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Mark Van Proyen on the New SFMOMA

Richard Serra's "Sequence" (2006) at the Howard St. entrance to the newly revamped SFMOMA, opening May 14. Photo: Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA
by Mark Van Proyen
 At the appointed moment, I made a beeline for the smoking cockroach, an old friend who I have missed for several years.  I am happy to report that said cockroach was right where I last spotted him, squatting next to the red rooster graffito amidst a swirl of smoke, looking back over his shoulder toward me and other viewers with an expression of shame and disdain.  Said cockroach is located in the top-center register of Jackson Pollock’s 1943 painting titled Guardians of the Secret, which the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) purchased for $600 in 1945.  A conservative estimate of the painting’s current market value
would now take it well above $100 million, but hey, let’s not quibble about art prices in our new gilded age.  I first met the smoking cockroach in the spring of 1975, when I visited the museum
The "Living Wall" and Alexander Calder Photo: Henrik Kam. 
for the first time in its cramped quarters on the 3rd and 4th floor of the SF War Memorial at the intersection of Van Ness and McAllister. Since that time, the museum and the city around it has gone through multiple transformations, that, if memory serves, commenced with the controversial Manhattanization of the city that emerged in the mid-1970s advocated by then-city Supervisor Diane Feinstein.  It was followed two decades later by the first bubble of the middle 1990s, which ended with
not one but two recessions, the later one being severe.  The most recent decade has brought yet another boom—a mega boom in fact, which has prompted a new round of hyperbolic gentrification that has spawned a great many anti-gentrification activists, in some cases being the very same people who were the gentrifiers of two decades past.  The point here is that with each wave of economic transformation came a related metamorphosis of the SFMOMA, which like the majority of other American museums of any size, was and is tied to the fortunes of robber barons old and new.
Third Street Lobby.  Photo: Henrik Kam.  
Pollock’s Guardians of the Secret is now framed under Optium glass, in keeping with its current value and its pride-of-place positioning on the second floor the SFMOMA’s recently opened and newly expanded building designed by the Oslo-based starchitecture firm Snøhetta, their first art museum commission.  The 10-story expansion nearly triples the museum’s exhibition space (to 170,000 square feet), and when viewed from the inside, it is nothing short of spectacular, making the new Whitney Museum and the new bowery digs of the New Museum look like over-grown Apple stores.  In fact, it may be a little bit too spectacular, a little too luxurious.  I was told that “instagramability” was one of the concerns of the building’s designers, and the sweeping north-end staircases do serve that purpose, as do its strategically located “chill spaces” where visitors can sit, relax and log on the local wifi network.  The rippling white outside of the new building still looks a little too death starish for me, but to greater or lesser extent, I would also say that about almost all of the new architecture that has popped up in San Francisco during the past decade.
During the 30 minutes prior to my beeline, I was sipping coffee at the SMFOMA press preview on the morning of April 28, absorbing hard facts about the building’s construction budget ($305 Million), recent increase to the museum’s endowment (another $305 Million), square footage expansion (see above), youth-friendly admission policy (free to all who are 18 years old or younger) and aggressively expanded collection strategies, of which there are two. The first of these is based on a partnership developed with Donald and Doris Fisher of Gap Store fame, that being the ubiquitous global retailer of down-market couture made affordable by sweatshop
One of several rooms devoted to Ellsworth Kelly.  Photo: David M. Roth. 
labor.  This arrangement brings over 600 works into the museum’s auspices, 260 of which are now on view in the museum’s spacious 4th, 5th and 6th floors. We may want to note that this impressive cache of masterpieces is not yet part of the museum’s permanent collection (pending the continuation of a complex negotiation), but the odds are that in the fullness of time it will be.  In the meantime, we can think of these works as “assets under management,” rather than “holdings,” to use snarky language that draws an analogy between the operations of banks and museums.

And those assets are pretty impressive, including clusters of several works each by Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Nauman, Philip Guston, Cy Twombly, Georg Baselitz, John Baldessari, Chuck Close, Ed Ruscha, Thomas Struth, Bernd and Hilla Becher and a slickly-chosen mini retrospective of Ellsworth Kelly that, a few short months after the artist passed away, serves as a worthy memorial to his career as well as proof that the Fishers knew the difference between collecting the work of a favored artist versus merely accumulating it.  All phases and sub-genres of Kelly’s 50-year career are
The Agnes Martin "Chapel." Photo: David M. Roth
represented here, including several very early works and usually represented usually by first-rate examples. I am less impressed with their stash of Richters, and not just because its installation makes them look like works by about half a dozen different artists.  Here, we sometimes see Richter at his best, especially in the earlier works on view, while at other times it looks like he is going through the pre-planed motions of designing his way in and out of paintings. I have always suspected that, if you took away Richter’s magnificent Bader-Meinhoff paintings from the late 1980s, you would be left with the work of a good rather than great artist, and too many of the works on view in the Fischer collection put paid to that claim. 

