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Jan. 4, 1935 – June 24, 2013

Jack Drummer, a longtime Buffalo artist whose dark and gritty paintings are in the collections of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Whitney Museum of American Art, died Monday night after a long illness. He was 78.

The Buffalo native, known for the paintings he created from rubber, rocks and other unconventional materials, was an uncompromising figure who eschewed the local and national art scenes in order to focus on his own work.

“He did what he wanted to do,” said Jamie Moses, a longtime friend of Mr. Drummer and publisher of Artvoice. “He was uncompromising, 100 percent uncompromising. He could not be influenced by friends, people, conversations or anything. He did what he liked.”

John E. Drummer, known to his friends and admirers as Jack, was born in Buffalo in 1935. According to Moses, Mr. Drummer attended Canisius High School and Canisius College, majoring in Latin and philosophy. Along with fellow artists Wes Olmsted, Ben Perrone and others, he mounted a well-received exhibition in the courtyard of his house on Delaware Avenue and Allen Street during the first years of the Allentown Art Festival in order to counterbalance the commercial nature of the festival.

In the mid-1950s, Mr. Drummer moved to New York City, where he opened a restaurant, Potpourri, in Greenwich Village. His art career quickly blossomed in New York, and he was featured in several exhibitions in the Martha Jackson Gallery, at the Whitney and elsewhere. A 1962 solo exhibition of his abstract work in the Gordon Gallery received an ecstatic review in the New York Times, proclaiming his arrival on the scene.

“These constructions, which like so much modern art occupy a new area between sculpture and painting, seem to compress vast deserts of time by showing its effects, and will doubtless lead the overeducated to hieratic comparisons with ancient arts,” art critic Brian O’Doherty wrote of Mr. Drummer’s paintings. “Mottled and striated, they mutate through charred experiences of heat and fire, through verdigris landscapes that seem to have been lifted from watery graveyards, to subtle erosions and moltings that look as if the artist had aided their transformation over years.”

According to an oft-repeated story that has become something of a legend, Mr. Drummer was so uncomfortable with the adulation he was receiving in the press – perhaps fearing it would be a corrupting influence on his work – that he abruptly left New York. He spent the next 20 years living in California and Hawaii, where he worked in a pineapple factory, before returning east in the early 1980s.

At Moses’ suggestion, he came back to Buffalo in 1985 and later moved into the first floor of a former Connecticut Street creamery that was his enclave for most of the rest of his life.

In the 1980s, Mr. Drummer’s friend Bill Baker recalled, the cash-strapped artist would drive around to lots on Buffalo’s East Side to pick up rubber and other raw materials that he would use to create work for the next 30 years.

In the summer months, Mr. Drummer could often be found sitting on a chair outside his studio, reading the newspaper or chatting with other neighborhood characters. His gritty first-floor space, with a wood stove in the center, a salvaged canoe in the corner and newspapers and magazines scattered around, was filled with dozens of dusty canvases from the past 30 years. The paintings have since been moved to a secure space, Moses said.

He continued to work even as his health deteriorated in recent years and his work was included in the regional exhibition Beyond/In Western New York in 2007. According to Burchfield Penney Associate Director Scott Propeack, an admirer of Mr. Drummer’s work, he refused to attend the opening in a characteristic bout of obstinacy. To Propeack and other acquaintances, Mr. Drummer embodied “the classic idea of the artist as an independent person who was going to do what he wanted.”

Over the years, in his dealings with local artists, curators and others, Mr. Drummer developed a reputation for irascibility. But that reputation, Moses suggested, wasn’t entirely deserved.

“He liked certain people and admired them, musicians like Ornette Coleman and certain painters,” Moses said. “He liked people who were one-of-a-kind, like he was.”

– Colin Dabkowski