SFMOMA: 75 YEARS OF LOOKING FORWARDby Tessa DeCarlo
The Anniversary Show: December 19, 2009 – January 16, 2011
Focus on Artists: October 22, 2009 – May 23, 2010
The View from Here: January 16 – June 27, 2010
My companion and I were halfway through The Anniversary Show, the centerpiece of the bouquet of exhibitions celebrating the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s 75th birthday, when he turned to me and said, “This is the best show I’ve ever seen.”
Admittedly, he is a man given to hyperbole, while I myself am too dithery to comfortably label anything “best.” Still, I knew exactly what he meant. The sweep and dazzle of The Anniversary Show and the rest of the exhibitions that make up 75 Years of Looking Forward, their provocative interweaving of themes and stories, make for an experience that’s intellectually rich and full of visual pleasure. Whether it’s the best show ever or not, I walked out of the museum filled with that peculiarly satisfying form of happiness that only art can deliver.
The Anniversary Show replaces the museum’s installation of its permanent collection with an expanded version that takes up the entire second-floor exhibition space. Some 400 paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other objects tell SFMOMA’s story, which also proves to be a great way to present the history of art in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The museum opened in 1935 as the San Francisco Museum of Art; “Modern” wasn’t added to its name until 40 years later. It was already committed to modernism, however, even though that meant convincing a conservative small-town public and many of the museum’s own trustees that “advanced art” had real esthetic value. Founding director Grace McCann Morley pushed hard to acquire works by Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, and other moderns, exhibited here alongside a few of the angry and skeptical letters Morley received from the public. (“Maybe you should see an oculist to be pleased with a picture so unfair to God’s creation,” one outraged correspondent fumed about the museum’s first painting by Paul Klee.) The letters remind us how fresh (or threatening) these now canonical works once seemed, and how radical these artists were.
One of SFMOMA’s great strengths is its eagerness to educate, without succumbing to pedantry or vapid populism. The Anniversary Show emphasizes that this enthusiasm has been central to the museum’s identity all along. The early galleries demonstrate Morley’s dedication both to acquiring challenging art and to helping people understand it, by writing an explanatory essay about Klee in Life magazine, launching a series of local television shows about contemporary art, and penning good-natured answers to letters of complaint complete with suggested reading lists and schedules of the museum’s art-appreciation classes.
Not surprisingly, Morley was also an advocate for Abstract Expressionism, providing the first museum exhibitions for Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, and the pre-drip Jackson Pollock, represented here by his beautiful, shamanic 1943 Guardians of the Secret. Letters in a nearby display case inform us that Morley acquired the painting from Peggy Guggenheim in 1945 after convincing her to cut the asking price from $750 to $500. There’s something wonderfully brave about presenting the art narrative not as a stately evolution of metaphysical categories, but as a story of flesh-and-blood people, of artists, collectors, and dealers, curators and trustees, all making impassioned bets on what will and won’t live forever.
Equally radical, in its way, was the rise of Bay Area figurative painting in the 1950s, when David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, and other painters shocked their contemporaries by abandoning abstraction. The galleries that tell this tale include lovely abstract works by Adaline Kent and other now obscure California artists overshadowed by the grittier, more raucous figuratives, another reminder that the stakes in the art game include immortality itself.
As the show proceeds, each gallery adds a new chapter, from visionary architecture to video art; from industrial design to vernacular photography; from Sherrie Levine’s cheeky appropriations to Richard Tuttle’s wily junk constructions; from Eva Hesse’s elegiac post-minimalism to the festive skate-punk maximalism of Barry McGee. The connections and juxtapositions delight the eye and keep the brain whirring.
A second show upstairs makes use of SFMOMA’s amazing photography collection to trace the history of the medium through a California lens. The museum treated photography as high art earlier than most, and its photography department continues to be one of the strongest and most innovative in the country. The View from Here ranges from Gold Rush daguerreotypes to Eadweard Muybridge’s giant panorama of 1878 San Francisco, and from Group f.64 to Larry Sultan’s 1984 portraits of his parents. Pictorialist, documentary, metaphysical, conceptual, street—all the varieties of photographic practice are presented in a succession of themed galleries demonstrating how our notion of photography has expanded and why it has become such a vital aspect of contemporary art.
The museum’s story is told in yet another way in Focus on Artists, which presents multiple works by 18 artists the museum has collected in depth. In this mini-retrospective times 18, resonances and reflections make the whole even greater than its powerful parts. The Andy Warhol silkscreens bring out the profundity of the Diane Arbus photographs, and the radiant early Ellsworth Kelly canvases cast a new glow on Robert Ryman’s white paintings. Robert Gober’s hairy, limbless wax torso looks more defiantly humble than ever when seen in the company of Matthew Barney’s massive cast-Vaseline gym equipment enthroned in its own chilled chamber.
Even artists whose work I find challenging, opaque, or just plain annoying—Sigmar Polke, Doris Salcedo, Clyfford Still—seem more approachable in this parade of fanatically idiosyncratic endeavors, in a context that inspires reflection about the struggle between limitation and wide-openness that defines artistic and curatorial choices.
As we strolled through the various components of 75 Years of Looking Forward, I found myself thinking about how The Anniversary Show contrasted with 1969 at New York MoMA’s P.S. 1. The latter, also a giant survey drawn from the museum’s own collection, focuses on one year instead of 75. And while the P.S. 1 show is a compelling look at the art of one tumultuous year, it strikes me as very East Coast, and not in a good way. Its cerebral chilliness and tight-lipped reluctance to explain what’s on its mind come across as snootier than a show about that era has any right to be. And its monomaniacal insistence on minimalism as an all-encompassing theme—even Helen Frankenthaler and Diane Arbus are somehow pounded into the minimalist mold—seems like a triumph of the curator over the artists and, after a while, the audience.
The Anniversary Show and the rest of the 75 Years of Looking Forward exhibitions are more forthrightly educational but much less academic than 1969 (and a lot of other museum shows I’ve seen), less anxious and more generous. I’d say the SFMOMA approach is truer to what museums ought to be about, and truer to what art is about, too
Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.