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Artpark People: Artpark Retrospective at UB Art Gallery

Left: James Surls, moving "Sticker Man", 1976, hemlock, pine, ash wood, 18' x 30'. Documentary photograph of installation and performance at Artpark; Right: Ant Farm, burial preparation for "Citizens' Time Capsule 1975 AD-2000 AD", 1975. Documentary photograph of installation at Artpark. Courtesy of Chip Lord and Curtis Schreier.

UB Art Gallery presents a tremendous retrospective of Artpark's heyday

The Beyond/In Western New York exhibit at the UB Art Gallery reprises and celebrates the glory years of the arts program at Artpark, Lewiston, 1974-1984.

What made the Artpark arts program so great? Most of all, I think, the site itself, which more or less imposed grandeur, imposed thinking large, huge, in geological terms, in this magnificent natural setting high above the turbulent river, at the crossing point of the river and the escarpment, the east-west precipice remnant of the geological cataclysm eons back that created Niagara Falls. Imposed grandeur, but also a sense of humility, in the face of such forces of nature and eons of time.

The sense of humility connected to ideas of art as ephemeral—Artpark artworks were temporary, and were removed at the end of the summer—art as experimental, art as fun. Serious fun. The ruling theoretical principle was process not product.

Gene Davis, "Niagara" '79, paint, 120' x 363'. Documentary photograph of installation at Artpark. (c) The Estate of Gene Davis, The Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Ree Morton, "Maid of the Mist", 1976. Documentary photograph of performance at Artpark. (c) The Estate of Ree Morton and Alexander and Bonin, New York.

Also central to the Artpark arts program was the idea of the art and the artists as interactive with the public. Wandering the park, you ran into sculptors and painters and earth artists making artworks, building, arranging, rearranging, assessing, reassessing. The process. They’d want to talk about it. What they thought wasn’t working. What was. They’d want to know what you thought.

The show teems with photos, drawings, plans, concepts, and sculptural models of the works that were made. Among them:

• Bushy-bearded James Surls’ spikey log-and-stick sculptural works. You could make art with a bulldozer at Artpark, or you could make it with an ax.

• Sam Gilliam’s enormous lumber and fabric and paint piece on the cliff above the Customs Road, along the river, intended to be (and it was) continuously altered by wind and weather and the slow-motion rain of dirt and pebbles down the cliffside.

• Alice Adams’ heroic-looking timber and earthworks constructions, and Nancy Holt’s mysterious circular pools made of upright culvert sections buried to ground level and then water-filled, looking like conduits to the center of the earth.

• Jim Roche’s welfare Cadillac, a 1975 tail-fin black sedan loaded with chrome accessories and ornaments. More chrome than paint. Nobody went untargeted, and everybody went away laughing.

• In another car piece, this time by the San Francisco artistic collective called Ant Farm, a 1968 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon filled with suitcases and possible future memorabilia items (suggested by the Artpark public) was buried as a time capsule to be dug up in the year 2000. (For whatever reason—money may have been an issue—it was never dug up and is still interred on-site.)

• Brigid Kennedy’s version of a primitive religious ritual compound, so it seems. The artist’s three-dimensional model of the piece is on display.

• Newton and Helen Harrison’s project to reclaim 40 acres of the barren spoils pile (of spoil materials from the construction of the Niagara Power Project) by spreading compost contributed by area residents that was then seeded with native vegetation.

A personal note: I was a reporter on the Niagara Gazette for several of the years in question, and Artpark was one of my beats. So I was there.

Artpark was amazing. In addition to the arts program, there was theater, music, opera, dance. One summer Artpark produced, all on its own, under the musical direction of Christopher Keene, three operas, and brought in another traveling production. The dance troupes that came in for one- or two-week residencies included the National Ballet of Canada, the Martha Graham company, the Joffrey Ballet, the Eliot Feld Ballet, and Twyla Tharp’s company.

Tickets for theater performances, including dance and musical performances, were two dollars. And for free, there was the Art-El, an enormous, gangly, open-air-barn-like construction featuring craftsmen of every sort—glass-makers, potters, cooks—doing demonstrations. And music. Off in a corner, on a weekday afternoon, the Empire Brass Quintet doing a kind of open rehearsal and between numbers, chatting amongst themselves and with the audience about the works they were working on. Or anything else more or less germane. About the musicians, about brass quintets.

But the arts program was the lifeblood of the place. Basically for the reason of site-specificity.

I think my all-time favorite piece ever at Artpark was Doug Hollis’ installation along the Customs Road of an Aeolian harp and an Aeolian organ. The harp was a large, bow-like construction with a number of strings that the variable winds and breezes along the gorge would cause to hum at variable and changing frequencies. Similarly with the organ, which was, I think, just a number of large-diameter pipes—not flute pipes, just ordinary steel pipes—set upright in more or less casual array, each pipe maybe eight to 10 inches from its neighbors. The winds blowing through the array produced a low, moaning sound.

I remember the artist, while putting the finishing touches on the piece, explaining to me the physics of how the air currents eddying around the strings in one case, pipes in the other, produced sound. While down below, on the river, was a visual display of the physics, in the countless eddies that fleck the broad surface of the rushing, swirling Lower Niagara. Spectacular. Conceptually, visually, aurally.

This enormous exhibit of massive subject matter was curated by Sandra Firmin. It runs until December 18.

In conjunction with the exhibit, there’s a conference on Friday, October 8, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, featuring presentations and discussions of Artpark People, a documentary on the 1976 visual arts program, and Citizens’ Time Capsule, 1975-2000, a documentary on the Ant Farm burial of the Vista Cruiser. And Saturday, October 9, at the UB Art Gallery, there will be a panel discussion on site-specific art and process not product, and another on landscape art and closing the gap between artist and audience.

And on Tuesday, October 5, architect and performance artist Vito Acconci will discuss the influence of his early performance and language-based work on his architectural practice, as evidenced in his 1983 Artpark project, SUB-URB. That’s at 5:30pm at 301 Crosby Hall, on UB’s South Campus.

jack foran

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