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Joseph Piccillo, 85, Buffalo artist widely acclaimed for bold images of horses

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Joseph Piccillo at Albirght-Kno

Albright-Knox curator Charlotta Kotik and artist Joseph Piccillo at the opening of "Joseph Piccillo: Drawing on Canvas and Paper" on Nov. 20, 1981. Image courtesy of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum Digital Assets Collection and Archives, Buffalo, N.Y. 

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Jan. 9, 1937 – Sept. 26, 2022 

Joseph Piccillo, whose bold black-and-white images of horses in motion have been featured in exhibits nationwide and in Europe, died Sept. 26 in Troy, Mich. He was 85.

A guidebook for youngsters issued by the Burchfield Penney Art Center notes, “When you look at a drawing of a horse, you know it is Joe’s because the artwork has a distinct character, the horse commands the canvas and bursts off the page.”

His horses made appearances on TV in "Columbo" and in the films "High Fidelity" and "Hannibal." His relationship with the animals, however, was strictly platonic.

“He just thought they were really powerful images,” his daughter Bianca Piccillo said. “He was not a rider. His sport was tennis.”

He extended his range of subjects to include people in action – springboard divers and ballet dancers.

As a professor of art education at Buffalo State College, he provided encouragement that helped establish Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center and launch the careers of the students who founded it. Three of them –Robert Longo, Charles Clough and Cindy Sherman – became leading figures in the art world.

His own work, figurative and full of energy, deliberately ran counter to the Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism that prevailed in the 1960s and 1970s and anticipated the revival of figurative styles.

Humble despite his acclaim, he said during a panel discussion of art with Clough here in 2001, "I make pictures because that's what I do. That's all."

That remark, Buffalo News reporter Anthony Cardinale wrote, prompted Elizabeth Licata, then editor of Buffalo Spree, to speak up from the audience: "Joe Piccillo can be as self-deprecating as he wants, but I've seen students look at his paintings and see a lot more than pictures. They see all kinds of things about the human condition."  

Born in Buffalo, Joseph Ross Piccillo Jr. was the oldest of four children. After graduating in 1955 from Hutchinson Central Technical High School, he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in art education from Buffalo State College. He was an art teacher in the Buffalo schools, then returned to his alma mater as a professor of art education in 1965.

His colleague Michael E. Parks wrote: "He was an asset to the program, providing future art teachers with a good introduction to art theory and modern and contemporary art. As an artist whose work is in private, corporate, and museum collections ... and a national and international reputation in the art world, many would be surprised that he remained a member of the art education department, and yet, with many opportunities over the years to move to studio departments, he chose to remain where he was. The department was richer for it."

The college's Art Education Department closed shortly after he retired in 2017. He continued working in his studio until 2020 and moved to a memory care facility near one of his daughters in Michigan last year.

Mr. Piccillo had his first solo exhibition at the Krasner Gallery in New York City in 1977. He won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1979.

His carefully crafted charcoal and graphite drawings and paintings were exhibited in several solo and group exhibitions across the nation and in England, Belgium and Germany.

His works are in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Brooklyn Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, plus dozens of corporate collections. One of them can be seen in the Humboldt Metro Rail station. 

He was a board member at Hallwalls and maintained a studio near his favorite corner, Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway.

“From its inception in 1974–1975, Joe was a masterly influence on other Hallwalls artists,” Hallwalls executive director Edmund Cardoni wrote. “Joe was an early board member and remained a generous supporter of Hallwalls all along.”

His first marriage to Marie Billon Prince in 1959 ended in divorce. He was remarried in 1970 to Linda Merry, a Buffalo elementary school teacher. She died in 2010.

Survivors include two daughters, Paola Seidel and Bianca Piccillo; two brothers, Peter and Thomas; a sister, Katherine Unmack; and five grandchildren.

There will be no services.

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Dale Anderson has been a Buffalo News staff reporter since 1968. He was the chief rock and pop writer for 20 years and helped establish the weekend entertainment magazine Gusto.

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