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.


  1. Extraordinarily well done blog on AK...loved it!

  2. Fabulous blog! Loved it - just one thing - Kelley Walker is a he- and that really is chocolate on his art - not just paint made to look like the colors of chocolate - it used to smell faintly of chocolate...