The making of an Artist
Cindy Sherman Untitled, 1981 color photograph 24 x 48 inches Edition of 10 courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures

The making of an Artist

On a warm evening last spring, two of the world’s shrewdest private art dealers, Philippe Ségalot and Per Skarstedt, went toe to toe—or, to be more blunt, checkbook to checkbook—at Christie’s auction house in Rockefeller Plaza. The object of their desire was Untitled #96, an entrancing photograph of an orange-sweatered young woman lying on a linoleum floor holding a shred of newspaper. It is one in a series of 10 original prints created in 1981 by former Buffalo State student Cindy Sherman.

After trading bids with Skarstedt, Ségalot emerged victorious, buying the work for a cool $3.9 million—that’s right, three point nine million bucks—which set a record for the highest price ever paid for a photograph at auction.

But that’s not the most interesting part of this story.

No, for the most interesting part, the most meaningful part—for the story of talent and inspiration and motivation and how a group of Buffalo State students and friends, including Sherman, converged and started an arts movement that endures to this day and will last for ages in museums and private collections around the world—you have to go back to the early 1970s.

Charles clough at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, circa 1975By most accounts, the whole thing really began with a guy named Charles Clough, who points out that his name rhymes with buff, as in his beloved hometown of Buffalo, New York. Born and raised in the shadow of the University at Buffalo’s Main Street campus, Clough was aesthetically minded from the start. As soon as he was old enough to ride his bicycle around town, he was off to admire beauty in the brushstrokes at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and in the blushes on the faces of lovely coeds at UB.

In turn, he created his own art at Hutchinson Technical High School and was encouraged by two teachers, Hildegard Rooney and Albert Fierman, to pursue his passion at the prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

“In my first semester at Pratt, I stepped up to its challenge and, in the second semester, I stepped up to the challenge of New York City and freedom,” Clough recalled. Living at the epicenter of culture, he began spending more time in gallery exhibitions and artists’ studios than in the classroom. He immersed himself in the practice of art as much as in the theory. And he decided that instead of taking prescribed courses for the next three years, he would walk an alternative path, cast off parental and societal expectations of a conventional life, and return to Buffalo to self-direct his education and development as a working artist. “Those were the hippie counterculture days, after all,” he said with a smile.

Back in Buffalo, Clough spent his weekdays making art, paging through art books and back issues of Artforum magazine at the Buffalo State and UB libraries, and “crashing” classes taught by professors he wanted to get to know—working artists like Buffalo State’s Les Krims and Barbara Jo Revelle and UB’s Hollis Frampton and Paul Sharits. He spent his weekends waiting tables, sitting in on visual arts classes at Cornell University, or hitchhiking to New York City for a big-city art fix.

One day, Clough mentioned to local artist and gallery owner Russell Drisch that he was looking for a suitable space to make art. Drisch suggested that he pay a visit to Larry Griffis Jr. at his studio on Essex Street, about a mile or so from the Buffalo State campus. A businessman-turned-sculptor, Griffis had recently founded Griffis Sculpture Park on 400 acres of farmland in Western New York’s Southern Tier, as well as the Essex Art Center in an old 50,000-square-foot ice factory on the city’s West Side. Griffis and Clough immediately came to terms: the young artist could have his own studio space in the building in exchange for sculpture assistance.

At about the same time, another budding artist had arrived at Buffalo State from Long Island. His name was Robert Longo, ’76, and he was lightning in a bottle. Part greaser, part hippie, part jock, Longo went to North Texas State University to play football his freshman year but quickly learned why it had a reputation as a party school. He flunked out, moved back home, and enrolled in night classes at Nassau Community College.

Charles Clough and Robert Longo with outdoor art exhibit plans.

“Then I met this incredibly beautiful woman, and she told me that she was going to Buffalo State College for home economics,” Longo said. “She said that I should come along, that they had a good art program there. I was always drawing, and I had just come back from six months in Italy looking at every important piece of art, and so I decided, yeah, I’m going to Buffalo State to be an artist.”

Longo’s romance dissolved soon after arriving on campus, but his love of art crystallized. He met fellow students Rick Zucker, a painter, and Phil Malkin, a photographer, and the three dove headlong into their work.

“Every day, as soon as class was over, Rick and Phil and I would go make art,” Longo said. “We were like crazy men. We were a buzzsaw of art. We would go around campus doing these ‘art attacks,’ like covering the windows of building lobbies with black paper to change the perspective for a few hours. And then this professor, Brock—Robert Brock—he realized that I was serious, and so he gave me the key to the sculpture studio in Upton Hall. I would go there all night. I worked with all sorts of materials, just cranking out sculptures, and really learning by doing.”

During this period, Longo met a sweet, demure art education student with a Joni Mitchell haircut. Her name was Cindy Sherman, and the two went on their first date at the Albright- Knox, where Longo quizzed her on the museum’s collection. Sherman, also raised on Long Island, had enrolled at Buffalo State as an aspiring painter, but she soon realized, under the guidance of Revelle, that photography was a malleable medium that could be used to tell stories in unique ways.

