Earlier this year I took a trip to see what Modern Hath Wrought. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) turns 75 this year, and is celebrating with both special and retrospective exhibitions and programs.
Although the current edifice on 3rd Street dates only to 1995, in the rapidly changing landscape of big, trendy, San Francisco museums it’s now the “old” structure. How has it—and how has the considerably enlarged collection—held up?
The building still seems solid and well kept, and the entry remains impressive, although I’m not a fan of the giant, jutting, staircase that constricts the atrium like a granite goiter.
The art de jour in the lobby consists of two gigantic murals of Monticello and Mount Vernon by Kerry James Marshall. You can even buy cartoon-like color-them-yourself versions in the museum shop.
The paintings, the museum says, involve “incorporating images of the slaves who supported plantation life. At first glance, a number of optical tricks conceal them from view, but visitors who engage in the artist’s visual games will discover figures that are so often omitted from representations of American history.”
This inspired me, as I wandered the galleries, to look at the working staff of the Museum itself, at least those visible to visitors, and consider them as a representation of Bay Area museum culture. On the day I was there, I saw the following: primarily Caucasian greeters, “front desk”, and exhibit installation staff; primarily African American and Asian American gallery security; primarily Hispanic custodial staff.
That’s only the tip of opportunity for cultural insights at SFMOMA. You can also visitor watch. Pick a gallery and a painting or sculpture, and wait.
On a busy day, someone who is either a striking contrast or match—physical or sartorial—for that art will soon stop nearby. It’s often hard for much of the art here to really stand alone—but when someone is standing next to it, it can really come alive.
Take a photograph of the juxtaposition. Repeat with another piece of art. Fortunately, SFMOMA has a lenient photography policy. Non-flash pictures OK, except in some special exhibits (ask the guards, if you’re unsure).
What was the art like? Let’s look.
The fifth floor has a special installation which wasn’t yet open when I visited, and an outdoor sculpture deck which was available. The fourth floor contains mini-exhibits—one gallery each--of significant modern artists well represented in the SF MOMA collection.
The third floor has some fascinating special exhibits—more about those later. The second floor, with the largest amount of gallery space, is primarily given over to a chronological retrospective of the Museum’s collections over the past seventy five years.
The latter is an interesting educational wander through modern art history. There’s a good sense of the scope of the collection and the field, and the major components of what make up “modern art”.
The third floor has a large exhibit devoted to a survey of California photography, from earliest days to present. Almost every image is intriguing and it’s worth the time to carefully look at each section.
The first room contains two standouts, an 1884 Carleton Watkins panorama of the San Francisco waterfront (see if you can make out Berkeley in the distance, beyond unbridged Yerba Buena island) and the famously haunting Eadweard Muybridge photo in the round from the top of the Mark Hopkins mansion, recording San Francisco in 1878, the same year Berkeley was incorporated as a town.
Look closely at the latter, and you can make out the site where SF MOMA now stands, not far from the original edition of the Palace Hotel.
Out in the second floor circulation hall, there’s a wall covered with dozens of varied depictions of San Francisco scenes and people, from architectural drawings of the Bay Bridge to abstract portraits. It’s fascinating and manageably presented and viewed, a joyful and skillfully planned jumble of different tastes, styles, media, and periods.
Just above, on the third floor, there’s a contrastingly restrained and homogeneous set of commissioned artworks by Ewan Gibbs. SFMOMA had him photograph San Francisco landmarks and scenes, which he then laboriously translated into pencil drawings, each made up of thousands of tiny, meticulous, lines and dots. They have an ethereal texture, both misty and pixilated.
So far so good—but as one ascends, the galleries increasingly contain empty calories of art, despite the massively imposing reputations of the artists. This seems especially true in the single-artist galleries, with the possible exception of the Clyfford Still and Diebenkorn spaces (look for the two examples from the latter’s “Berkeley” period).
One gallery has a big rectangular canvas, painted entirely gray. A room or two over there’s a smaller canvas, also painted all gray, by a different artist.