Tucked in a semi-hidden corner behind the sprawling Kelly installation was a small, and exceedingly well-lit octagonal gallery featuring seven paintings by Agnes Martin (the 8th wall was the entrance). Martin was a favored artist of Doris Fisher, and even the most uncharitable
Anselm Kiefer Room.   Photo: David M. Roth
of the new museum’s detractors admit that this intimate gallery is a much-appreciated highlight of the newly expanded exhibition spaces. Not only does it show a range of Martin’s work spanning several decades, it also makes their exquisite nuances perfectly visible in a beautifully lit room that seems to want to rebuke the heavy darkness of Houston’s Rothko Chapel with a delicate heavenly light. For anybody who has seen both spaces, this is not a far-fetched comparison. Both presentations are set up like shrines in octagonal galleries, and for that reason they seem to speak directly to each other through space, time and artistic sensibilities that focus on evanescent experiences.    

The other collection strategy is given the rather Napoleonic title of The Campaign for Art, which is comprised of 3,000 promised gifts solicited from 230 donors whose names are proudly emblazoned on a prominent wall on the 7th floor. Nearly 600 of these works are interspersed throughout the installation of the permanent collection galleries on the 2nd and 7th floors, and
Romare Beardon, "Three Men," 1966-67
there is much to be seen.  In the second floor permanent collection galleries there is a sweet Dorothea Tanning self portrait from 1944 that shows the artist surveying a vast imaginary landscape, while a few rooms away hangs a stunning 1967 collage work by Romare Bearden titled Three Men, one the very best works by this most under-recognized of American artists. The seventh floor is where the most recent work lives and, although the installation is a bit on the chaotic side, there are some notable hits. One of these is an early Richard Prince photograph from his 1983 series titled Spiritual America (also the title of his 2007 Guggenheim retrospective), essentially a restaged and re-printed image of a pre-pubescent Brook Shields looking frighteningly vampish while exaggerating her large mature looking head. An Untitled work from 2004 by David Hammons makes a subtle point. It consists of a framed drawing made by bouncing a charcoal-covered basketball onto the paper — creating a vague, dreamy surface that looks like layered wafts of thick smoke. The framed drawing is perched on a platform of crumbling bricks, and it is not hard to see the work as making a sly comment on the mostly unfulfilled dreams of inner-city youth to use real or imagined sports prowess as a path to economic redemption.   

Diane Arbus," Untitled (8)," 1970-71, gelatin silver print, 20 X 16"
The third floor of the new museum is given over to photography, which has always been the strongest aspect of the SFMOMA’s collection and exhibition program. The largest number of the Campaign for Art’s promised gifts are showcased here, organized into an exhibition titled California and the West by Sandra Phillips.  In terms of both collection and exhibition program, photography has long been one the museum’s most successful departments, and from the looks of the many future gifts promised here, the department is set to continue growing at an impressive pace.  California and the West captures the many changes of the very idea of what it means to be an American westerner since the 19th century, and it has several dozen works, many of which are by photographers whose work I had never before seen.  One that grabbed my eye was a 2012 photograph of the outskirts of Tonopah, Nevada by Bryan Schutmaat, captured on a clear winter day. This is a bleak image with special resonance, appearing as a window into a world that seems like a polar obversion of the bouncy, equity-rich world of the new SFMOMA and the city that surrounds it.  Schutmaat’s photo captures the far outskirts of that world, the outskirts of the outskirts if you will, and it is a sad wasteland of tangled residues and crushed dreams.
Selections from Jim Goldberg's "Rich and Poor" series, 1977-85

 Nearby is a large selection of photographs from Jim Goldberg’s series titled Rich and Poor (1977 to 1985), which adds handwritten confessions to the surfaces of photographs of either very poor or very wealthy individuals, or in some cases married couples or family groups. These statements usually indicate that the one thing that they all have in common is either a state of unrealistic optimism or crippling anxiety. These works can be read as disturbingly accurate anticipations of the confessional mode of image-text juxtaposition that is now so ubiquitous on social media. Not that we should blame Goldberg for that.

More photographs are located on one of the upper floors, one of the more significant being a stunning room of about 24 Untitled Diane Arbus photographs, all from the series that she did in 1971 focusing on a Halloween outing of developmentally disabled persons making macabre twilight merriment. These photos are right out of a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape, featuring haunting images of individuals who mock themselves and the viewer with uncanny abandon.     
Roy Lichtenstein and (foreground) Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, "Geometric Apple Core," 1991. Photo: David M. Roth
One way to take the temperature of the new Snøhetta building (and the new moment of which that building is an expression) is to compare the current inaugural exhibition to the one that greeted viewers to the 1995 opening of the Mario Botta-designed building that still serves as a the Third-Street gateway to the new edifice. That exhibition was titled Public Information: Document, Desire and Disaster and was a stunning collaboration between four of the museum’s five curatorial departments featuring in-depth presentations of the work of 16 artists focusing on the fungible distances that exist between events and the ways that events are given artistic representation—each interrogating the slipstream relations between myth and history at the end of the Cold War.  Many of the works included in that exhibition had something to say about the conflict between truth and loyalty in a world governed by deceptions, and for that reason it was an exceedingly smart exhibition, cool and contentious in its emotional temperature and richly conscious of the intellectual and historical spaces that existed between the works that were contained within it. It is worth remembering that that exhibition was staged a mere few months before Netscape released its first web-browser, thereby taking the cork out of the bottle of those things that would latter be called The World-Wide Web and Social Media, with all of the rush to banality that appertains.  Since that time, the relationship between what one sees on the screen and what one sees in the white cube was forever changed, downgrading the status of the later into things with large price tags in front of which we take selfies.
Jackson Pollock, "Guardians of the Secret," 1943