“It was a good time for conceptual art, transgressive art, questioning what art can be,” said Revelle. “Really different than the Reagan-era stuff that followed in the ’80s.”

Sherman began experimenting with photographing herself in different contexts and cutting out the images with scissors, just as she had made paper dolls as a child. She was developing her signature style and her artistic confidence. “I just knew I was going to be an artist,” Sherman said in the documentary film Guest of Cindy Sherman. “But it’s not like I grew up thinking that. I just, in college, felt that that’s what I was going to do.”

Meanwhile, Brock’s graduate assistant, Joe Panone, was so impressed with Longo’s sculptures—and his enthusiasm—that he personally walked Longo over to Essex Street in the spring of 1974 to introduce him to Griffis and Clough. The charismatic Longo and the intellectual Clough hit it off right away. Soon, Longo had his own studio at 30 Essex Street, where a growing community of artists had begun to take up residence, some actually living inside their studios.

“The most important thing to happen to me in terms of becoming an artist was meeting Charlie,” said Longo. “He was my hero, my role model of how to be an artist, my teacher. Together we became incredibly aggressive and motivated to get our art out into the world.”

To do that—to really go for it—they had to learn how the art world worked from the inside out. They had to network, and in Clough’s opinion, they had to start their own gallery following the model established by alternative artist-run venues such as Artists Space and 112 Greene Street, in New York City, and A Space Gallery, in Toronto.

“Robert and I shared a viewpoint,” said Clough. “There were no limits on our ambition; we wanted our art to be global and historic. If we could think it, we could do it. And we wanted to know all of the people who comprised the art world—not just artists but curators, collectors, critics, dealers, and museum directors. We wanted to know the complete structure, and we did this with an ‘import-export’ model of identifying the most interesting players and ‘importing’ them, so that when we ‘exported’ ourselves, we would have an audience.”

Using the walls of their Essex Street studios as gallery space, Clough, Longo, and Sherman founded the aptly named Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in late 1974, along with a critical mass of other young artists from Buffalo State and beyond, including Michael Zwack, ’71 and Diane Bertolo, ’76.

“When Hallwalls started, it drew artists like a magnet,” said Zwack. “It was an art citadel, a beehive of working artists.”

Using student activity funds allotted to the Visual Arts Board, a student organization still on campus today, and donations from other sources—including Griffis’s fun-loving art-patron brother, Jack—Clough and Longo initiated a visiting artists program that brought a veritable who’s who of working artists to Hallwalls and Buffalo State.

“Charlie and I would just sit around and come up with this dream list of artists who we wanted to meet. And then we’d make a cold call or send a letter—and most of them agreed to come,” Longo said. From 1975 to 1977, Hallwalls hosted nearly 300 events, bringing in the likes of Robert Irwin, Vito Acconci, Sol LeWitt, Jonathan Borofsky, Richard Serra, and musician Philip Glass. And most of the artists didn’t come for just a quick in and- out-the-door lecture. They came to chat, to have a homemade dinner with the students, and to stay for a few days, or a few weeks, as artists in residence. The Blizzard of ’77 prompted an extended stay by Borofsky.

“During the course of the visits, we began to presume peerhood with these artists—which was a huge presumption,” said Clough. “We were shocked that so many artists agreed to play ball with us, but the fact that they did really encouraged us.”

Putting the technical side of art that was taught in the Buffalo State classrooms to commercial use in their gallery, the students cooperatively breathed life into their work. “The day-to-day running of Hallwalls, the interaction with the other artists in the community and the visiting artists we brought in was a living school,” said Bertolo. “Very special, anarchic, organic.”

“We had a lot of fun back then,” Longo recalled. “I could tell you it was a 24-hour bacchanalia, but mostly we were just kids hanging out, talking about and making art, supporting each other, and watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman together on Monday nights and SNL on Saturdays.”

While a few people in the college community grew envious of the Hallwalls students’ success, scrawling the word demigods across posters featuring the faces of Clough and Longo, for instance—“Some thought we were full of ourselves, and to some extent, they were right,” Clough admitted—others, such as Buffalo State professors Revelle, Joseph Piccillo, ’61, ’64, and Jerry Rothlein, were devoted supporters of the young artists and of Hallwalls.

In addition to featuring noted artists from New York City, the Hallwalls exhibition schedule included an eclectic lineup of student work in photography, painting, film, music, sculpture, installation, and performance. “Art is a combination of the profoundly personal and the extremely social,” said Longo. “One important thing Hallwalls did was give us all the chance to be bold and push ourselves to succeed or fail in public, and to learn from the experience.”

Sherman’s success came quickly. Her first solo exhibition at Hallwalls, held in August 1976, was called A Play of Selves. Featuring photographs that Sherman had taken of herself in various guises, the installation caught the attention of Buffalo Courier-Express art critic Nancy Tobin Willig, whose laudatory review would be reiterated by critics for the next 30 years: “Using make-up, costuming, and a wealth of facial expressions, the artist becomes actress and recorder of the acting and design of the finished visual production. She is so dramatic an actress, such a convincing make-up artist and rubber-faced mimic that viewers will be dazed by the depth of her talents.”

