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Celebrating Knox legacy on golden anniversary for art; Donations to gallery engender family pride

Jean Knox is proud of the legacy carved out by her father-in-law, Seymour H. Knox Jr., whose name was added 50 years ago to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

The longtime gallery president donated more than 900 works of art during more than a half-century of involvement, many of which are cornerstones of the museum's abstract expressionist, minimalist, pop art and op art collections.

Among them, 160 went on the walls of the black box-and-marble addition for which Knox provided most of the funding when it opened in January 1962.

"My father-in-law was this wonderful person and this fabulous collector who was way ahead of his time," Jean Knox said over a recent lunch in the gallery's AKCafe, accompanied by her son, Seymour Knox IV. "His friends thought he was crazy, because it was a big step to go from somebody like Renoir or Rembrandt to abstract expressionism overnight.

"Look at what he created -- we are sitting here in this fabulous building by Gordon Bunshaft. He had the big picture."

Many of the significant pieces were purchased by Knox Jr. on postwar trips with Gordon M. Smith, gallery director, to New York galleries and studios, among them acclaimed works by the first generation of abstract expressionists.

Arshile Gorky's "The Liver Is the Cock's Comb," Jasper Johns' "Numbers in Color, 1958-1959" and Andy Warhol's "100 Cans" were among works Knox acquired that can be seen in the current exhibit, "The Long Curve: 150 Years of Visionary Collecting at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery," which runs through March 4.

On one day alone, March 13, 1956, Knox Jr. gave the gallery Jackson Pollock's "Convergence," Mark Rothko's "Orange and Yellow," Franz Kline's "New York, N.Y.," Willem de Kooning's Gotham News" and the Gorky painting.

"Mr. Knox was a real pioneer in the art world, he had the vision, and he was fortunate enough to have the wherewithal to be able to do it," Jean Knox said.

Her family, who lived in Purchase, and the Knoxes were family friends. She first met Seymour H. Knox III, her future husband who succeeded his father as gallery president, when she was 7 and summering in the Adirondacks near Tupper Lake.

"When I first met my father-in-law, he was just getting into his abstract thing, and I was a childhood artist and had my watercolor paint set," she said. "He thought it would be lots of fun if I painted these abstract art drawings, hung them up and had an art show. So, of course I obliged.

"Many years later, my father-in-law still had those paintings in a book at the office."

She considered her father-in-law a "Renaissance man" for his keen interest in art, success in business and excellence in polo and tennis.

"He had his own life, and if you got to have a glimpse of it, you were lucky," she said.

At the same time, she said, it could be difficult to measure up to Knox Jr.'s standards and how he ordered his life and those around him.

"He was very proficient at everything he did, and the people who were parts of the teams that worked with him were also very proficient," Knox said. "He had very high expectations, and you weren't allowed to fall short.

"And then you had to compete in that family. You were expected to do whatever they wanted, and in that family, there were a lot of expectations, and you were going to be doing them."

Jean Knox said her family's refuge was the Adirondacks.

"I loved the woods," she said, "and we could escape 5 miles in from the main road and be ourselves. That's where I really put myself back together again."

She remembers major works of art in the Albright-Knox hanging first in Knox Jr.'s Oakland Place home. Among them were Edouard Vuillard's "The Painter Ker-Xavier Roussel and His Daughter, 1903," and Henri Rousseau's "Waters in the Vase," currently on exhibit.

Clyfford Still, James Rosenquist, Louise Nevelson, Larry Rivers and Henry Moore were among the artists she would see there and at the Knox summer estate in East Aurora, now Knox Farm State Park.

"Clyfford Still's paintings reminded me of Navajo rugs, because I grew up with Navajo rugs at our camp in the Adirondacks," Jean Knox said. "My father-in-law got very cross with me and said that wasn't true at all, but Clyfford Still came out to East Aurora with his wife and daughter, and said to me that he had actually worked with the Navajos."

Knox IV remembered a line drawing by Picasso his grandfather kept in the bathroom.

"I once asked him why it was there, and he said, 'Because I get to enjoy it a couple times a day.' The room looked out where the cows would be grazing on the grass, horses would be running around, and it was a private moment he was able to have with his art," Knox IV said.

He remembers his grandfather as being "a lot of fun, with a great sense of humor, and someone who imparted a lot of life lessons."

Jean Knox remembers being at the newly named Albright-Knox when then-Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller came to dedicate the Bunshaft building.

"My father-in-law was, at the time, the head of the New York State Council of the Arts. Nelson Rockefeller gave a wonderful speech, and my father-in-law, who was in his prime, loved it," Knox said.

"He was very proud. He thought he had done a wonderful thing for Buffalo, and he had."

As chairwoman of the state parks office's Niagara Region Commission, Knox said she once went to Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate in Westchester County, for a parks meeting. There, she had a chance to see the Rockefeller art collection.

"It was very interesting to see how he and Mr. Knox were collecting probably the same thing at the same time," Knox said. "Nelson Rockefeller had amazing things, but I thought my father-in-law's collection was really better."

email: msommer@buffnews.com