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THE LEADING EDGE
IN ART, MUSIC, POETRY, THEATER AND MORE, THE CITY HAS LONG BEEN A HOTBED OF THE AVANT-GARDE. BUT WHY BUFFALO? AND WHAT'S NEXT ON OUR CREATIVE FRONTIER?

Robert Venturi, the architect who discovered beauty in the strip mall, said this about the avant-garde: "If you're really avant-garde, you don't know it."

Well, then, Buffalo must be really, really avant-garde.

All sorts of evidence has piled up over the years that indicates this city has a proud history of avant-garde activity. And yet, collectively, in that big public image we send out to the world, we never seem willing to recognize it as central to life in Western New York.

The memories of those experiments in art, music, dance, architecture, poetry, the media arts and theater are somehow always pushed aside in favor of an image whose main ingredients are chicken wings, bad weather and the Bills.

Even during those golden years of the '60s and '70s, with blazes of spectacular color coming from advanced art activity all around, our chief desire seemed to be to quickly return to "normal" and resume painting our town in the same old limited-palette colors. We were blue-collar and Rust Belt folks, and no amount of messing with the arts was going to change that.

If the approach of the new millennium isn't enough to wake us from this cultural amnesia, nothing is.

Like any American city founded on industrial capitalism, Buffalo was slow in taking up the more advanced arts. But once it got going, it embraced the avant-garde like no other city of its size.

While the realists, impressionists and post-impressionists were rocking the art world of far-off Paris, the eyes of Buffalo's most influential citizens were firmly fixed on such wealth-producing occupations as shipping, flour milling, lumbering, railroads and a host of industries from iron smelting to soapmaking.

But with wealth comes social status. Then leisure. Then -- as one writer many years ago phrased it -- an upper class "fired with a passion for conspicuous waste."

By the 1880s Buffalo's newly rich, like the newly rich in other wildly expanding industrial cities, attempted to quell this passion by building extravagant houses and filling them with luxury items, art objects chief among them.

Predictably, the art fostered by this rising aristocracy was conservative. In those days a foggy view of the Seine from an obscure artist by the name of Monet would not likely be found hanging in one of the classical-revival mansions along Delaware Avenue. Painted Venuses and Cupids were more the order of the day.

Once the habit of art is established, however, it stays. They were 30 years late, but the impressionists finally arrived in Buffalo in 1907 at an exhibition in the spanking-new Albright Art Gallery (designed by ultra-conservative architect E.B. Green, who must have been galled). Included were paintings by Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Degas and Monet, who, along with the rest of his cronies, was now world-famous.

Right on time, though, was a show at the gallery in 1910 called "International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography." It was Buffalo's first real plunge into the avant-garde. Photography wasn't even considered an art form then. And radical-thinking Alfred Stieglitz, who arranged the event, didn't bolter its credentials any. But there it was.

Well before anyone thought of the idea of the avant-garde and far outside the high circles of Buffalo's industrial elite, a Western New York farmer named Lewis F. Allen wrote a book called "Rural Architecture." It made a case for buildings that gained harmony from "the character of utility or necessity." Allen had no training in architecture, but this uncle of Grover Cleveland anticipated a particularly American kind of architecture whose look was expressly tied to how a building was to be used. It was an idea that was to revolutionize architecture.

At first look Buffalo's Prudential Building, designed by Louis Sullivan in 1895, hardly seems to fit Allen's call for plain forms derived from function. But its strong, simple verticals and direct overall shape proclaim its function as a tall urban office building served by the then-new electric elevator. Allen might very well have seen the glorious ornaments of its terra-cotta facade as "gewgaw," but they enrich without obscuring the elegant geometry of the building.

The Prudential wore its modernity gracefully and set the stage for more radical buildings to come. When Sullivan protege Frank Lloyd Wright came on the Buffalo scene early in the century, he designed a number of marvelous houses -- most notably the 1904-05 jewel, the Darwin D. Martin House, now in restoration -- and one building so ripe with innovation and potent form that it changed the face of modern architecture altogether, the 1904 Larkin Administration Building. In 1950 the city demolished it.

