Sunday, July 1, 2007

Frank Kowsky

Frank Kowsky:
Art History to the Core

By: Michael Reiff

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Enjoy the read about...Frank Kowsky...below! Thanks for your readership!

Frank Kowsky is a retired Art History professor from Buffalo State College, who resides in Buffalo. Always the fan of a mid-day cup of coffee, Kowsky understands the value of friendship like no other, and is always encouraging others to share experiences and friendships. Over his career at Buffalo State he has not only grown as an Art Historian, but also as an advocate for understanding and cultivating one’s passions in and out of the professional world. Kowsky currently is working for the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier in Buffalo, researching and writing on behalf of the organization’s efforts to solidify buildings throughout the Buffalo area as national landmarks.

Kowsky began his career as an Art Historian at George Washington University, where he originally had majored in Foreign Service. However, upon taking a basic survey course in Art History, Kowsky began to form a passion for art and architecture, one that was encouraged by his professors who took notice of his strong work. From there, he went on to graduate from George Washington with a bachelor’s in Art History.

Kowsky studied briefly at New York University during his master’s studies, but upon receiving a scholarship, he transferred to Johns Hopkins. Here he finished his master’s under the tutelage of the trailblazing scholar Phoebe Stanton, who at the time was one of the rare experts in the field of 19th American century architecture, what Kowsky would later build his own expertise around. Kowsky became one of her first students, and with her guidance crafted his master’s dissertation around the American church architect, Frederick Withers. And in 1970, Kowsky began his own scholarly path, taking a teaching position at Buffalo State College. Kowsky taught at Buffalo State his entire teaching career, retiring fully last January, 2007.

While at Buffalo State, Kowsky taught courses in American Architecture and American Art, along with Italian Renaissance courses.

Today, Kowsky still works in the field of American architecture, but now works in the preservation sector. Kowsky, along with Buffalo researcher Martin Wachadlo, has been researching and preparing papers, aiding in the process of naming existing Buffalo architectural structures as landmarks, through the National Register. Most recently, Kowsky has written a paper about the derelict grain elevators along the Buffalo industrial waterfront. Kowsky says that this work is simply an extension of his past research during his time at Buffalo State. Two architects that Kowsky has been most interested in following have been Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, both notable 19th century architects who left their mark on Buffalo. Through his work with the Landmark Society here in Buffalo, Kowsky has been “trying to increase the interest in historic districts in Buffalo.”

Today, Kowsky feels that he is, “busier than before!” He states, “The only thing I’m not doing that I did before is be in the classroom, teaching. I enjoyed it…but I saw the opportunity that I could devote myself [to preservation]…doing the kind of research and writing that I like to do.” Kowsky doesn’t feel that he will be returning to the classroom, but considers that what he is doing now with the Landmark Society is educating as well, “but in a different way,” he says. Kowsky has also joined the editorial board of the Olmsted Papers, a scholarly periodical headed by Charles Beverage, a close friend of Kowsky’s and a renowned Olmsted scholar himself.

Kowsky grew up in Washington D.C. In fact, he walked by the White House “almost every day” on his way to George Washington while attending college. Kowsky says that he had relatives in Buffalo, however, and therefore found the move from D.C. to Buffalo State easier. And, as Kowsky relates, he has found the city itself to be an “architectural museum.” Buffalo is indeed home to a veritable who’s-who in 19th Century architecture, with buildings crafted by such notable designers as Olmsted and Vaux, as well as Louis Sullivan, D. H. Burnham, and of course the Frank Lloyd Wright. All of these architects created a community of artistry that gave Kowsky a ground for his own research. It’s only recently that Kowsky has become interested in the lesser-heralded industrial buildings that can be found throughout Buffalo.

Michael Reiff (Team VIP) and Frank Kowsky enjoying a nice backyard session

Kowsky’s love of architecture stems from the aesthetics of its appearance. As Kowsky says about what draws him to architecture, “I guess I look at architecture for its aesthetic appeal.” The aesthetics of the Hudson Valley, and the Hudson River School Painters in particular drew Kowsky early on. Now, he looks at the “aesthetic dimension” that can be found in Industrial structures, as he works for the Landmark Society. Now that they are “empty shells,” Kowsky notes that such buildings as the grain elevators have taken on a “monumental expression,” and notes the quote from Ruskin, “When things cease to be useful, they become beautiful.”

Kowsky remembers that during the 19th century aesthetics played a large role in how the city of Buffalo was being planned, and notes that people are coming around to that idea again. “We’re kind of coming around to the idea…that it’s not just a place where things work well—that’s important—but where it’s also enjoyable to be.” This balance of utility and aesthetic is continually important to Kowsky.