My visiting companion pointed out some subtle differences in paint texture…still, one wonders about the point. Is it that once someone has a name as an artist they can do anything and their fans and collectors will view it with gravitas? And, once it’s officially hallowed and hung, should no one say “That’s just a piece of canvas painted grey?”
Also educational in this regard is a small gallery display containing a few twine bound stacks of old newspapers up against the wall. (Hey, I have that at home!). Another room displays two pieces of furniture, one of them an old wooden cabinet with glass doors, filled with cement. This apparently implied profound things.
When I got home I hugged the old glass fronted cabinet in my front hall; I’ll never let you be turned into Art, I promised.
Finally, a bunch of scrapes and scribbles, droopy ropes, and carabineers on the upper wall of the atrium. They look like something left there by a sloppy contractor who hasn’t quite finished the job, but a nearby video shows they were created by a visual / performance artist who hangs from ceilings. Some of the scrapes appear to be the marks of his boots as he walked across the wall.
I wonder if architect Mario Botta knows someone scratched up the pristine white inside of his turret?
There are other unintentionally entertaining vignettes elsewhere in the museum.
One is a small narrative display created by an artist who was moving studios. If I understood it correctly, he faced the challenge of where to store trappings from his old studio before his new one was available.
Fortunately, he had an exhibit slot in an art gallery scheduled at the right time. Aha! He moved his stuff there and called it an exhibit, until it could be moved it into the new studio space.
This was a man who understood modern art.
Second, the gigantic freight elevator of the Museum—big enough to hoist an automobile—stopped a couple of times on the floors we were viewing. On each occasion, as the metal box stood open, the inside littered with janitorial equipment, moving palettes, and other behind-the-scenes detritus, visitors wandering by paused, looked, and peered around for the caption, perhaps wondering if this was also an exhibit.
Such scenes may say something that SFMOMA may not wish to acknowledge.
Upstairs there’s also a film gallery retailing the obligatory endless reel of jerky, repetitive, inanities that makes you want to run screaming into the night, pausing only to knock down the videographer on the way and break his camera. Such exhibits have their practical place, though; if carpeting or padded benches are provided, they’re a good place to take a brief nap. Bring earplugs.
The sculpture deck and top floor gallery of the Museum have some interesting pieces, including a nested stack of gargantuan metal spiders and—a blessing to the museum goer anywhere—places to sit down at the end of the climb.
But my eye was drawn to a Moderne piece not of the collection, Timothy Pflueger’s towering, crenellated Pacific Telephone Building next door, by far the best sculptural object in the view shed, even from its backside.
Enough about 75 years. What of the future? SF MOMA marches ahead with the recently acquired Fisher collection of Modern Art, and plans are afoot for dramatically expanding the building to the south, which should vastly increase both the indoor and outdoor display possibilities.
This all came about, just before Donald Fisher’s death last year, after community outrage fortunately ended his proposal to plant a dubious Modern box of a freestanding museum in the Presidio, next to the hallowed parade ground (note to posterity; that site is reserved for history, and Star Fleet headquarters).
After looking through SF MOMA today, I think the Fisher gift is all to the good. The Museum will certainly get bigger and better. And it will grow as a single collection, not two competing institutions.
Having a single modern art museum in San Francisco is pretty good; better than two, standing alone, which might be too much.
If you go…
It’s around $7-8 round trip by BART from the Berkeley vicinity to the Montgomery Station, which is just a couple of blocks from the Museum. If you must drive, the Fifth and Mission garage provides close by public parking.
$15 general admission for adults. Yikes! With food and transportation this can easily creep towards a $100 visit for two. Go instead on the first Tuesday of the month—if you’re free, the Museum is, too. Or Thursday evenings after 6:00 admission is half price. Students and seniors $9 regular admission.
The food in the ground floor Café Museo is satisfying and good, although pricey. We paid $30+ for lunch for two, without beverages. From the café you have a nice people watching view of the busy Third Street sidewalk, where both wage slaves and the wealthy hurry back and forth.
The museum shop—which seems much bigger than I recall from the Museum’s earlier days—is also an intriguing place to wander through. The corners have some bargain shelves. Last year’s expensive catalog for that blockbuster exhibit may now be marked down to a few dollars.