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Director’s Lecture Series 2014–2015

The Birth, Rise, and Evolution of Avant-Garde Art

Tuesdays, September 16, 2014; October 14, 2014; November 11, 2014; February 3, 2015; March 10, 2015; and April 14, 2015, 7–8:30 pm 

Cathleen Chaffee, Janne Sirén, and Joe Lin-Hill with Clyfford Still’s 1951-E, 1951 (Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Gift of the artist, 1964).

7–8 pm, Lecture
8–8:30 pm, Conversation with Participants

Individual tickets for the remaining lectures in the series can now be purchased at the AK Admissions Desk, or by phone at 716.270.8247. The price for individual lecture tickets is $85 general admission and $65 for AK Members.

Series Price:
$500 general admission
$375 for Members
$200 for students (with valid student ID)
More about Tickets and Scholarships


Following the overwhelming success of the 2013–2014 inaugural Director’s Lecture Series, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is pleased to introduce the 2014–2015 Director’s Lecture Series, entitled “The Birth, Rise, and Evolution of Avant-Garde Art.”

Six lectures will provide a unique opportunity to learn about the eighteenth-century origins and nineteenth- and twentieth-century development of the modern definition of the artist: a figure who rejects dominant cultural mores and leads the vanguard of creative and even societal transformation. The series is designed by Peggy Pierce Elfvin Director Dr. Janne Sirén and presented by Dr. Sirén, as well as Deputy Director Dr. Joe Lin-Hill and Curator Dr. Cathleen Chaffee.

The term “avant-garde” was borrowed from the French, where it originally described the forward guard on a military march, usually the first soldiers to plunge into an unknown or dangerous situation. By the mid-twentieth century, critics applied the term almost exclusively to artists working with abstraction, which often masked the origins of the avant-garde in nineteenth-century Realism. The series will address those Realist and political origins, and the changing role of the avant-garde artist in society: from the Salons of nineteenth-century Paris, to the idealistic artist-run schools in post-Revolution Russia and Weimar Germany, to the “arrival” of an American avant-garde on the world scene in the 1950s and 1960s. Throughout the series, participants will engage with the conditions that led to the development of an artistic avant-garde, to those aspects of society that nurtured it, and to the artistic temperaments and signal works that defined the front lines of artmaking in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The strong tendency for the avant-garde artist to act as both a catalyst and a connector—to build bridges between disparate groups, and to transmit ideas across national borders—will be a particular focus.

Each lecture will be followed by a question-and-answer conversation between the lecturer and participants. 


Tuesday, September 16, 2014, 7–8:30 pm
“Origins of the Modern Temper in Art, 1760–1814”
By Dr. Janne Sirén, Peggy Pierce Elfvin Director 

This lecture introduces the idea of the “modern temper” as it was embodied by a number of revolutionaries, including Francisco de Goya (Spanish, 1746–1828), an artist at the bridge of classicism and modernism. Although Goya was a court painter, he was also a chronicler of human failings, and of dreams, sorrows, and visions. His dedication to the subjective, rather than the idealized or objective world, was a harbinger of modernism itself. Goya lived contemporaneously with both the American and French revolutions, and the Napoleonic wars, eras marked by the waning power of the aristocracy. The lecture concludes with the end of an era in itself, marked by Napoleon Bonaparte’s abdication in 1814.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014, 7–8:30 pm
“The Birth of the Avant-Garde, 1815–1860”
By Dr. Joe Lin-Hill, Deputy Director 

This second lecture begins with a political event—the end of the first Napoleonic Empire in France—and ends with the ascendancy of Realism, a new artistic movement that culminated in the Salon des Refusés of 1863. The years in between 1815 and 1860 were among the most tumultuous in French history. They saw the emergence of a politically empowered French middle class, the rise of Romanticism, and the emergence of an avant-garde from the artistic and political actions of the Realists. Topics explored will include the Realist artists’ rejection of historical and allegorical painting, the political role of the avant-garde artist, and the evolving definition of the “modern” artist as capturing that which is both beautiful and fleeting in his or her own time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014, 7–8:30 pm
“Painters of Modern Life, 1860–1900”
By Dr. Janne Sirén, Peggy Pierce Elfvin Director 

The third lecture addresses the best-known figures of the nineteenth-century avant-garde: artists such as Édouard Manet (French, 1832–1883), Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917), Georges Seurat (French, 1859–1891), and Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926). Their signal achievements are at the core of the Impressionist movement, a generation of artists attuned to the provocations and charms of everyday life. The fruitful relationship between artists and writers during the second half of the nineteenth century immeasurably enriched the Impressionist movement. Popular histories of Impressionism will therefore be contextualized through a discussion of some of the movement’s critics, in particular the poet and writer Charles Baudelaire (French, 1821–1867). 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015, 7–8:30 pm
(previously scheduled for Tuesday, February 10)
“Shock of the New and Reactions Thereto, 1900–1945” 
By Dr. Janne Sirén, Peggy Pierce Elfvin Director 