Recently Kowsky also took opposition to the selling of works of art at the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo, which is still in the process of liquidating its pre-18th century works, dating back thousands of years. Kowsky’s reasons are numerous for his opposition, including, “as an Art Historian…I just couldn’t say goodbye to these great works of historical art. I just didn’t see how an art historian could say ‘this is expendable.’” Kowsky was also concerned with the false delineation between contemporary and historical art, and how one should take precedence over the other. Kowsky notes that many of the works being sold today also were given to the gallery at its inception, and a connection to the past is now being lost.

As Kowsky notes, “I often say contemporary art is a lot like contemporary science. In the past, in the 19th century, probably every educated person could understand the principles of science that were popular at the time, but today it’s become so esoteric, you really have to be very knowledgeable. And that’s sort of the way art’s gone.” This ties back to his Albright Knox argument, where Kowsky notes the current misguided practice to only acquire the latest modern works that down the road, hopefully, will become masterpieces in their own right. Kowsky believes that the Albright Knox already had a collection that was valuable, and discouraged the idea from its inception. “[The hope] is to buy something that will be equally or more valuable in the future. But it’s a chance, you really don’t know what the future is going to say about the art of 2007. It’s very hard to judge.” But, Kowsky concedes, “It’s done now.”

In the realm of hobbies, Kowsky is an avid reader. “I haven’t been systematic in my reading,” Kowsky notes, mentioning he is currently reading the latest novel by Margaret Drabble, his favorite modern writer. Kowsky has also been reading the works of Penelope Lively, and both authors write insights about modern life that Kowsky enjoys. Looking to past literary works, Kowsky also enjoys the work of Balzac, and novels in the “novel of manner’s” tradition. Kowsky enjoys reading for the “use of language,” as he puts it, something which he feels helps him develop his own writing.

Kowsky feels that any written work, whether it’s fiction or architectural study, “should be well written as well as informative, and that can be very difficult sometimes. When you are explaining the contributions of others, rather than your own contributions, you have to be very careful about what you say and how you say it, trying to get at the truth, without being boring.” Reading the works of novelists as well as his colleagues helps him to hone his own writing to ensure the quality of writing he aspires to produce.

Kowsky also enjoys photography, but confesses he hasn’t had too much time to follow the hobby lately. “I like to take pictures that look like paintings, or the works of the artists of the past,” notes Kowsky.

Along with reading, Kowsky also enjoys watching films, both old and new. Leaning more towards foreign films in his tastes, he recommends his favorite film “La Strada,” or any of the films directed by the renowned Italian director Frederico Fellini. “Those are my favorites,” he notes of the Italian director’s repertoire.

Kowsky also collects miniature replicas of famous architecture, as pictured here. Kowskey keeps the tokens, often of his travel in Geneva, in his study, where, he admits, they are becoming quite numerous.

Kowsky loves to travel, and while his mother had originally hoped he would become a lawyer, his love of travel originally positioned him for study in Foreign Service. However, now that Art History has become his passion, travel has become even more important. “You always come back from travels with a different view of your life,” says Kowsky, “and feel like you’ve been not only rejuvenated if it’s been a good trip, but you change the way you do things…some of the ways you look at things.” Kowsky also maintains a rule of often going to places where he knows a friend of a friend, someone who can give him an introduction to a new place, and enrich the experience, noting that he’s made some very good friends that way. A few places Kowsky particularly loves to travel to are Geneva, Sicily and Maine.

Kowsky is also a great lover of food, both the eating aspect and the sharing. “I would put French Cuisine at the top of the list, Italian second. And then a lot of other things,” Kowsky notes, describing his broad but European-centered tastes. Along with the flavors, however, Kowsky also loves the time spent sharing food with friends and family. “I think that some of my greatest pleasures have been around a table with people. I enjoy food for the taste but also because it tends to bring people together…[a] good meal with good friends…that’s one of the great pleasures in life,” Kowsky relates.

Kowsky is also a follower of a good joke, especially, “jokes that are ironic or clever. I like riddles. I have a hobby of collecting them, the more abstract the better.” Kowsky says that riddles can be a good way to get to know children and young people who often react well to them. Overall, Kowsky believes that a sense of humor is “extremely important in this life,” as well as being around people who have a sense of humor. Sharing jokes and laughter is like sharing a meal with someone to Kowsky, “you feel like you’re a friend, and you can laugh together. You’re sharing a point of view, which brings you together.”

