Garden Rant
Gardening While Intoxicated
Buffalo Spree


A year ago, Licata became the fourth member of a group of garden bloggers with an attitude. Garden Rant one of my favorites: A blend of gossip, news, crusade and, yes, raw rant, it blows the cobwebs out of gardening's mustier corners.

–Adrian Higgins,
Washington Post

... co-curators Elizabeth Licata and Amy Cappellazzo have magnificently transcended the limitations of what is, at bottom, a show of books. ...Preciousness—the bane of such exhibitions—is nowhere in evidence.

–Richard Huntington,
Buffalo News

"Garden Walk Buffalo: A Celebration of Urban Gardens," is a tour guide into dozens of gardens during the annual event held the last full weekend in July. It's knowingly written by Buffalo Spree editor Elizabeth Licata, and packed with gorgeous photographs...

–Mark Sommer,
Buffalo News

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Art Writer

"Living with Art: Steve and Cecile Biltekoff,"

Funky assertions and polished understatements vie for attention throughout the contemporary collection of Steve and Cecile Biltekoff but nowhere as dramatically as when you first step through the doorway of their residence in Buffalo, New York. On one side of the entrance a jangling kinetic assemblage by John Toth hangs over a bright honeycombed sculpture by Steve Currie while Charles Clough's tongue-in-cheek fingerpainting presides on the wall like a senior court jester. On the other side, however, an elegant post-minimal sculpture by Creighton Michael is surrounded by the quietly ironic landscapes of photographer John Pfahl. It's not what you expect upon leaving the quiet tree-lined street outside, and nothing about the modest shingled facade of the house prepares you.

Could the square plastic container resting comfortably against the Currie be a readymade addition to this lively menage? "That's just there to catch the mail while we're away," Cecile explains, as she leads the way to what would become a series of tea-drinking conversations in their living room. A walk through the house demonstrates the Biltekoff's overriding commitment to challenging contemporary art, from an early Nancy Dwyer silhouette to the more recent petrified sculptures of Gilda Pervin. They have been collecting for almost 30 years, since before the births of their two grown daughters, yet Steve Biltekoff ruefully acknowledges that some dealers still call them "young collectors." "What they really mean is financially challenged," he says with a laugh. "And it's true, we haven't paid much more than 10,000 dollars for anything we have." But the youthfulness of their collecting enterprise is less about money than about thoughtful risk-taking. They haven't done badly, considering that contemporary works by artists like Frank Moore and Adam Fuss now average much more than that.

The two met at the University of Buffalo, where Cecile, originally from Long Island, was completing a degree in education and Steve was starting law school. A year later they married and soon after, Steve went into his family's Buffalo-based business, Bison Foods. The two immediately, if cautiously, began collecting art. "Because it was one of the main things that we had in common," Cecile states. After dabbling in prints and drawings, they made their first major purchase in 1972, a painting by lyrical abstractionist John Seery, which now hangs in their bedroom. "Elegant art," Steve comments, adding that their earliest purchases usually tended toward a cool aesthetic.

Elegance does not come to mind when viewing their latest purchase. A 1994 video projection piece by Tony Oursler, it stands four-square in the center of their living room, against a background of other artworks, which, as compelling as they are, can't compete with the Oursler on at least one level. They don't scream. In the Oursler work, a projected woman's face glares out of a bouquet of silk flowers snarling, "Come over here. I hate you. I'd like to cut your head off," among other, less printable remarks. "It is a strong piece," Cecile acknowledges, and proceeds to do an even scarier imitation of the actress in the video. The Oursler is from a body of work shown last fall at Metro Pictures Gallery, an exhibition which was hailed by some as one of the most powerful of the season. The Biltekoffs purchased Furious Flowers after following the artist's work for some years, contacting the gallery, and visiting his studio. Their acquisition process is typically slow and methodical, often involving a great deal of personal interaction with the artists, but over the last ten years, they have quickened the pace of their collecting, commuting to their apartment in New York at least once a month for research.

