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A gallery of good things to come

You've got three weeks. That's all.

That's how long is left in the run of "Extreme Abstraction," the most exciting original exhibit I've seen at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 20 years. It runs through Oct. 2. (It opened July 15.)

My colleague, News Critic Richard Huntington, had been on fire talking and writing about it since he first laid eyes on it. I was simply too busy to see it until eight days ago -- and even then I had to turn right around and go to the Toronto Film Festival.

I can only echo -- however briefly and sketchily -- his passion. "Extreme Abstraction" is truly extraordinary. For those of us whose youth coincided with the gallery's greatest years -- the building of the new wing, those astonishing acquisitions by Director Gordon Smith, largely with Seymour Knox's money -- "Extreme Abstraction" harks back to the amazing spirit of the place when it and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra were among the boldest and most forward-thinking institutions of their kind in the world.

We know how impressive the JoAnn Falletta years of the BPO have turned out to be (and how promising they remain) but "Extreme Abstraction," I think, serves notice on the whole community that the Louis Grachos years of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery are really going to be something.

I know full well that there are those in the community -- a majority, no doubt -- to whom the prospect of the entire gallery devoted, in Grachos' words, to "a thoughtful look at the realm of abstraction" may sound as appealing as a trip to the dentist (and as exciting as high school trigonometry class).

This, sadly, is not the stuff of which traveling blockbusters are made. I learned what that was 30 years ago when I was one of the fellows of the Smithsonian Institution's first convocation of jazz critics from around the country. In the middle of concentrated (and often hilarious) seminars, the fellows were given one Sunday afternoon free. I spent it at the National Gallery, which is to say in an out-station of Paradise.

There I was suddenly made to understand the mechanics of art taste. The gallery's French Impressionist rooms were packed. People were four deep at the "superstar" paintings. You couldn't get near them. On the other hand, the Spanish room, full of magnificent Goyas, Velazquezes and Murillos, was empty. I had it all to myself for about 20 minutes -- until a young couple wandered in, looked at the walls in wide-eyed ecstasy and then at me with mutual bewilderment at our luck.

There couldn't have been more than 40 people in the entire Albright-Knox Art Gallery when my daughter and I meandered happily through "Extreme Abstraction." To me, even so, this was everything I could possibly hope for in an original exhibition from director Grachos and associate curator Claire Schneider, a magnificent way to connect the acquisitions from the gallery's greatest period with entirely new 21st century work (including an exceptional 18 site-specific installations, 11 of which were commissioned expressly for the exhibit).

I understand there's a terrible danger here of kitschification talking about art works communicating with one another. Jackson Pollock, after all, was a deeply troubled man of ferocious and volatile ego. The idea that the installation of Polly Apfelbaum's 1998 "Reckless" on the floor nearby seems to engage Pollock's majestic "Convergeance" in conversation is not an idea Pollock would likely have approved of. But, so help me, for the next week weeks, the entire gallery -- including the great abstract expressionist masterworks we've long known -- seems to be full of works talking to each other. You can feel the vibrance in just about every corner of the place.

To the promise of the BPO's Falletta years, we now have the early glory of the Albright-Knox's Grachos years. You'll just have to forgive the hopeless grin on a lot of faces.

-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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