Late on Halloween night in 1972, Charles Clough pulled up alongside the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in a borrowed station wagon and unloaded two enormous pieces of bright orange Masonite he had glued together in his Essex Street studio.
He mounted those pieces, which together formed a comically oversized arrow, on two sides of the gallery's north wall, so that a distant viewer might get the impression that the arrow was shooting straight through the building.
This was Clough's cheeky calling card, a guerrilla-style declaration of his independence from the art world, but also a kind of love letter to it.
That arrow, which has been temporarily reinstalled by the Albright-Knox as part of its mammoth exhibition about the avant-garde spirit of Buffalo in the 1970s, could be seen as a small opening salvo in the stunning cultural movement that consumed the city during that decade.
The echoes of Buffalo's cultural ferment, during which the city became both an important center of international culture and a sprawling laboratory for creative experimentation, can still be heard both locally and across the art world.
"Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-garde in the 1970s," which attempts to trace those echoes back to their sources in the alternative art spaces and studios of Western New York, is the most comprehensive and ambitious exploration of this period ever undertaken. Along with its extensive catalog, the show serves as a painstakingly created document of the decade, a showcase for its most important figures and institutions and, finally, an argument for its significance in the broader art world and the culture at large.
The long-anticipated show is the brainchild of Albright-Knox curator Heather Pesanti, who has been chipping away at it, among her other projects, for the better part of four years.
In 2008, while finishing up her term as a curator at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Art Museum and preparing for her new job in Buffalo, a group of Pesanti's music-savvy friends piqued her interested when they told her, in excited tones, that "the famous cult figure Tony Conrad" lived and worked in Buffalo. Conrad, indeed a famous cult figure responsible for widely hailed work in experimental film and music, soon became, in Pesanti's words, "the thread that unraveled the sweater."
"There were several things that happened here [that] nobody talks about having happened in Buffalo," Pesanti said. "One of my big questions for this whole [catalog] and show was, 'Why did it happen here?' And I think, with any big thing that happens there are so many reasons. It's like alchemy."
She followed that first thread from Conrad to his employer, the University at Buffalo, which in the 1970s was home to a group of experimental musicians now known throughout the music world as the Creative Associates, as well as to Gerald O'Grady's equally experimental media study department.
Those threads led into the city, where Clough, along with Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman (now art world luminaries) and others established Hallwalls (now Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center) in a former Essex Street icehouse run by sculptor Larry Griffis. They continued to the formation of CEPA Gallery, the early efforts of video artists like Paul Sharits and Woody and Steina Vasulka, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the curators at the Albright-Knox and the cultural critics at this newspaper, the monumentally strange creative incubator known as Artpark and the contributions of important visiting artists like Gordon Matta-Clark, who once created a famous work by removing the facade of a house in Niagara Falls and dropping parts of it into the Niagara Gorge.
All that thread, and the space of 40 years during which it's become tangled and connected to new and sometimes misleading narratives, would be enough to make any young curator throw up her hands in defeat. But Pesanti forged ahead, interviewing some 50 artists and culling through countless archival files in search of material to illuminate the true and elusive gestalt of the '70s in Buffalo.
The result is an exhibition that includes a huge range of installations, many being shown for the first time in nearly 40 years. A few highlights:
*"Bingo" by Gordon Matta-Clark. This hulking piece of the facade of a house near Love Canal, which belongs to the Museum of Modern Art and is considered a seminal piece by the artist, was created as part of Matta-Clark's Artpark residency in 1974.
*Paul Sharits' video, painting and sculptural installation "Dream Displacement," which has not been shown since the '70s and has been restored specifically for this exhibition, is an important early work by the late video artist, who had a fruitful affiliation with Buffalo. Experiencing it, Pesanti said, is like "walking into this moving, filmic, cinematic, sculptural audio painting."
*Cindy Sherman's first solo installation, "A Play of Selves," was at Hallwalls in 1976. With help from Sherman, the Albright-Knox has re-created the original, which features photographs of Sherman acting out various primal archetypes like madness, desire and sadness.
*An entire gallery will feature the work of Tony Conrad, the acclaimed video artist, musician and current University at Buffalo professor who played a key role in the '70s avant-garde in Buffalo and beyond.
*An installation of "Machine Vision," by the early video artist Steina, first exhibited in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 1978.
>A magical time
The culture of Buffalo in the mid-'70s escapes easy explanation for Clough, who is also the subject of a 40-year retrospective opening Saturday in the University at Buffalo Art Gallery.
Clough said the idea for Hallwalls came into formation organically. It grew out of his frequent visits to alternative venues like A Space, a gallery in Toronto, as well as the swirl of growing experimental activity everywhere from the studios and apartments of Sherman and Longo in Griffis' Ashford Hollow Foundation on Essex Street to the halls of the Albright-Knox, the University at Buffalo, Buffalo State College and Artpark.
"It was magic," Clough said. "It couldn't happen elsewhere."
For Clough and other central figures of the movement, it wasn't just the creative souls who were here that made Buffalo such a special place in the '70s, but the collaborative spirit that suffused the culture of the city.
"It's a very simple and obvious thing to put up artwork on the walls in the halls between the studios," Clough said. "But the fact that art is a public relation, that's what makes it art. Art functions as an element of society. It's not about being introverted and stuck in your studio. You have to do that, but then you have to turn it into a public event and object that makes it communicative."
For Pesanti, the exhibition isn't just about sealing up a period in Buffalo's creative past, honoring it and moving on, but about connecting what happened here to bigger movements in the art world. Apart from obvious examples like Sherman's subsequent career (including her acclaimed current retrospective in the Museum of Modern Art), Buffalo's creative ecology in the '70s influenced generations of future artists.
The formation of early digital art culture, which we think of as a relatively recent development, was fueled in important ways by the early projects of Conrad and the Vasulkas in the late '60s. The "Pictures Generation," artists like Sherman and Longo, who drew images from consumer and media culture in new ways, was in part a Buffalo-born movement.
But perhaps most important is Buffalo's contribution to what Pesanti called the "hybridization of forms" -- the now ubiquitous idea of cross-pollination between media like painting, film and video as an essential creative approach. The remix culture in which we all now live could be seen as one outgrowth of that approach.
"For me, cross-pollination and hybridization is a very big, big umbrella thing that was happening here in terms of media, in terms of academia, in terms of the collaboration between organizations," Pesanti said. "It was just this feeling of everything coming together and mixing up."
That strange brew, which brought together determined college students like Sherman and Longo with unorthodox institutions pushing the boundaries of nearly every imaginable art form, is Buffalo's undersung contribution to the art world. "Wish You Were Here" is a major attempt to bring the global significance of that history back into the light.
And as for Clough's surreptitiously planted arrow, once again drawing quizzical looks from passing drivers on the Scajaquada Expressway, the Albright-Knox has no hard feelings.
"I think they were amused. I didn't hurt anything. I simply pointed to them and said, 'I love you.' I got feedback that said, 'If you want to pick up this thing, you can do it. Otherwise we're going to throw it away.' But there was no reason for me to have it. They were friendly about it, and I think it was a win-win-win-win-win," Clough said, "which was my experience of art in Buffalo."
WHAT: "Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-garde in the 1970s"
WHEN: Opens today through July 8
WHERE: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.
TICKETS: $5 to $12
INFO: 882-8700 or www.albrightknox.org