Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Happy anniversary to SFMOMA

Our current road trip has revealed that 1935 was a watershed year for the arts on the West Coast. Both the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) are celebrating their 75th anniversaries this year. To mark the occasion SFMOMA has dragged out a little of everything in its expansive collection, including historical documents that mark some of the museum's acquisitions over the years.

Weisenheimer is particularly drawn to SFMOMA's photography collection. The founding of San Francisco and the advent of photography roughly coincide, and local icon and personal favorite Ansel Adams was a key figure in getting the form to be considered serious art. There's some great Adams stuff, including a photograph of Diego Rivera at work. It's awesome just to look at prints made by the great master himself. Also on display are works from other legends, including Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Larry Sultan, Diane Arbus, and Alfred Stieglitz, whose portraits of Georgia O'Keefe are incredible. Only one person didn't seem to be enjoying the photography: a girl of about 8 or 10 who was clomping about quite noisily and muttering, "I've seen all this kind of stuff." Critics are born early.

"A Set of Six Self-Portraits" by Andy
Warhol, 1967. Photo by Weisenheimer.
Below, the author in his friends' kitchen
working on this blog post, 2010.
Founding director Grace McCann Morley had a reputation for going out on a limb for abstract artists. SFMOMA put on the first big solo show for Jackson Pollock, for example, and a couple of works by Pollock are included in the exhibit. This put her in the crosshairs for critics. There's a hilarious letter on display from a Life magazine reader who objected strenuously to Morley's selection of a Paul Klee painting "Nearly Hit" for the magazine's "Museum Director's Choice" series. Good times.

While Morley was a big supporter of those with different ideas, later directors weren't necessarily early adopters. For example, SFMOMA had only one work by Andy Warhol until five years after he died. That one piece, though, was "A Set of Six Self-Portraits" from 1967, a work so influential it has become almost ubiquitous. There are several pieces in the style in the home of our host friends on this leg of our trip, including a Barack Obama campaign card and a dozen rubber duckies. And any schlub with a MacBook, e.g. Weisenheimer, can create one in a second or two.

One piece that almost defies description is a 2006 video by Bruce Conner titled "THREE-SCREEN RAY." Conner may be the guy who killed the radio star, or at least an accomplice, as he began making music videos in the early '60s. The soundtrack is a smokin' live performance by Ray Charles of "What'd I Say." The visuals, on three screens, are a fast-changing montage of strippers, cartoons, newsreels about war, goofy fashion shots, fireworks, and countdown leaders. Most of these were shot or collected by Conner for his earlier work, and digitized and re-edited for "THREE-SCREEN RAY."

"Spiegel, blutrot" by Gerhard Richter, 1991.
Photog Weisenheimer reflected at right.
One piece Weisenheimer found oddly compelling was a 1991 work by Gerhard Richter called "Spiegel, blutrot" (Blood-red mirror). The name speaks for itself. I must have watched that thing, and all of the museum patrons' reactions to it, for 20 minutes or more. Likewise, another piece looked for all the world like a big stack of posters in the middle of the gallery floor, inviting everyone to pick up and take a copy home with them. I'm quite sure the elderly woman museum volunteer assigned to this gallery for the day must be nursing an ulcer by now; there's a lot of pressure and urgency in making sure nobody touches the art. This may well be the sort of thing the artist (I forgot to note the name! Bad reviewer!) intended, interaction with the piece, and other people, all day long.

SFMOMA is a must if you're going to be in the Bay Area. The anniversary exhibit runs through January 16, 2011.

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