During their early years of collecting in Buffalo, the Biltekoffs were hampered by the demands of a young family, usually relying on local dealer Nina Freudenheim and artist-run spaces like Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, as well as occasional trips to Toronto. They credit three events as major influences on their collecting strategy: Steve sold his business in 1983, the couple bought a apartment in Manhattan two years later, and during the early 80's they began to spend time with Carlos Gutierrez Solana, a fiery performance/installation artist and then director of the New York State Council on the Arts Visual Art Program. Solana introduced them to artists like Gilda Pervin and Frank Moore, but, more important, he took one look at the rather genteel arrangement of art in their home and shook things up, pushing sculptures away from the wall and giving their living space a decidedly downtown spin.

"I think it wasn't so much that he influenced what we bought at the time but his rehanging made us look at what we had and what we wanted in a new way," says Cecile. Not that the Buffalo acquisitions had been uninspired. An imposing fiberglass/wood sculpture by Tom Butter and an equally impressive aluminum tree piece by Robert Lobe, both attesting to the acumen of Nina Freudenheim, are kept in separate rooms--wisely so, given each work's dominating impact. Clouded postmodern landscapes by Peter Stephens, another Freudenheim artist, are scattered throughout the house. The only room that speaks of a different, more traditional sensibility is the dining room, where a conference-size table (complemented by Mies chairs) is faced by three large modernist-inspired works by Larry Poons, Jacqueline Humphries and Suzanne Anker. But then the Lobe looms ghost-like from the corner and undermines the boardroom atmosphere.

A more unified chord is struck in the study, where two seminal works by Hallwalls founding artists Charles Clough and Robert Longo hang above the worn furniture (for more than five years, say the Biltekoffs, much-needed reupholstering has been sacrificed for art). The Longo is particularly emblematic of the Biltekoffs¹ strong commitment to new work. It was reproduced on ARTnews¹s October 1989 cover above the question "What happened to the 1980s?"

Steve has a blunt answer to the query. "The 1980s were terrible. I hated the 80s. We would constantly see something we liked, and if we didn't buy it from the first show we saw, we couldn't afford it after that. A painting would be $5,000, then it would be $35,000." Cecile adds, "That was when we relied more on Hallwalls."

Both feel that places like Hallwalls duplicated the inspirational influence of their experience with Solana. "If it weren't for Hallwalls, I don¹t think that Tony Oursler would have ever found its way into our living room. You have to remember how inherently conservative people can be about art. When we first started buying paintings in the early 70s, a Walter Darby Bannard we bought--a sort of color field Olitski-influenced piece--was considered wild. People thought we had lost it." Now, the Bannard is one of the most conservative works in their collection.

In addition to artists' spaces, Steve and Cecile have always been able to count on the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo's premiere art institution, to sustain their allegiance to the art of their time. Gallery director Douglas Schultz is a close friend. In return, the couple have demonstrated their continuing commitment to Buffalo institutions. Steve has served on the board of directors of the Albright-Knox since 1978, and he also sits on the board of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center. Cecile's involvement has been more diverse and more entwined with the local arts life of western New York. She has served on the boards of both Hallwalls, and CEPA, an artist-run photography center: "I take the nonmainstream spaces, and Steve covers the establishment."

The Biltekoffs are currently supporting an unusual project. Video artist Brian Springer is completing Spin, which focuses on news events as seen through the eyes of political candidates and their spin doctors. Springer's unique working process involves days of scanning for footage that is never used in actual news broadcasts, and then equally exhaustive stints in the editing room. The Biltekoffs' confidence in the project was recently echoed by the New York State Council on the Arts, which awarded Springer a large grant.

Like everybody else in the art market, the Biltekoffs have made mistakes, but, unlike most, they are willing to talk about them. In 1976, Steve drove to Toronto to look at the work of former high-school friend Susan Rothenberg. Unfortunately, he was in still in the throes of a modernist prejudice against figuration. "She was painting these damn horses," he recalls. "They were beautiful paintings, but we were just so wedded to abstraction then that I couldn't think of bringing a picture of anything into the house." Cecile breaks in: "Basically he thought, 'She¹ll never get anywhere with those horses'"

The Biltekoffs have capitalized on their ability to have the best of both worlds: a thriving, if limited, regional base and an entrée to the larger orbital patterns of the national gallery scene. Despite their avant garde tastes, caution remains their watchword. Most likely, the loveseat in their study will remain in need of recovering as they pursue their goal of perfecting what they refer to as their "common eye." "I don¹t know," Steve says almost incredulously, "but recently I've started to think of us as really having a collection."

ArtNews, December, 1995

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