It was immediately apparent that ‘The Canoes,’ a new Nancy Rubins sculpture installed at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, was the hot topic in town. Even before I’d seen the piece, which is actually titled Stainless Steel, Aluminum, Monochrome I, Built to Live Anywhere, at Home Here (2010-11, at left), I knew that the Albright had a hit on its front lawn.
Rubins’ eye-catching sculpture is a controlled explosion of shining boats held together by stainless-steel wire. In part because of their icy silver color, the canoes appear frozen in place, about to burst outward or fall to the ground. A couple of times while standing across the street from the Rubins I realized that I was holding my breath, waiting for the sculpture to finish whatever action seemed to be going on. I had to remind myself that the work isn’t kinetic.
Stainless Steel is the latest Rubins to press 21st-century chaos upon late 20th-century sculpture, to reject the rigor of Donald Judd’s shapes and surfaces or Kenneth Snelson’s orderly and carefully calibrated forms. Judd and Snelson’s work inspires a very particular kind of wonder and admiration: How can their objects be so meticulously perfect? Rubins’ work, especially this Albright-Knox sculpture and its bombastic cousin at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (below, left), forces a viewer to wonder how such imperfection came together — and how it holds together. Rubins’ best pieces — and this is one of her absolute best — inspire a motivating sense of wonder: As I walked around ‘The Canoes,’ I tried to figure out how it ‘worked,’ what held it together. Sure, the piece has a sturdy base and lots of apparently high-tension wire that holds the individual canoes in place. But still, how the heck…
Part of Stainless Steel’s presence comes from the way it plays off of the Albright’s 1905 Edward B. Green building, a heavy, grounded, orderly neo-classical pile. One is button-down, the other bursts. The juxtaposition recalls the way Rubin’s breakout hit, Worlds Apart (1982), must have stood out in tidy, neo-classical Washington, DC. [At right: The A-K's Green building, via Flickr user davehogan.]
Another key element that gives energy to the sculpture and the museum ‘behind it’ comes from where supervising curator Heather Pesanti and A-K director Louis Grachos chose to put it: Between the museum’s three-building mini-campus and Elmwood Avenue, the main drag that runs between Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Delaware Park and downtown Buffalo. The Albright is set well back from the street and behind a parking lot and is easy to miss or to not think about if you regularly make the trip from the city’s ritzier neighborhoods or its inner semi-beltway down toward the urban core.
Not anymore. ‘The Canoes’ is sculpture-as-guarantee that Buffaloans will remember that their art museum is there, that it is doing and showing things, that it is alive. In fact, the Rubins seems to have been part of a concerted strategy: The headline of the museum’s acquisition-announcing press release was “Monumental New Sculpture Will Transform Elmwood Avenue.” As such, Stainless Steel is a manifestation of a kind of three-dimensional museum strategy that seems to be on the rise: Public sculpture that rejects plop for pop, public sculpture that both the museum and artist hopes is populist enough to entice a drive-by public into the museum. (Think of LACMA’s crossover hit Urban Light, which was made by Rubins’ husband, Chris Burden.)
This is an especially important strategy for the Albright-Knox, a museum which, like its city, has had its struggles in recent years. Buffalo was once one of America’s ten biggest and most-important metropolitan areas. Now it’s the same size as Fresno, Calif. The primary still-extant reminder of Buffalo’s glorious past is its architecture — perhaps only Chicago has as more great early-20th-century buildings than Buffalo — and its art museum, which has one of the ten best collections of modern and contemporary art in America.
But instead of self-consciously providing Buffalo a point of greatness around which to rally, the A-K has struggled to define itself in recent years. (Everyone in Buffalo seems to know that it is a home to great American architecture, but in my experience residents seem much less aware that the Albright is anything special.) Several years ago the A-K sold off its best non-modern/contemporary art in an effort to devote its limited resources to what it has done best for the last few decades, modern and contemporary art, but handled the situation poorly. Last year it hosted the worst and most problematic exhibition any significant American art museum has shown in at least a decade.
Fortunately, through the administrative bungling the museum’s curators have continued to buy and exhibit significant art. Few American art museums are as dedicated to exhibiting their collections as is the Albright. While this focus is an obvious necessity for a cash-strapped museum, the A-K has done it particularly well. Witness its recent installation (and promotion) of a particularly fantastic late Sol LeWitt wall drawing or its strong, ongoing installation of video art from its collection.
Here’s hoping ‘The Canoes’ is an indication that the Albright-Knox is getting back to what great art museums should do: Acquiring and exhibiting great art — and using it to make lasting connections with the museum’s hometown audience.