Draw Near: Love Lessons at the Art Institute of Buffalo is an exhibition that celebrates the early work of four local artists who found love and inspiration at the prestigious art school in the 1940s. Featuring paintings by Robert Noel Blair (1912-2002), Jeanette Blair (1922-2016), James Koenig (1925-1998) and Catherine Koenig (1921-2004), the exhibition will open at the Benjaman Gallery, 419 Elmwood Avenue, on Friday, March 11 at 6 pm, and continue through May 14.
Established in 1931, the Art Institute of Buffalo (AIB) was intended to be "a school, a gallery (and) a meeting place for artists, art students and the public with no discrimination and no competition, encouraging maximum freedom of self-expression," according to artist-educator William B. Rowe, an AIB faculty member and board president (1943-45). AIB students – through an agreement with the University at Buffalo – could earn credit towards a Bachelor's degree in Art Education.
Throughout its 25-year history, the AIB forged an enviable reputation for its veritable “who’s who list” of nationally-acclaimed faculty members, most notably watercolorist Charles Burchfield, who Life Magazine once lauded as “one of America’s 10 greatest painters.” Many AIB graduates went on to enjoy highly successful, prolific careers as professional artists. All four of the featured artists in the Draw Near exhibition were born and raised – and eventually, settled and raised families – in the Buffalo area.
Both Catherine Koenig and Robert Noel Blair met their future spouses at the AIB while serving on its faculty. Jeanette Blair (nee Kenney) studied painting with mentor Robert Noel Blair, and the couple fell in love, marrying in 1943. She would later become a teacher at the AIB. James Koenig and Catherine Koenig (nee Caterina Catanzaro) met, fell in love and married in 1947 when Catherine was teaching classes in drawing and painting. James also studied with Robert Noel Blair, and had been a friend of Burchfield since the early 1930s.
As artists, Jeanette and Robert Blair are primarily known today for their watercolors; Catherine Koenig, for her trompe still life paintings and portraiture; and James Koenig for his abstractions.
The Draw Near exhibition focuses on artists who drew inspiration from the Queen City and its environs, the culture of self-actualization and free-expression espoused by the AIB, and the life partners and muses they found early in their careers.
“In many of the pieces, it is often quite obvious, both in style and in subject matter, when the artists worked side by side. It is also interesting to track each couple’s converging and diverging styles throughout their careers,” said Emily Tucker, director of the Benjaman Gallery.
Tucker says that interiors of the art school as well as early depictions of Buffalo’s urban landscape will be on display to provide an important historical context.
The AIB began as a small art school at the Grosvenor Library, which was designed by architect Richard A. Waite and located at the corner of Franklin and Edward Streets. The large influx of students, especially after World War II and the introduction of the “GI Bill,” led to a search for larger space, and the AIB moved its location several times throughout the city to accommodate its growth. By the mid-1950s, enrollment waned, forcing the school to close. Today, the AIB archives are housed in the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, part of Buffalo State College.
“It seems fitting that the Benjaman Art Gallery curate this exhibition,” says Tucker, “because when it finally closed its doors in 1956, the AIB was located in the 500 block of Elmwood Avenue, just a stone’s throw away from us.”
The exhibition is also especially timely, says Tucker, given the recent passing of the beloved Jeanette Blair, who was an active supporter of the arts until her death on January 6, 2016. The Burchfield-Penney Art Center will host a memorial service for Mrs. Blair on March 13, 2016, at 2 pm.