The first half of the twentieth century in Europe, Russia, and the United States was among the most tumultuous periods in history. For artists, early years of experimentation were soon followed by revolution, world wars, and dramatic economic instability. In Germany, forward-looking art and design training at the Bauhaus responded to the artistic idealism of Expressionist associations like Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). The radical developments in abstract art immediately preceding the Russian Revolution of 1917 were put to the test, as Constructivist artists such as Lyubov Popova (Russian, 1889–1924) and Aleksandr Rodchenko (Russian, 1891–1956) worked to make abstraction useful in the post-revolutionary era. This was a time of unprecedented artistic innovations: Cubism, Expressionism, Constructivism, De Stijl, Dada, Surrealism. Many artists lived long enough to see their formerly shocking work become acclaimed and collected after the end of World War I. Many of these gains were lost, just a few years later, with the brutality and censorship of World War II.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015, 7–8:30 pm
“New York: The New Capital of Art, 1945–1980”
By Dr. Cathleen Chaffee, Curator 

Many of the artists, such as Jackson Pollock (American, 1912–1956) and Mark Rothko (American, born Russia, 1903–1970), who contributed to what has been called the “triumph of American painting” in the 1950s had a great deal in common: they made representational painting as part of the Depression-era Work Projects Administration and they were exposed to an influx of European culture brought by artists in exile from the destruction of World War II. These artists brought their experience to bear on the development of a truly American style of abstract painting, which came to be called Abstract Expressionism. This generation of artists helped shift the center of the art world from Paris to New York City after the war. What kept New York at the apex of artistic innovation and art market success for decades afterwards was not, however, its role in the establishment of a new national school of art, but rather the way it continued to serve as a fulcrum for diverse communities of transplants and émigrés. Such increasingly international energies were often what redefined and expanded the definition of avant-garde art in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.   

Tuesday, April 14, 2015, 7–8:30 pm
“1980–2010: Global Trends”
By Dr. Janne Sirén, Peggy Pierce Elfvin Director; Dr. Joe Lin-Hill, Deputy Director; and Dr. Cathleen Chaffee, Curator

Although it is common to declare that we live in an increasingly global era—a “flatter” world—there is little consensus about how to make sense of this changed environment as it relates to the world of art and artists. This lecture will weigh a number of different approaches to understanding global trends in art. In particular, the discussion will contextualize the relationship between such “new” international voices and the rich historical tradition of modernism and the avant-garde addressed throughout the lecture series. 

A reception will follow the final lecture.


Individual tickets for the remaining lectures in the series can now be purchased at the AK Admissions Desk, or by phone at 716.270.8247. The price for individual lecture tickets is $85 general admission and $65 for AK Members.

Series Price:
$500 general admission
$375 for Members
$200 for students (with valid student ID)

To purchase series tickets, please call 716.270.8247 or pay online. Participants will receive a 10% discount on the purchase of five or more series tickets.

Buy Tickets Online

Scholarships are available for the series. For more information, please call 716.270.8282. Download Scholarship Application (PDF)

Enjoy dinner in the artful setting of the Albright-Knox. AK Café will be open from 5:30 to 7 pm before each lecture. Reservations are required; please call 716.270.8223.

Proceeds from the Director’s Lecture Series directly benefit the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

About the Lecturers

On January 14, 2013, Dr. Janne Sirén became the eleventh director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Immediately prior to his appointment, Dr. Sirén served as the director of Finland’s Helsinki Art Museum, one of the largest cultural institutions in the Nordic region.

Dr. Sirén has lectured and written extensively on modern and contemporary art and his areas of specialization include the synergy between art and nationalism and the diverse roles of museums in contemporary society. He has lectured on the history of museums at the University of Tampere, Finland, and, from 2000 to 2004, he served as assistant professor in the Department of Art History at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, where he taught courses in aesthetics, American and European art history, critical theory, and museology.

Dr. Sirén holds an undergraduate degree in art history from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a Master’s degree and PhD, also in the field of art history, from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

Dr. Joe Martin Lin-Hill became Deputy Director of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 2013. Dr. Lin-Hill served on Robert Storr’s curatorial support team for the Venice Biennale in 2007; prior to that he was the principal consultant to Sotheby’s auction house for its launch of Pan-Asian contemporary art sales in New York (2005–2008). Dr. Lin-Hill previously worked in the New York offices of AEA Consulting, a boutique firm focusing on the cultural sector, where he worked with a broad range of flagship cultural organizations, such as The British Museum and the New York City Opera, as well as funders such as The Pew Charitable Trusts and the J. Paul Getty Trust.

He received his PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and his dissertation, Becoming Global: Contemporary Art Worlds in the Age of the Biennials Boom, was completed under the direction of Robert Storr. It considers the global proliferation of large-scale international contemporary art exhibitions since the mid-1980s and the impact they have had upon the contemporary art world. 

In January 2014, Dr. Cathleen Chaffee became Curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. For the previous four years she was the Horace W. Goldsmith Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Yale University Art Gallery and, prior to that experience, held curatorial positions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

She is particularly interested in installation art practices, the legacies of modern art in contemporary art, and artists using time-based media. Her essays and books have addressed the work of Richard Artschwager, Carol Bove, Marcel Broodthaers, and Hanne Darboven, among many others.

Dr. Chaffee holds an undergraduate degree from Ithaca College and a Master’s degree in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. She was awarded a 2008 Fulbright Fellowship to Belgium in order to complete research for her dissertation, Décors: Marcel Broodthaers’s Late Exhibition Practice 1974–5. Dr. Chaffee received her PhD in the History of Art from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, in 2013. 


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