Making new contacts and vital allies in the media and art world every day—from Linda Cathcart, a curator at the Albright-Knox who helped secure early grant funding for Hallwalls, to Helene Winer, director of Artists Space, who helped bring their work to New York City—the students watched their import-export strategy pay off.

“By 1977, I thought the time was right to move to New York City,” said Longo, who relocated there with Sherman. Clough followed in 1978.

Fame and fortune through hard work did eventually come. Longo initially paid the bills by driving a taxi and playing guitar in a punk experimental band in the underground music scene. Clough designed the Christmas window displays at Barnes & Noble. And Sherman lived off a $3,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts while working for three years on what would become her groundbreaking Untitled Film Stills series. By steadily refining their work and showing it in smaller exhibitions in New York City, they established themselves.

Then, in 1980, Winer and her business partner, Janelle Reiring, founded Metro Pictures Gallery in SoHo and agreed to represent both Longo and Sherman. Metro Pictures mounted Longo’s and Sherman’s first major solo exhibitions in the art and commerce capital of the world. The artists thrived on the big stage.

A lot has happened in the three decades since.

Sherman’s photographic work, which has been exhibited in top museums around the world and has sold for millions of dollars at auction, has been mentioned, for good reason, in every article written about conceptual art and artistic photography in the last 30 years. She is an undisputed icon.

Longo’s work, revered in the 1980s for its amplified, oversized black-and-white drawings of the brash world we lived in—his landmark Men in the Cities series earned unbridled acclaim—fell out of the critics’ favor in the more reticent 1990s. But after a brief stint in Paris, Longo returned to New York City and reestablished his place among the elite artists of the world.

Making new contacts and vital allies in the media and art world every day.

The students watched their import-export strategy pay off.

“I believe that there is no question of both Cindy and Robert’s historical and current importance as two of the most admired, influential, groundbreaking American artists of their generation,” said Winer. “They are the quintessential 1980s postmodern artists. They defined a whole new language and way of working. Both have continued to actively contribute to the art discourse and to do work that is as significant and excellent as was their youthful contributions.”

Clough’s work, which largely focuses on abstract paintings, has yet to reach the stratospheric profile of Sherman’s or Longo’s, but it has been collected and displayed extensively throughout the country. In 1978, Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, a couple from New York City, began collecting his work, eventually amassing more than 600 paintings, which have since been distributed to museums in all 50 states. Nearly 400 of these works were donated last spring to the University at Buffalo Art Gallery. His Pepfog Clufff, an autobiographical tour de force based on the 50,000-plus pages of artist’s notes that he has recorded since the 1970s, provides a fascinating inside look at his career.

Others have found their own success and fulfillment making art of all kinds over the years: Piccillo and Revelle, Malkin and Zucker and Panone, Zwack and Bertolo. Larry Lundy, ’78, Douglas Sloan, ’76, Nancy Dwyer, Kevin Noble, Jeff Catalano, ’75, Ken Davis, Kitty Hamilton, Joe Hryvniak, Gary Judkins, ’76, ’86, Pierce Kamke, John Maggiotto, Chris Rusiniak… The list goes on and on.

And it all started, in a way, right here at Buffalo State. That’s the interesting part of this story. And that’s the interesting thing about college, of course. You never know who you’ll meet, who you’ll be influenced by, or how the whole experiment will affect your path in life.

“I’d say it was serendipity, really,” said Piccillo, the venerable professor of art education who continues to influence students to this day. “I’ve been at Buffalo State as a student and professor for many decades, and I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. Sure, individual talented students come through from time to time, but to have this whole group of brilliant, dedicated students come here together at the same time in the 1970s, that was spectacular.”

Where They Rank

As Robin Williams’s character in the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society tells his students, artists cannot be objectively rated or ranked. That’s true, but in the age of websites and databases, many try. Artfacts.net is a site that ranks some 290,000 artists, both living and dead, based on a formula that gauges the amount of attention each has received from art institutions.

A ranking in the top 50,000 means, according to this particular measure, that an artist is among the top 20 percent of all artists of all time.

For what it’s worth, here’s how a few former Buffalo State and Hallwalls students stack up among others in the Darwinian art world: Cindy Sherman, 7 (behind Warhol and Picasso); Robert Longo, 288; Charles Clough, 11,532; Nancy Dwyer, 12,790; Diane Bertolo, 31,523; Mike Zwack, 43,784.

Where to See Their Work

This spring, the art of Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, Charles Clough, and others from the 1970s era at Buffalo State will be featured in major exhibitions in Buffalo and New York City. Make plans now to attend.

Cindy Sherman Retrospective

The Museum of Modern Art, New York City

February 26–June 11, 2012

Charles Clough Retrospective

UB Art Gallery at the Center for the Arts, North Campus, Amherst

March 22–May 13, 2012

Wish You Were Here: The Buffalo Avant-Garde in the 1970s

(Featuring a historical recreation of Sherman’s 1976 installation, “A Play of Selves”)

Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo

March 30–July 8, 2012