If there is such a thing as a genetic predisposition for painting, the Blair family has it.
For anyone following the artistic output of Western New York in the 20th century, the name of Robert Noel Blair will strike a loud and insistent chord. His eclectic work, which sometimes looks strikingly similar to that of his friend Charles Burchfield and sometimes like the mad sweeps of Gerhard Richter, has been a fixture on the local art scene for many decades.
Others may be familiar with the work of his son, Bruce, who himself paints in an uncommon variety of styles.
And there is also the work of Jeannette Blair, widow of Robert, whose watercolors were the focus of an exhibition in the Benjaman Gallery in June.
These three prolific members of the Blair family will be the focus of an exhibition opening tonight, also in the Benjaman Gallery, 419 Elmwood Ave. The show, which includes nature photography by Arizona-based David Blair, highlights the divergent styles that emerged from a single artistic family.
“I thought it would be an interesting way to look at two generations of artists who have been living and working in Buffalo, each capturing some of the same scenes in different ways,” said the gallery’s Emily Winslow Johnson.
“Each of them has such a wide range in painting really representational things in traditional colors, all the way to really wild abstractions with bright colors and sort of surrealist elements.”
Because the Blairs often drew from similar sources – say, a field near the family home in Holland – viewers will have a rare opportunity to compare and contrast each artist’s approach to the same subject.
“Each artist did a really interesting study of the Grand Canyon. Bruce has sort of a pointillist technique that he used, and Robert did it in a really abstract way with bright, bold colors, and Jeanette did a very representational, soft view of the Grand Canyon ... Each of them is viewing the same scene in a different way,” Johnson said.
The exhibition focuses mainly on the Blairs’ abstract work, where styles range from Jeanette Blair’s expressionistic watercolors to Bruce Blair’s oil and paper collages. But it also includes representational work from all of the Blairs, whose collective impulse to paint will be on full display in this exhibition.
For Bruce Blair, who still lives and paints in Western New York, the family’s penchant for painting emerged from a desire to be free from the constraints of the 9-to-5 world. It was that same need to be free, he suggested, that encouraged each member of the family to develop a unique style.
“My parents were free to do what they wanted to do, and they didn’t have to conform to anybody else’s standards.
“I liked the freedom, as far as that goes, to do what I wanted to do and not have a boss, and pretty much be a free spirit,” Blair said.
“My dad rode a motorcycle ’til he was 83. His influence on me as far as his freedom in his art was inspiring. He didn’t do a lot of teaching, but he was very encouraging. Because I wanted to go on my own. I tried to stay away from his strong styles and find my own.”