Kowsky also enjoys playing certain games, especially billiards and poker. He enjoys both because they are games that, “you don’t have to take too seriously, and you can talk while you play.” The camaraderie of poker is something Kowsky enjoys, and the ambience of pool halls is something else Kowsky appreciates. “You get to mix with people you don’t normally mix with, and it’s really a nice thing,” Kowsky notes of the pool hall experience.

And to coffee: a day without coffee simply isn’t a day finished properly. “I have coffee every day, and I try to have coffee with someone, as a social event,” says Kowsky. The rise of the coffee shop, especially in Buffalo, is a very agreeable development to Kowsky. “I like coffee shops better than bars…I just like the mixtures of ages that you find in a coffee shop…men and women, young people and old people.” To be able to sit and enjoy an espresso in the middle of the afternoon is something Kowsky enjoys especially, and describes as “café culture,” something he has enjoyed practicing, in particular, with his nephew while visiting picturesque cafés in Europe.

And while Kowsky considers himself content in his personal life, he sometimes feels a little isolated from the mainstream of scholarly thought, living in Buffalo. As Kowsky puts it, while he is in contact with a few of his colleagues, Buffalo, on the whole, doesn’t have a “vigorous intellectual community,” especially in the area of Art History. While many scholars often look outside of the Buffalo area to find intellectual companionship, Kowsky has decided to look in, becoming involved in the local preservation movement.

Through the Landmark Society, which Kowsky considers to be only second to his main passion of art and architectural history, he feels that he has “met some wonderful people.” Kowsky believes that through working with different kinds of people he has not only been given a chance to educate in different ways, but also had the chance to view and accept new and different points of view. Working with the preservation movement has connected him with some very outwardly passionate people working on their own projects, connections Kowsky missed while working at Buffalo State.

“I think I was a good teacher. I think I was able to present material of a complicated nature, at least Art History, in a way that was understandable and appealing to people,” notes Kowsky of his in-classroom strengths. Kowsky tried to leave jargon out of his explanations of art, and instead tried to reach the essence of a topic, and then teach from that. And in the end, Kowsky feels that educating truly is his greatest strength. “[I] present things to people that they might not have thought about, that they might not have been open to,” Kowsky comments, acknowledging that, “I think sometimes when you give someone something, it isn’t just a physical thing that you can give, but knowledge, or the gift of another friend.” This sharing of friendship and common interests is one of Kowsky’s most fulfilling activities that he continually practices.

Kowsky concedes, however, that “I could be better organized. I’m still having trouble with that.” Kowsky has considered heavily issues of time management, and how to best allocate the day’s waking moments to maximize his time. Kowsky continuously is considering how much time a certain activity is worth, and that maintaining a balance of structure and flexibility in the day is something he ponders throughout his daily activities.

And while Kowsky is constantly striving toward accomplishing new goals, he has already grasped what life-long success can be as well. “I think what Sommerset Maugham said is, ‘The variety of experience and the ability to develop your talents to the fullest capacity,’ that’s what makes a person happy.” Kowsky lives by that mantra, and also notes that “I don’t think success is necessarily measured by your wealth.” To Kowsky, success is following and developing your passion, something he has done and continues to do in Buffalo.

This idea of personal success leads into what Kowsky believes is good advice for those beginning their own careers. “Think of life as what varieties and worthwhile experiences you can have. Try and find a way of doing something that will allow you to develop what your talents are to the fullest.” Kowsky notes that he has had the good fortune of being able to do that, teaching and researching in Buffalo, and says that if you can find a path that allows you to build on your talents, then that “makes for a happy life.”

Overall, Kowsky believes that an interest in Art History allows you to develop an interest and understanding of the world at large. “That’s what I told my students,” Kowsky notes, “that even if you never become an Art Historian…you will have a very wide liberal arts background, that will give you a wide view on things…and you won’t be bored!”

Kowsky notes that the study of architecture can lead to a more nuanced perspective on understanding the growth of a city, or any place, looking at what is new, what is old, and what people’s interests were from the buildings. “You can read the history of a place in its architecture,” Kowsky believes. Because of the solid grounding art history can give someone, Kowsky believes “everybody should take a basic course in the history of Art,” noting that one learns a wide variety of topics through the study, including geography, history, human psychology, all the way to the great myths of western culture. “There aren’t that many studies that take in that much,” Kowsky notes.

In case you missed the first version, a deja vu shot of Michael Reiff (Team VIP) and Frank Kowsky

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Frank Kowsky
Buffalo State College
Art History Professor (retired)