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Remembering Jean Reeves, the quiet critic

On Nov. 10, 1959, when the famously reclusive artist Clyfford Still made a rare appearance in the Albright Art Gallery for a now-legendary exhibition of his paintings, Jean Reeves was there to cover it.

“His show got the kind of praise from the guests that would have made him shudder, and the kind for which most artists would give their painting arms,” she wrote. “He makes no secret of his contempt for those who may be called the ‘experts’ of the art world. And museums, he says, ‘use paintings for their own ends.’”

When Charles E. Burchfield received his first major retrospective in the Whitney Museum in 1955, Reeves recorded the occasion with her characteristically quiet expertise, pulling this timeless quote out of Buffalo’s most successful living artist: “I don’t think getting rich is the aim in an artist’s life. Such an aim might destroy him.”

And when a little-known optometrist named Milton Rogovin had his first one-man show at the University of Buffalo in 1968, Reeves captured the emerging photographer’s work in prose as stark and unadorned as Rogovin’s photographs:

“He photographs these peoples straightforwardly, without any setting of the stage on his own part, and the results are profoundly human and appealing,” Reeves wrote. “What Mr. Rogovin is trying for is not the portrait or the artfully composed picture but the particular moment that will reveal more eloquently than words that elusive commodity, truth. Without being polemics, his pictures plead for justice.”

Jean Reeves was the byline of the longtime Buffalo Evening News arts writer and critic Jean B. Barre, who died in October at 93.

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Read through some of Reeves' work from The News archives

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Though she might never have described herself as an expert about Buffalo’s visual arts scene, that’s just what she was across her tenure at the paper, which stretched from 1952 to 1975.

As a female reporter and critic in a male-dominated industry, Reeves stood out in the newsroom and in the community. Her colleagues remembered her as a smart, savvy and inveterately curious personality, who could be hard-nosed or disarming as the occasion demanded. She took the express train to the heart of whatever matter she was covering, with no local stops.

“She was an unforgettable explorer always searching for new ideas, and her writing was clear. It took her readers along the pathway of her discoveries about the art she so enjoyed,” Burchfield Penney Art Center director and former Buffalo News art critic Anthony Bannon said. “She was widely read and discussed, so she might have had some cause to puff up about her talent in interpreting the challenging things he considered in her reviews. But there was not an ounce of false pride in her make up.”

In almost a decade of doing Reeves’ job, I’ve come to regard her work as essential to the cultural development of the region. Along with her fellow critics John Dwyer, Ardis Smith, Terry Doran, Jeff Simon, Bannon and others, Reeves created a crucial conduit between the sometimes-stuffy art world and the general reader, always seeking to explain in the clearest terms the appeal of what she was covering.

It’s strange to feel that you know someone simply by coming into such frequent contact with their byline. But that’s the way I’ve long felt about Reeves, whose clear-eyed stories and commentaries defined more than two decades of breathless activity in Western New York’s visual arts community, stretching from the relative quietude and austerity of the ’50s, across the riotous ’60s and into the full flowering of Buffalo’s avant garde revolution in the ’70s.

Any time I delve into The News’ archives, filed away on microfilm and microfiche, typed on yellowed index cards and stuffed into manila folders, I lose all track of time, promising myself I’ll just read one more story or one leaf through one more stack of photos before returning to the real world. Often, it’s been Reeves’ work that has kept me hunched over the machine, happy for the ability to learn some new factoid – did you know Charles Burchfield stopped painting the Buffalo River during World War II because police in the neighborhood suspected him of being a spy? – or track down the seeds of some full-fledged movement.

Reeves was a straight-ahead, no-nonsense writer, eschewing flowery prose and making no effort to compete with the beauty, conceptual or otherwise, of the art she was considering.

Her curiosity was boundless, and it led her to surprising places far outside the official realm of galleries and museums.

In one story from December, 1967, for example, Reeves spent more than 1,000 words analyzing and exploring the importance of drawing in the development of disadvantaged children. Her conclusion, after an exhaustive report on the psychological and educational benefits of encouraging art at a young age, was to the point: “Art is one of the keys that unlocks doors to learning and self-confidence for children.”

And when she ran across something she didn’t like, she did not pull punches.

In considering the 10th anniversary of the Allentown Art Festival, for instance, she did not bury the lead:

“Bad art, to paraphrase Gresham’s money law, drives good art out of circulation,” she wrote. “Every year the festival gets bigger and every year it grows more disorganized and more trivial.”

Like so much that Reeves wrote, this observation was not only right on the nose for the time, but prescient.

Compared to some of her Buffalo Evening News colleagues who went on to wider recognition, such as Hal Crowther or Bannon, Reeves is not exactly a household name. But her work left an indelible mark on the region’s creative community, feeding a generation of readers eager to connect with the infinite possibilities of the arts.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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