The cluster of exhibitions featured in newly expanded museum differs sharply from Public Information in that it is much more collector-driven and much less curator driven, fully in keeping with the mandates of museums to become repositories of wealth-made-visible, and of institutional marketers to manifest as much crowd-pleasing spectacle as possible. Into the foreground comes the idea of the museum as trophy hall, even as the idea of the museum as a playground for the educated mind slips into the background.  Here, we clearly see the results of the ways that art fairs have been re-defining the artistic landscape for the past 21 years, recasting works of art as buy-low-and-sell-high financial instruments. Anybody who has read what I have been writing during that time will know that I am no fan of this transformation, and he or she will also know that I think that the arrogant a-historicism undergirding it bodes ill for the continued existence of serious art production, not to mention the continued existence of the subtlety and sophistication that is necessary to recognize consequential art production in its emerging phases. But I am also aware that our new moment could care less about what I or any one else thinks about it, as the rampant financialization of all things renders any contest of discourses moot. All that is left for us is to enjoy what remains of the ride, which is what my good friend the smoking cockroach and I intend to do.

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The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reopens on May 14, 2016






4 Responses to “Mark Van Proyen on the New SFMOMA”

  1. Frank Lostaunau says:

    Not all San Franciscans can afford to enter the new SFMOMA. There are many disabled vets, physically and mentally challenged adults, Senior citizens, and artist’s living on a very limited income that can afford the entry fees. There’s a $20 discount for Seniors but many need the $20 to help pay the rent, purchase nutritious food, and medications to survive.

    I’m a disabled artist and I need medications to survive. I earned a BFA/69 and an MFA/71 from CCAC(CCA) and I taught painting at CCAC, Cal State University, Humboldt, and Cal State University, San Jose. I also earned an MSW from UC Berkeley, Graduate School of Social Welfare and worked with various inner-city poor populations for years. I was even invited to participate in a group exhibition at the former SF Museum of Art on Van Ness Avenue, SF.

    I would love to enter the new SFMOMA and study the new structure and paintings that I have never seen. That would truly be a gift!

    The new Berkeley Art Museum offers Free Entry on Family Day. For that, I am grateful. Thank You.

    Hopefully, the SFMOMA will someday open its doors to all of us so that we can share their vision.

    I continue to paint and make art. I am forever grateful.

  2. Is there a dumber idea than building a 450,000 square foot museum today? There are no architectural models for museums of this size except for l9th century institutions like the Metropolitan, which are housed in symmetrical, classicistic buildings, or the sterile pastiches of New York MoMA and the Mall of America. Given the inherent difficulties of working around an existing building with an iconic silhouette and a site with no views, not to mention a functional program requiring not just galleries, but terraces, a second entrance, restaurants, offices, library, auditorium, conservation labs, education center etc, Snowhetta did a credible job. But it’s worth remembering that the museums people love are no more than 100,000 square feet in size and tend to be domestic in character–even if it’s the character of a medium size palace.

  3. I had to chuckle at “the rather Napoleonic title of ‘The Campaign for Art’. ”

    The new space is so huge that I could not take it all in last Thursday evening. But I am loving the space beyond what I could have anticipated and the seemingly purpose built galleries, especially for the Ellsworth Kellys and the Agnes Martins truly demonstrate who much architecture can support a work.

    I especially loved the modest exhibit devoted to the development of the Snøhetta edition. The multiple models showing the creative process and how the new wing was designed to integrate with the existing structure.

    Seeing these galleries of “master works” of the Fisher collection left me feeling slightly underwhelmed, however, as the collection lacked the freshness, sense of surprise, curiosity or discomfort new art can offer.

    Also, as Mark, importantly points out, this collection was built with a fortune built on sweatshop labor and though I boycott Gap/Old Navy & Banana Republic for this reason, as an artist I will not be boycotting the SFMOMA for this reason. It’s discomforting, however. And I hadn’t realized who the Fishers were before reading this article. Though our values on all points may not align, I am grateful for their generosity in developing this new wing and sharing their monumental collection with the public.

    It’s been exciting for me to watch the SFMOMA grow up since I first moved here in 1988. From it’s humble quarters in the War Memorial Building, to the 3rd Street Botta designed space. Now, it feels at last that San Francisco has a world-class institution with works of high caliber.

  4. Marsha Klein says:

    A stunning but biting encapsulation of the new sfMoma and the entire artworld’s apparent direction.

    Exciting, over the top and trying to hang on and enjoy the ride!


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