By chance, we had another connection with the front-runners of modern architecture. Future giants of the International Style, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, began studying photographs of Buffalo's grain elevators, admiring their simple grandeur. Soon architecture's leading lights were making visits here to take notes.

Thankfully, our most daring modernist building after Wright's contributions is nothing like the severe box that Gropius might have designed. In Kleinhans Music Hall (1938-40) Eliel and Eero Saarinen brilliantly demonstrate that great buildings can be composed almost entirely of gracefully curved planes.

An odd thing happened in Buffalo one Sunday in 1965. More than 66,000 people lined up to attend an event that had nothing to do with sports or food. The event was part of the first Festival of Arts Today, an incredible mixture of the newest of the new in theater, music, dance, poetry and visual arts. All those people were causing traffic jams outside the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to see avant-garde art.

"In terms of the avant-garde, these were the golden '60s," says percussionist and noted modern-music conductor Jan Williams. Williams took part in many of the musical events connected with the festival -- such as the sometimes outrageous "Evenings for New Music" -- and saw with some amazement how Buffalo audiences took to these rather unusual doings in their erstwhile calm town.

"The interest on the part of the general public was incredible," Williams says. "There was an enormous inquisitiveness about things avant-garde."

The year before, Lukas Foss, then conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic, had come up with the idea to create a center for modern composers and performers -- to be called Creative Associates -- and have them reside in Buffalo and compose and perform, free of all the usual restraints. The project, founded by a Rockefeller grant and launched in conjunction with the University at Buffalo's Center of the Creative and Performing Arts, gained worldwide recognition and turned Buffalo into a haven for new music. Life magazine did a five-page spread on it, the headline asking the inevitable question: "Can This Be Buffalo?"

"There were always three or four composers in residence," Williams recalls. "We were seeking new stuff and were acting as a mirror for what was happening right then. As a performer it was great -- you were right in the thick of it. You would get instant feedback from the composers. That vitality projected itself outward and you picked up on it."

The first festival had more than its share of sensational and outrageous works. It included premieres of four short plays by Ionesco; Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris, nude save for a layer of mineral oil, moving slowly across the stage to a Verdi aria; and Gyorgi Ligeti's "Poeme Symphonique," in which 100 metronomes ticked away for 12 minutes.

The diversity of the vanguard who trouped through Buffalo in those years staggered even seasoned observers. John Dwyer, The Buffalo News' witty and wise chronicler of these events, called John Cage, a continual Buffalo visitor, "the patriarch of divine noise." Of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's premiere of "Rainforest," Dwyer, after commenting favorably on Andy Warhol's decor, described performers "in ragged gym shirts and pants with holes bitten in them. In the garments."

Dwyer and everybody else had a lot to choose from: composer George Crumb, dancer Lucinda Childs (Dwyer on Childs: "Huge blue bandage on right foot, purple stocking on left. Makes a cellophane salad bowl"), playwright Edward Albee, poet Charles Olson, jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, filmmaker Janas Mekas and countless others of equal stature.

With music being performed regularly by anyone from Pauline Oliveros to Milton Babbitt, the word spread rapidly. "People from Europe were wanting to come to Buffalo and live here a couple of years," says Williams.

The Albright-Knox was the proper venue for these adventurous "Evenings for New Music." By then it had established itself as a major institution of contemporary art that aggressively bought the latest work from the most advanced painters and sculptors. It was in the '50s, with gallery director Gordon B. Washburn and longtime gallery benefactor Seymour H. Knox working in magic tandem, that the gallery began purchasing works -- sometimes fresh from the studio -- by the reigning abstract expressionists. From 1954 to 1957 Knox presented the gallery with no fewer than 40 new works -- masterpieces by the likes of Gorky, Hofmann, Kline, Rothko, De Kooning, Pollock and Guston.

