shoe shines, clothes pressing, valet parking, making reservations for and provision of driver services to and from dinner or shows.  The one downside was the limited WIFI in the common areas but only wired connectivity in our room.

The main gathering room contains a bar area, pool table, sofa and chairs and tables for snacks and complementary breakfast in the morning.  The breakfast buffet is served on top of the pool table and offers a wide variety of fruits, danishes, croissants, yogurt, toast and cereal.  A selection of flavoured teas, coffees, hot chocolate and juice are also available.  Each evening between 5-7, there is "happy hour" at the self serve "honor bar" where your first two drinks are free.  Throughout the mansion, an expansive art collection is hung on the walls.

While in Buffalo, we wanted to have Buffalo wings at the place where they originated - Frank and Teressa's Anchor Bar.  The wings were plump and juicy and came with a choice of mild, medium, hot, suicide and spicy barbeque sauces, celery and creamy blue cheese dipping sauce.  While the wings were good (I prefer them to be a bit crispier), I thought the potato skins and coleslaw that we had as appetizers were superb.  The loganberry juice was a nice change from the usual soft drinks or juices and came with one free refill.

There were many tributes including sculptures, drawings and news articles about Teressa Bellissimo who is credited with the creation of the Buffalo chicken wing.  As the story goes, one evening in 1964 her son's friends came into her restaurant bar looking for a quick late night snack.  She had some wings that she was planning to use as soup stock but decided to deep-fry them instead.  She covered them with a special sauce served them with a blue cheese dip.  The rest is history...

The bar was decorated with motorcycles hanging from the ceiling and license plates and photos of famous patrons on the walls.  The plastic sculpture of the wrinkly old waitress bent over to offer a plate of wings is very popular and much photographed.

Anchor Bar is located on Main Street only about 6 blocks away from where we were staying, so it seemed like an easy walk.  These turned out to be very long blocks and as the evening grew darker and the streets dodgier, we regretted not taking the Mansion up on their offer of a ride to and from dinner.

While walking to Anchor Bar, we passed by a beautiful Beaux Arts building that is the headquarters for the Church of Scientology Buffalo.   Signs on the windows advocate the various services that this organization could provide for you.  Rich pointed out one that amused us in light of the recent Tom Cruise - Katie Holmes divorce.  It was a Scientology Life Improvement course for "Salvaging a Marriage".  I think "TomKat" should have asked for a refund.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Buffalo : Architectural Tour

Who knew downtown Buffalo was so beautiful?  We certainly didn't until we read in the Globe and Mail travel section about the plethora of historic buildings that have been preserved there, many of them in the Beaux Arts or Art Deco styles.  A little research revealed that the group "Preservation Buffalo Niagara" held daily architectural walking tours and suddenly another impromptu road trip was planned.

The tour started in the 1892 Market Arcade which now houses Buffalo's Visitor's Center amongst other tenants.  The Beaux Arts styled building was modeled after European covered indoor shopping arcades in Naples and London.  The exterior features matching terracotta facades on both entrances of the building highlighted by a buffalo head at the top of the rounded arch and pink marble Corinthian columns decorated with flowers and leafs.  Each of the three levels in the interior are stepped back to provide better lighting from the frosted glass skylight that spans the entire ceiling.

The roof of the Buffalo Savings Bank (1901), now occupied by M&T Bank, has a dome that is made of terracotta tiles covered with gold leaf.  Looking up at the dome from inside the bank, you can see a beautiful work of art displaying each of the signs of the zodiac. The murals on the four pillars supporting the dome promote Industry, Arts, Power and Commerce.  A large gilded bowl, with legs shaped like a phoenix with a woman's head, sits on top of the station where bank deposit slips are filled out.

This bank also owns an impressive collection of antique mechanical toy banks dating back to the mid 1800s.  Some motion is triggered when a coin is deposited into each bank.  Manufacturers competed to see who could come up with the more complicated actions.  Examples include a giant that pops his head out of a castle tower, a soldier who shoots the coin into the bottle, a dog that opens his mouth and wags its tail and a small chick that emerges from the mother hen.  I wish we could have seen these banks work.

The production of these cast-iron toy banks were a way to re-purpose factories that were originally producing arms for the American Civil War.  Some of the banks reflected racial stereotypes.  In one, a white policeman catches the black robber coming out of a house and when a coin is deposited, the policeman swings around and bops the robber on the head.  Another shows a "Chinaman" lazing on a chaise.  When a coin is deposited, the man shows his poker hand and salutes while a rat runs across his feet.

