Last week we were sitting behind the home dugout at Yankee Stadium with Albright-Knox director Louis Grachos, watching Joe Torre’s men club Minnesota, when an art conversation broke out. Louis handed us the gorgeous catalogue "Extreme Abstraction" for the Buffalo museum’s current show, a book cleverly designed by artist Pae White in an edition of 1500.
This gave us the opportunity to do what Robert Rosenblum confessed to doing a few years back in Artforum for Gilbert and George’s "Naked Shit Pictures": review a show based solely on the catalogue! Fortunately, Pae White makes this a breeze.
Hailing from Toronto, Louis Grachos is a huge baseball and hockey fan. We gazed at a photo of his office featuring Franz West sculptures outside in the snow and a blood red zigzag canvas by Lisa Stefanelli on the wall.
"When Lisa told me she used to be a figure skater, I understood her painting," Grachos remarked.
"And the blood comes from hockey," we replied.
We turned to a photo spread of the A-K’s splendid auditorium, designed by Gordon Bunshaft, a reminder that under the guidance of the late Seymour Knox the Albright-Knox has assembled a collection from the pantheon of modernism, the basis of this new "ExAb" exhibition curated by Grachos and Claire Schneider.
The Museum of Modern Art should bus its curators to Buffalo for an abject lesson in integrating the best current art with the classics. "ExAb at A-K" culls the very best pieces from the living and the departed to create a seamless curatorial marvel.
A transparent lavender John McLaughlin reflects a haunting moon by Rodchenko. A lush black velvet undulation by Karin Davie (who will have a retrospective at the Albright-Knox next year) laps at a blanket of zebra curves by Bridget Riley.
There’s a stunning orange and green rubber tsunami, Fallen Painting (1968) by Lynda Benglis which ripples by some green hair snapped by Wolfgang Tillmans.
As with all great curations, "Extreme Abstraction" compels you to re-examine artists you may dislike or ignore. There’s a truly sweet Hans Hofmann, Summer Night’s Dream, surprising in its relaxed fluidity, and a pastiche of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie by Tom Sachs, made from colored gaffer’s tape.
"A few of our trustees wanted us to remove that one," Grachos chuckled. That’s why the Buffalo art hub remains a temple of high modernism.
Recent Chelsea denizens will recognize Jim Lambie’s striped staircase, Liam Gillick’s cube and Sarah Morris’ high rise distillations. At times, based on the catalogue, hard edge is a synonym for "Extreme" in exceptional ziptures by Tim Bavington and the late Gene Davis, but in terms of sheer formalism and commodified desirability, current abstraction is downright conservative, reflecting the times.
To its great credit, the Albright-Knox has purchased most of the work in this super show, which runs through Oct. 2, adding to a premier collection of abstraction in all its subdued glory.
"All we lack is a first rate Barnett Newman," Grachos lamented.
Those unable to find the catalogue will just have to shuffle off to Buffalo for the art.
"I’m quite satisfied with the service on JetBlue," Grachos enthused. With the national hockey league back in business, maybe he’ll also take you to a Buffalo Sabres game.
"Extreme Abstraction," July 15-Oct. 2, 2005, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, New York
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).