New Burchfield Penney Art Center shows Buffalo has more than the Bills, Democrat and, December 7, 2008

Buffalo’s first new art museum in a century has two personalities: a teacher and a chronicler of westernNew York’s art.

State University College at Buffalo recently opened the $33 million Burchfield Penney Art Center with a 31-hour bash that drew 20,000 visitors. Its collection of 7,500 artworks will become an important resource for the college’s 11,200 students.

“We’ve all been watching this building go up over the last two years,” said graduate student Tiffiny McKnight, 32, during the opening. “They’ve really done an amazing job. The open floor plan makes you want to explore the whole museum.”

The Burchfield Penney also is the only major museum devoted exclusively to western New York art. Its paintings, photos and sculptures reflect the region’s changing face, as portrayed by more than 600 artists. Its collection was transferred from a much smaller on-campus museum with the same name.

The new building is spacious, attractive yet somewhat impersonal in its design. Its International style, strongly indebted to Germany’s 1920s Bauhaus artists, can be felt in its sparsely ornamented, rectangular spaces and its sober functionality. Its 11 galleries have different proportions, ceiling heights and lighting suited to the art they house.

“The collection is extraordinary, but the architecture is a throwback to the 1939 New York World’s Fair,” said Buffalo photographer Kenn Morgan. “Only the warm maple floors and contrasting texture on the rotunda walls prevent the museum from looking like a hospital.”

Other visitors were more charitable but agreed that the collection is the magnet. Its focus on regional art raises an obvious question: How do you define it? As it turns out, any artists residing in western New York at any point in their lives can be included. Thus the museum embraces international celebrities such as Frank Lloyd Wright (who designed six Buffalo homes) and Cindy Sherman (a Buffalo State alumna) — along with many others who actually live in Buffalo.

“This city is loaded with artistic talent,” said Buffalo painter Andre Brooks, 49. “This museum is their reward.”

The opening show is lively, eclectic and totally unafraid to highlight the unfamiliar or provocative. Not all the artworks are first-rate, yet they resonate strongly with their neighbors. Each gallery carves out a distinct (if not always comfortable) imaginative world.

Tourists on a tight schedule should begin with the first-floor Margaret Wendt Gallery. Its paintings create a compelling time trip through the Buffalo area, from the late 19th to the 21st centuries. Stark contrasts emerge: unspoiled farms, Lackawanna steel mills belching flames, urban storefronts by night and theNiagara River on a rampage.

Among the artistic standouts is Eugene Dyczkowski’s riveting portrait Bartolommeo: a young dock worker with a weather-beaten face and a rumpled hat. Wilhelmina Godfrey’s City Playground shows youngsters fighting or walking alone, staring vacantly at dilapidated buildings. This is urban anomie, kid-style.

Another must-see is the room of watercolors by Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), the Buffalo artist for whom the museum is named. His strong, exuberant views of nature often show notes of fantasy or turbulence. A partial re-creation of his studio has enough stuffed birds to gladden the heart of Norman Bates.

The freewheeling “Gateways” exhibit of contemporary art ranges from kitsch to breathtaking. Cuban-American painter Alberto Rey’s stunning Aesthetics of Death Series X depicts a trout flailing in a shallow green pool, its mouth agape and gills bloody. It can match any of Chaim Soutine’s classic images of carcasses.

Few, if any, Monroe County museums would exhibit Bruce Adams’ masterful portrait of a heavily tattooed and pierced nude woman on a couch. And they might happily ignore Les Krims’ photo of a naked female Cupid by a pink love seat.

Buffalo seems more open to risky elements of modern art than Rochester. Of course, the Memorial Art Gallery, George Eastman House and Visual Studies Workshop do feature avant-garde works on a regular basis. Why does cutting edge feel sharper in Erie County?

“We have an unusual number of venues here for contemporary art,” said Ted Pietrzak, Burchfield Penney’s director. “The Albright-Knox Art Gallery already was showing it at the beginning of the 20th century. Now we have a lot of activity at galleries like Hallwalls, Big Orbit and Anderson. It keeps the pot stirred up.”

That said, the Burchfield Penney isn’t strictly for connoisseurs of experimental art. It’s family-friendly with a playroom for toddlers, crafts activities for schoolchildren and a small café. For grownups, the well-stocked gift shop offers a tough test in impulse control.

Buffalo soon will be promoting the museum, the nearby Albright-Knox and Elmwood Avenue shops and restaurants as a cultural district suitable for day trips.

“Everyone thinks of Buffalo as a football town,” said Morgan. “But here on Elmwood Avenue is where the real talent is.”