Muses of the museum - SFMOMA’s 75th anniversary brings four new shows

  • by Kevin Mark Kline, Director of Promotions
  • Thursday January 21, 2010
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A wall of images depicting San Francisco from 1935 to the present greets visitors at the entrance to The Anniversary Show: 75 Years of Looking Forward at SFMOMA.
A wall of images depicting San Francisco from 1935 to the present greets visitors at the entrance to The Anniversary Show: 75 Years of Looking Forward at SFMOMA.

Ardent followers of modern art and even those who have only ducked into SFMOMA to escape the cold and rain can probably name their favorite exhibitions: the remarkable Eva Hesse show in 2000; the transformative, mind-blowing Anselm Kiefer retrospective; the Chagall blockbuster; or Olafur Eliasson's environmental installations (in a memorable one, he stored a BMW roadster in a meat locker), which saved visitors the bother of standing on a glacier to experience the iridescent light of the aurora borealis. But it isn't until you stroll through the multiple shows now on view at the museum as part of their 75th anniversary celebration that you realize the richness and variety of the legacy they - and we, as beneficiaries - have.

If this monumental representation of the permanent collection is the museum's valentine to itself, it's also a gift to us and a reminder of the tremendous community resource SFMOMA represents. With the arrival of Donald Fisher's vast contemporary art stash, highlights of which will be seen in June, things are only going to get better. I admit to some initial skepticism about the anniversary premise, suspicious that it was driven by shrewd marketing and a strategy for coping with tough economic times. While the latter may be factors, these are indeed exhilarating days for SFMOMA, and there's genuine excitement among the curators, who have gone into the vaults, rethought the holdings in insightful ways, and mounted splendidly presented, illuminating exhibitions.

Founded in 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression, the museum has since grown into a world-class institution. It celebrated its 75th anniversary last weekend with four self-referential surveys. Two opened in December, including The Anniversary Show, which showcases over 400 works of art and 16 behind-the-scenes chapters from eight decades of collecting. The View from Here, a mammoth show of California photography from t

"Mexican Dwarf in his Hotel" by Diane Arbus, one of 18 artists who have a long relationship with SFMOMA who are featured in their anniversary show, 75 Years of Looking Forward. In the next gallery are works by Andy Warhol. Photo: Rick Gerharter

he 1840s to the present, opened Jan. 16.

SFMOMA Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture Gary Garrels, a driving force behind the cultivation of emerging artists, organized Focus on Artists, a two-part exhibition of nearly 100 paintings, sculptures and photographs, dating from 1944-2006. It devotes a single gallery to key works by each of 18 artists with whom the museum developed close relationships, and who defined movements ranging from Abstract Expressionism to Post-Minimalism.

The first installment is built around eight pivotal figures of American abstract art such as Clyfford Still, Robert Ryman, Philip Guston, Frank Stella, Richard Diebenkorn and Richard Serra, an artist for whom the notion of small is a foreign concept. Serra has several large-scale sculptures on display here. Occupying an entire room, "Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift, 1969/1995" is comprised of logs that are laid out on the floor and splashed with a silvery metallic solution that's also spattered on the wall. Though made of lead, these irregular cylinders appear to be flaking like rotten timber.

The second half of Garrels' show, which opened Jan. 16, focuses on contemporary artists from the 1960s onward whose work favors figuration and delves into more psychological, socio-political and historical terrain than that of their older brethren. Gerhard Richter, Jeff Wall, Doris Salcedo, Robert Gober, Matthew Barney, Andy Warhol and Diane Arbus are among those featured in this international grouping.

Arbus, patron saint of the invisible and the marginalized, has a carnival of characters on view. "A Young Man in Curlers at Home on West 20th St., NYC, 1966," casually holds a cigarette and waits for his hair to dry; "Seated Man in a Bra and Stockings, NYC, 1967" and Eddie Carmel, the Jewish Giant, stooping in his parents' living room, are unfazed by Arbus' camera.

Garrels has championed a younger generation of artists who work with charged, sometimes controversial subject matter. Kara Walker, for instance, has explored racial stereotypes and the lingering nightmare of slavery, though here she takes on revolutionary struggle. Her life-size cut-outs or silhouettes, which form a narrative that wraps around the room and covers four dark blue walls of the gallery, also evoke caricatures of the Old South.

Both Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, who studied in Dusseldorf, were heavily influenced by American Pop Art, but each developed his own distinct style. Polke, a man at ease with uncertainty, loves to play games and experiment. Passionately consumed by metamorphosis and the chemical reactions and material properties of the medium, he treats his studio like a laboratory. Perhaps he was that kid who set off explosions in chemistry class. No matter, his excursions into the realm of myth, legend and fantasy have yielded intriguing results. The sun-drenched tropical afternoon of "Palm Trees" resembles a mirage painted by a pointillist, but two of the five canvases from his colossal series The Spirits that Lend Strength Are Invisible are positively hallucinatory and deeply mysterious. "V," an immense opus done in mustards and browns, has globs of artificial resin congealed in discreet areas of the canvas, while "III" is a bayou of mossy greens shrouded in a heavy mist. Polke is one of the show's genuine discoveries, a Eureka moment in a crowded field of talent.

On the downside, the overpraised, underwhelming Matthew Barney, whose bewildering success seems to be a case of the emperor having no clothes, continues to be the boy wonder of an art-world that, having latched on, won't let go.

The Anniversary Show runs through Jan. 16, 2011; The View from Here through June 27, 2010; Focus on Artists, Parts 1 & 2, through May 23, 2010.