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A chronicle of WNY artists at Dana Tillou Fine Arts

Some of the works on exhibit and for sale at Dana Tillou Fine Arts.

History Lessons

A chronicle of Western New York artists at Dana Tillou Fine Arts

“Regional artist” is a slippery term. A “Western New York Artist” generally refers to an artist who is associated with this region; he/she was born, studied, worked, or taught in this area. For some artists, that time in Western New York may have been brief and the permanent record of his/her sojourn here may be limited to work that remained in public or private collections or the influence that a teacher/mentor had on his students. As time passes, the memory of artists who spent time here grows dimmer. For some late artists who had retrospective exhibitions with illustrated catalogs of their work—such as UB professor Seymour Drumlevitch (at the Albright-Knox), Daemen professor James Kuo (at the Burchfield Penney), and Martha Visser’t Hooft (at the Anderson Gallery)—there exists a more permanent record of their achievements. For many others, the knowledge of who, when, and what constitutes the art history of this region depends upon biographical sketches, when they can be found, and the oral history of individuals who knew/know of the artists or own their work.

The term “forgotten” has occasionally and awkwardly been applied to artists from our past. It may be a question of semantics, but I think the reality is closer to the fact that these artists are remembered but just not broadly enough. This is often where dealers and collectors, at times seemingly speaking in code, play a role. Example: “Do you have a Blair?” What they know and mean: “Do you own an artwork by southtowns watercolorist Robert N. Blair, 1912-2003, who studied with Charles Burchfield, taught at the Art Institute of Buffalo, and is known for his expressionistic rural landscapes, evocative World War Two paintings, and painting jaunts to the Southwest on his motorcycle?” Interest in and efforts toward preserving artists’ legacies is a passionate undercurrent within these circles of art aficionados.

For nearly five decades, Dana Tillou Fine Arts has been one of those places where Buffalo art history has changed hands, as the objects, images, and the stories they tell about our heritage and the lives of their makers pass from one owner to another. With that transfer of art from one generation to the next comes a responsibility to preserve the memory of the artist, underscoring the value of oral history within a community.

A visit to the gallery before February 26 would be particularly rewarding because the owner, Dana Tillou, has assembled, from his own inventory and a number of area estates a fine art sale of more than 100 works that span three centuries. Historically, the artwork ranges from bucolic prints of Niagara Falls from the 19th century to a highly stylized watercolor abstraction of the Eiffel Tower by Bruce Barber, whose work is also included in the synesthesia themed exhibition organized by the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History in collaboration with the Burchfield Penney that opened at BPAC last weekend.

The art history of the region is told in multifarious ways through the work in this sale. Tony Sisti, the founder of the Allentown Art Festival, known for his paintings of boxers, is represented by two drawings which chronicle two early phases of his life: his art studies in Florence and his experience working for Bell Aircraft Corporation in Buffalo in the 1940s. Kleinhans Music Hall became an iconic structure of its neighborhood soon after it was built. Included in the sale is an exceptional pastel drawing by R. J. Drago of this art moderne masterwork that reflects the unique perspective of the artist, who lived a short distance from the Hall.

Despite the informal nature of its assembly, the exhibition can also be read as an informative survey of work by past presidents of the Buffalo’s Society of Artists, Buffalo longest-running artist organization—founded in 1891 and still going strong today. Here’s a sample of the artworks followed by the era the artist led the BSA: a haunting memorial drawing by Florence Julia Bach (1920s), prints and a detailed cartoon for a wall mural by Alexander Levy (1930s), a landscape painting by Frank Stockwell (1950s), an industrial landscape by Arthur Lindberg (1950s), a sea-life-inspired abstraction by Carlo Nisita (1960s), and a trompe l’oeil still life by Donald Haug (1960s). Bringing the survey into this century is a painting of a dusk-lit urban scene by George Grace, who completed his two-year presidency of the society last year.

Other artists included in the sale, such as Amos Sangster, Kevin O’Callahan, Martha Visser’t Hooft, Virginia Cuthbert, and Virginia Tillou, were the defining artists of their respective generations.

Finally, about that Blair: There is more than one at the gallery (including one that is two-sided), as well as a painting by his son, Bruce. You should check them out.

gerald mead

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