Electric Tower (1912) features an octagonal tower made of glazed white terracotta that steps back three times at the top like a wedding cake.  The Buffalo General Electric Company had its headquarters here and sold light bulbs and electrical appliances from this location.  It's decorative symbols featuring aspects of electricity production are considered to be early influences for Art Deco design.  Historic photos show that it was modeled after similarly structured European buildings.  The tower is the location for the New Year's Eve ball drop and is lit up in festive colours during holidays such as Christmas, Valentines Day, Halloween.  When the Sabres make the playoffs, it is lit in blue and gold in tribute.

 Liberty Building (1925) is home to the Liberty Bank which was originally named the German American Bank but renamed due to negative connotations that resulted from WWI.  To emphasize its new name, two 36ft tall Statue of Liberty sculptures were placed on the rooftop peaks.  The statues are lit up at night and face East and West overlooking the Great Lakes.  In 2010, a daredevil walked on a tightrope strung across the two towers of the building.

 The French renaissance styled Hotel Lafayette (1902) was considered grand and luxurious in its day. It included modern amenities such as elevators, radios and hot and cold running water and a telephone in every room.  Dignitaries and other important guests frequented the hotel.  It was one of the few buildings designed by a female architect - Louise Bethune.  After years of disrepair, the hotel has recently reopened after being restored and renovated to reflect some of its former glory.  The lobby features a wall of old styled slots where guests' room keys and correspondence used to be kept and the beautiful elevators.  The bar has distinct Art Deco elements in its decor and furniture.

The Buffalo City Hall (1931) is a renowned example of Art Deco architecture with its colorful chevrons and other decorative features at the top of each tower.  The sculpture and fountain in front features lions representing strength and stability and turtles spouting water representing stability (slow and steady wins the race).  Inside can be found mosaic tiled ceilings, large murals and a bust of John F Kennedy.  Tours are given at noon during the week day and there is an observation deck that provides a good view of the city.

The Prudential Building (1894 - formerly Guaranty Building) is built by architect Louis Sullivan, who designed various other buildings in Buffalo.  The 13 floor structure with a tall (for the times) steel frame was considered one of the first skyscrapers and its shape became the prototype for future such buildings.  It is covered red terracotta with beautiful ornamentation of flowers and swirls carved into it, culminating in a tree-like structure with sprawling leaves and vines at the top corners.  Inside can be found elegant ceiling lights, elevators, and gas lamps that the men used to pull down to light their cigars with.

 The 10 stories high Italian Renaissance styled Ellicott Square Building (1896) was considered the largest office building in the world at the time of its construction.  While the building has beautiful exterior made of granite, terracotta and grey brick, its breathtaking magnificence is in its interior.  In its central courtyard can be found a stunning glass skylight with steel frame, swooping grand staircases and a marble mosaic floor "depicting sun symbols from civilizations around the world".  The Robert Redford baseball movie "The Natural" was filmed here and currently it is a favourite location for weddings.

The Gothic revival styled old Post Office building (1897) features a 244ft tower at its center with gargoyles protruding from its walls and a majestic eagle perched atop its entrance.  The first letter sent from the post office was to President McKinley inviting him to attend the Pan-Am Expo.  Unfortunately for him, he accepted and was assassinated at the event.  The building was saved from demolition and restored in the 60s and is now used as a community college.

St Paul's Cathedral (1851) was built by an English gothic architect who really wanted to incorporate a flying buttress but had no real structural need for one - so he threw in a small decorative one over the entrance.  The cathedral is made of Medina sandstone which apparently was not easy to supply.  In order to ensure there was enough of it to complete the project, a congregation member bought the Medina Sandstone company and kept it until construction was complete.  The Gothic styled church has pointed lancet windows, a beautiful Tiffany stained glass window and another traditional stained glass window that incorporated imagery depicting industry in the form of smoke stacks.

Finally we saw the Frank A. Sedita City Court building that was in the Brutalist style known for its rough, block-like appearance, lack of ornamentation and extensive use of concrete.  This style is well named because looking at this building, the term "brutal" pops into your head as you imagine working in this stark, windowless environment.  Apparently this was intentional to protect the court rooms and judges chambers from outside distraction.  This building stood out in contrast to all the other beautiful flashy buildings surrounding it.  After a while it grows on you as it seems to exude a raw, defiant power of its own.