Installation view of Joseph Kosuth’s “Three Color Sentence” (1985). Robert Therrien’s “No Title (snowman)” (1989), and David Simpson’s “Sky High” (1984).
“Art is a long curve.” So said Buffalo native and progressive New York City gallery owner Martha Jackson shortly before her death in 1969. She was referring to the time it takes experimental art to find its audience, but such pithy expressions have a way of taking on multiple meanings.
In the art museum milieu for instance, Jackson’s words might allude to the vital importance of foresight. Few, if any, institutions have the financial means to build their collections exclusively by purchasing art that has already stood the test of time. Savvy collecting comes down to the ability to envision what’s ahead on that long curve while simultaneously navigating the more immediate twists and turns of the art world.
The Long Curve: 150 Years of Visionary Collecting at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is the title of both the AKAG’s current exhibition and its lavishly illustrated accompanying catalogue. Both celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, the museum’s governing body that preceded construction of the physical gallery by forty-three years. Like most sweeping sagas, this story is recounted with the aid of 20-20 hindsight. Looking back from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, we know which characters played key roles, what artworks proved worthy acquisitions, who said or did things that resonate today. Needless to say, the exhibition features plenty of hits from the collection, most of which will be familiar to regular visitors.
Chief curator Douglas Dreishspoon, along with head of research resources Susana Tegada and collection curator Holly Hughes, have unearthed historical records to reconstruct an epic tale framed around a tiny group of intrepid trailblazers, the scope of whose success is only now fully understood. The main players in this story are A. Conger Goodyear, Seymour H. Knox, Jr., gallery director Gordon M. Smith, and Martha Jackson, along with a cast of supporting characters. The exhibition itself essentially performs the function of illustrating their story. Dreishspoon has organized artwork, didactic wall text, and a generous measure of letters and other documents in an orderly fashion—or as orderly as the gallery’s 1905 configuration allows—making it easy to grasp the story as it unfolds. Visitors craving more than a cursory tour of collection highlights should make time to peruse the illuminating related ephemera.
From the start, museum organizers recognized (as one document puts it) “the impossibility of obtaining acceptable examples of the whole range and development of art as an historical process,” focusing instead on acquiring contemporary art. The first work accepted by the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, The Marina Piccola, hardly had time to dry in the four years since it had been painted. But it was with the opening of the neoclassical Albright Gallery, and the hiring of Charles M. Kurtz as its first director in 1905, that serious collecting began. Kurtz’s thoughts on the subject were pragmatic. “There is no better art today in the pictures by Carot, Rousseau, and Daubigny than there was in the days when these artists were glad to accept a few hundred francs for works now held at thousands of dollars; and the pictures being painted today by men of exceptional ability are just as worthy now, when they can be bought for a few hundred dollars each, as they will be when their values will be measured by thousands.”
With this “art of today” philosophy, Goodyear purchased Pablo Picasso’s twenty-year-old Rose Period painting La Toilette in 1926. Framed by the doorway leading into the large second floor exhibition space, La Toilette triumphantly heralds the start of the main exhibition, and our story. It’s hard to imagine today how this genteel work caused such a ruckus, but it marked the beginning of the end of Goodyear’s term on the museum’s board. He was booted off in the 1928 election, the customary explanation being outrage over the rather innocuous nudity in the work. In an interview, Dreishpoon offers another explanation: “[Goodyear] alienated certain people because of who he was. He was aggressive; he was smart; he was buying things … and by 1926, Picasso had painted [his landmark cubist work] Les Mademoiselles de Avignon.” Dreishspoon believes this radical new direction tainted Picasso in the eyes of the conservative board. The joke was on them. A year later, Goodyear became the first president of the newly founded Museum of Modern Art in New York which, as we know, became something of a success.
Remarkably, Goodyear continued for many years to purchase work for the Albright, particularly sculpture, which he favored. The small works room has a display of sculptural works Goodyear donated, but it’s his acquisitions of paintings by Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, Gauguin, Dali, Frida Kahlo, and many more on exhibit here that remain among the museum’s most popular works today.
As Goodyear departed, Knox stepped into the role of chief protagonist, joined later by Smith, and together they formed the dynamic duo of acquisitions. And here’s where the plot thickens. In 1939, newly elected board president Knox revived Goodyear’s Fellows for Life Fund, donating $100,000 and recruiting seventeen other donors at $1,000 each. Using the rejuvenated fund, Knox also implemented Goodyear’s concept of a special room where cutting-edge art could be purchased and displayed on a trial basis. This Room of Contemporary Art, as it was named, allowed Knox and his handpicked band of men to circumvent the regular slow-footed acquisition process. The current exhibition somewhat recreates this gallery. In historical photographs, the original space was designed to feel something like a cozy living room with marble wainscot and work stacked salon-style—a practice today’s curators are loath to imitate.
Though the current exhibition and book soft-pedal the notion, the room seems to have functioned like a Trojan Horse, slipping cutting-edge work by artists with now familiar names—like Beckmann, Matisse, Légar, Miro, Modigliani, Braque, Chagall, and many others included in the exhibition—past the conservative public and board. This was achieved by confining the daring new work to its designated room, with reassurances that it was there on a conditional status, bought with funds donated specifically for that purpose. The public was even encouraged to vote for their favorites, American Idol-style, and the art was often sold or traded for other work.
The approach was so successful that even after the room’s funds had run out it continued to be used as safe passage for challenging art entering the collection up to 1971. Apart from this, Knox purchased and donated many of the museum’s most prized works on his own. His contributions, many of which are on display, are abundant and varied. Much of this aggressive collecting was done not in accordance with public opinion, but despite it. The exhibition and book avoid this reality, but it slips through in one of the documents on display: “[One obstacle to building an important collection] is the resistance of provincialism—the difficulty of influencing the community attitude so that it shall recognize art as an aspirational but groping process which necessarily involves growth, movement, and change.”
One woman who valued change was Martha Jackson, who maintained close ties with Knox and the museum long after departing Buffalo for New York. Jackson’s most tangible contribution came after her death when her son, David Anderson, and his wife, Becky, created the Martha Jackson Collection of forty-four donated works, some of which are on display here. If less significant than Goodyear’s and Knox’s contributions, work by artists such as Jim Dine and Piero Manzoni demonstrate Jackson’s visionary taste. Over the years, Jackson influenced Knox and the museum on many other purchases.
The Long Curve is rounded out with two small rooms dedicated to recent major donations by Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, and Natalie and Irving Forman. This “and-the-beat-goes-on” message is mitigated somewhat by the very narrow collecting habits of these contributors, though the largely minimalist works make a strong impression here in small doses. Downstairs, a hallway of artist-donated works culminate with some of Clifford Still’s unprecedented thirty-one gifted paintings. A display of artists’ letters illustrates another theme of the story: the artist-centric nature of the museum. It was, after all, Smith’s and Knox’s freewheeling ability to bypass the gallery committee process and purchase on the spot that led to Still’s gift.
Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, writer, former president of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, skeptic, gardener, former magician, husband, and father.