Buffalo is a sports town. The National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabres routinely sell out. The NHL draws some of its biggest TV ratings in metro Buffalo. Every year, no matter how bad the team or how cold the weather, fans of the National Football League’s Bills fill Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Buffalo’s passion for sports makes it an especially appropriate place for art by Paul Pfeiffer, the Los Angeles-based artist who came to prominence in the early 2000s by making video installations featuring clips of sporting events with key elements removed. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has recently acquired three Pfeiffers: The Long Count (Thrilla in Manila) (2001), Caryatid (Red, Yellow, Blue) (2008) and Caryatid (2003). They are on view at the A-K through March 6, 2011 in a one-room installation the museum has titled: “Paul Pfeiffer: In the Zone.”
These are the three best works Pfeiffer has made. Each pointedly demonstrates that spectators look at art too — and that looking at art can be every bit as engrossing and looking at sports. That makes them perfect for installation in an art museum that wants to win over its community. (More on that tomorrow.)
The Long Count features footage of the 1975 Ali-Frazier fight, minus Ali and Frazier, whom Pfeiffer has digitally removed from each frame. In their place Pfeiffer leaves digital traces of their presence, ghost-like outlines moving between the viewer and the spectators behind the fighters. As a result, we find ourselves looking not at an iconic event, but looking through it to the fans. Pfeiffer has turned the fight into a panopticon and the act of looking at art into a spectator sport, in which the fans are looking back at the fans. The device makes us aware that the entire sport of boxing is a kind of panopticon: Throughout boxing history men from the lower classes have been temporarily confined in a squared circle for the entertainment of the more affluent, fans who can watch but whom the fighters, intent on each other, scarcely notice. It seems like Pfeiffer’s trick shouldn’t invite repeated investigations, but it does.
Caryatid (Red, Yellow, Blue) is even more fun. It consists of three television screens showing soccer players doing what soccer players do: Dramatically writhing on the ground, typically in an effort to draw a foul call against an opponent. Why do futbol fans love watching this silliness?, I asked myself, only to realize that I too was watching it — and loving it. Further, each player’s uniform has been digitally reduced and altered into nothing but red, yellow or blue, allowing Pfeiffer to join a half-century of artists winking at artists about how hard it is for artists to mix the primary colors into an artwork. (Think Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Irwin.)
But the best of the three – and not just because I’m a rabid hockey fan — is Caryatid, a 2003 video installation that prominently features the on-ice celebration an NHL team enjoys after it has won the Stanley Cup, the oldest, greatest and most beautiful trophy in professional sports. More specifically, Caryatid features each player on the winning team performing a decades-old ritual known as “skating the Cup”: The player takes the Cup, holds it aloft, and skates a lap around the rink before handing the Cup off to the next jubilant bloke. It is a moving celebration, a scene of unsurpassed group joy. (Each year it tears me up. The exception was when Pittsburgh won the Cup a few years ago, after which I felt nauseous for days.)
Pfeiffer has digitally altered the ritual by deleting the players (and anyone else who might be on the ice) from each frame so that all the viewer sees is the Cup dancing, magically hovering above the ice and in front of the fans in the arena. The ecstasy each player feels still comes through. Pfeiffer’s video touchingly reveals the extent of pure joy: Apparently when we’re giddy with happiness we emote right through our fingertips.
Caryatid’s digital video loop is presented in a chromed box that holds a nine-inch color television and DVD player and the player is encased in a plexiglass case on a pedestal. The plexi case – which is part of the art object, presents a barrier between us and the object. It is a reminder that the Stanley Cup, which hockey players are trained to refuse to so much as touch until they’ve earned the privilege on the ice, is not easily possessed. The plexi box also presents a metaphor for the experience most art viewers have with the work of art. Albright visitors will never feel the same joy the ghosted players display in their handling of the Cup. Well, the vast majority of people who see Caryatid will never win or possess it either. Art is a different kind of trophy. Both the possession of art and the possession of the Cup are declarations of victory.
All of which makes the Albright’s installation of its trophy a little puzzling. The Pfeiffers, especially Caryatid, are acquisitions that the museum should aggressively use to bring its sports-mad audience to contemporary art. The work deserves to be in the central gallery of the Albright’s original Beaux Arts building, a brightly-lit gallery that is one of America’s best spaces for art. A trophy should be displayed in a suitable place, and this one isn’t.
The Albright isn’t just installing the Pfeiffers badly, it has missed an opportunity to use them to share the excitement and impact of contemporary art with a sports-mad region. The Pfeiffers are installed in a dark, off-to-the-side room in a near-hidden corner of the museum’s Gordon Bunshaft-designed addition. Meanwhile, in the museum’s best real estate, is an exhibition we’ll discuss tomorrow…