When pop art arrived abruptly, the gallery, unfazed, continued its press for new art, buying such key works as Warhol's "100 Soup Cans" and George Segal's installation "Cinema," the last a particularly brave move given that the huge work features a real theater marquee. By the time of the first Festival of the Arts Today, the gallery had packed in an incredible stock of kinetic and op pieces, works that would provide the perfect fun-house background for the avant-garde festivities.

"I was in New York City and I had asked (composer) Terry Riley to do a soundtrack for a film I was doing, and he sent me a recording that he had done in this place called (pause) Buffalo."

And thus Tony Conrad, maker of films, videos and music, discovered the virtues of upstate. "The reason I wanted to come to Buffalo was, I felt that it was the only place outside of New York City that had a chance to make history in film. I saw it as a mecca," says Conrad.

Conrad recalls that it was Gerald O'Grady, a former medievalist who had gotten into Marshall McLuhan, who set up the American Film Seminars with Harvard, New York University and UB. This was in 1974, and the best independent filmmakers, such as Hollis Frampton and Paul Sharits, paid attention. "Everyone came. This was a hot place," says Conrad.

O'Grady went on to establish his Media Study organization, then housed in a storefront, in an old hotel building on Delaware Avenue. From there he proceeded to demonstrate that the avant-garde wasn't simply a slightly wacky phenomenon meant to jolt ordinary folks out of their socks. In dark, cavernous, smoke-filled rooms, a few initiates were presented with sometimes inexplicable events that were steeped in urgency even when they were absurd or comical. Conrad saw these media happenings as absolutely great entertainment.

At about the same time, some Buffalo State College students decided that the city was not seeing enough of artists working way, way out on the fringes of contemporary art. Famed vanguardist Vito Acconci remembers his surprise when some young guy named Robert Longo called out of the blue and asked him to come to Buffalo. Acconci, who had barely heard of the place, admired Longo's guts, and went. Hallwalls, then a spunky little art center located in an old icehouse, was born of many such calls. Longo, Cindy Sherman, Nancy Dwyer, Michael Zwack and Charlie Clough, now themselves names to reckon with in the art world, had pushed the Buffalo avant-garde-o-meter off the scale and made a place that, as Conrad says, was "an incubator for the whole '80s generation of artists."

CEPA Gallery came into being during the same period (in the early years located in the same old icehouse) and took on the same experimental tack toward photography that Hallwalls took toward the handmade arts: Make everything a hybrid. CEPA made photography socially aware and culturally hip, marrying it to everything from drawing to video and -- in the happiest alliance yet -- to the digital arts.

To quote Venturi again, "Bureaucratic jerks frustrate creative jerks." Soon enough the golden years faded. Joseph Dunn and Irja Koljonen's American Contemporary Theater folded in 1977 for lack of money, after five years of uncompromising experimental theater that anticipated the performance art of today. By the mid-'80s New York State was preparing to pull the funding for Artpark, and soon one of the most innovative and fruitful outdoor sculpture programs in the nation died. By 1980 UB's Center of Creative and Performing Arts, after 17 glorious years of presenting new music, dance and theater, collapsed for lack of funding. June in Buffalo and the North American New Music Festival took up the slack, but in new times with new attitudes, the creative heat of old never quite returned.

"We're trying to hold our ground in a downspin," Conrad says about the current state of things. "We don't have enough support."

Anyway, says Conrad, artists have changed radically: "Young artists realize that we're not moving ahead anymore, that diversity needs to replace the idea of progress. The avant-garde is dead -- too old-fashioned."

Anya Lewin is one of these young artists. On Lafayette Avenue she has established Corner Shop, a room for performances and exhibitions that will present art, poetry, fiction, film, video, computer installations -- just about anything related to art.

"It's a kind of atmosphere. I wanted someplace a little looser, easier to get into," says Lewin, a Ph.D. candidate in UB's poetics department.

She doesn't want a board; she doesn't want grants. She can do what she wants with the modest support she gets from CEPA, Just Buffalo and the UB poetics department. "I like the energy the place has," she says. "You need to create things in Buffalo. It's not just there for you."

With diversity as its byword, it sounds like the start of a new avant-garde.