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Along the Gipsy Trail
by Jack Foran
Works from the Patteran Society at Burchfield Penney
Wonderful timing on the Patteran artists exhibit at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, in the wake of the Center recent exhibit of the paintings of Alexander Levy, a major force in the Buffalo Society of Artists during the 1920s and ‘30s, whose conservative penchant and partisanship caused the more progressive-minded among the BSA artists to split from the old group and form the Patteran Society.
The aesthetic argument between the two groups was about the artistic legitimacy of the work of the likes of Picasso, Kandinsky, Matisse, Miro. The new art. Abstract. Not so traditional representational. In their own work, the Patterans aspired to go in that direction.
The Patteran Society was founded in 1933 and disbanded fifty years later, in 1983. By that time the war over the new art and artists—and avant garde as a core aesthetic value and principle—was long since lost and won. On to new and better wars.
Upon entering the exhibit space, in a first glance around the room, you might wonder what the fuss was all about. Much or most of the work on show looks pretty safely traditional representational.
Until you look more carefully at a featured painting by society charter member Evelyn Rumsey Lord, a still life with several vases and some flowers. Stylistically, not cubist, but cubist influenced. But notably unconcerned about traditional perspective or traditional formal representation. Or even pictorial consistency over the whole work. In some areas, some basic rationality about spatial depth—in the placement of the pots, for example—but in other areas, no. In some areas, basic clarity about what is represented—the pots again, and some red flowers in one of them—but in other areas, no. Subject matter sometimes dissolves into abstraction and beyond.
Among works that wouldn’t have upset Levy and the conservatives is a handsome little wood engraving by Kevin B. O’Callahan, entitled Buffalo River, showing water in the foreground, grain elevator silos in the background. Or Philip Clarkson Elliot’s excellent self-portrait—a little like the Degas self-portrait in the Albright-Knox—and a still life with apples—a little like a Cezanne still life. Or Don Burns’ drawing that looks like a New Yorker cartoon until you look closely and discern the serious social justice subject matter. A night scene of picketers around a fire in a barrel, outside a fortress-like factory. One of them with a sign with some scrawled words about a living wage. You wonder if the differences between the Patterans and the BSA members weren’t in some measure political as well as aesthetic.
Among the more radical work, three segments of scrambled and jumbled aerial map imagery—it appears—called Travels with Marco Polo Along the Silken Road II, by Seymour Drumlevitch. And next to it, a veritable crazy quilt of color blocks and nondescript forms—aerial map of a land of complete unlikeness—titled Untitled #7, by James Pappas. And extreme term of inscrutable abstraction—but extremely beautiful—untitled drawing using compass and protractor and press type letters and numbers by Andy Topolski. Evoking particle collider physics experiments, data maps.
And on the other side of the display partition from the Evelyn Rumsey Lord painting, a work by modernist abstractionist doyenne Martha Visser’t Hooft. Depthless matte black on depthless red, and scatter array of abstract flower and fragment forms, called Incinerator, from 1970. Label copy points out that the painting is part of her “Pollution” series from that period, making her an environmentalist before concern for the planet became a universal cause except among Republicans.
Don’t miss the odd-looking—incorporating old typewriter parts—sculptural tribute to Martha by artist Wesley Olmsted. With friendly advice about trying to explain her avant garde art to skeptics. Containing a letter—in the typewriter—-by Groucho Marx to the Warner Brothers legal department in response to a request to explain the plot of his current movie. Groucho writes in part, “When I first meet Chico, he is working in a saloon, selling sponges to barflies who are unable to carry their liquor. Harpo is an Arabian caddy who lives in a Grecian urn on the outskirts of the city...There’s a lot more I could tell you, but I don’t want to spoil it for you...”
Much beautiful work in this show, avant garde and otherwise. But the real achievement and contribution of the Patteran Society may have been not so much the work produced as the sense of freedom to explore and experiment and innovate fostered by the society. Evident in David F. Pratt’s Waterfront with Two People, amid chalky halftone hues and mere suggestions of natural and architectural forms. Esther Hoyt Sawyer’s generalizing effect depictions of a combat casualty soldier in a hospital bed, and an army nurse. The radical lines of forces—energies—in Anthony J. Sisti’s oil on canvas Old Quarry, Amherst Street.
The Patteran Society exhibit was curated by Buffalo State history professor and art maven Albie Michaels and Burchfield Penney head of collections Nancy Weekly. It continues through September 27.
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