Saturday, July 9, 2016

Art I'm Looking At: The New SF MOMA--First impressions (July 9, 2016)

Visiting the newly re-opened, newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is daunting. I spent a tiring four hours there last week and didn't even see any of the new, upper floors. I found the place a little disorienting, a little cold, a little unwelcoming.  I was disappointed, but maybe subsequent, longer visits will change my opinion. The thing is, at $25 a visit, the place is now quite expensive. Parking at the nearby Moscone Center Parking Garage cost $20.50. Lunch at the new café wasn't especially cheap (and seating was cramped--entirely inadequate given the number of people, and this was on a Wednesday). Sadly, it's not a set-up that will allow me easily to make the many visits seeing the place will require*.

The new Howard St. entrance seemed little used, not very welcoming from the outside, and cramped inside, as it's nearly entirely filled by Richard Serra's 2006 sculpture Sequence. I like the sculpture itself. Its surfaces sustain long attention. Walking through the spaces between its curving walls is evocative of walking through a cave or a narrow, high-walled canyon. The latter effect is enhanced by the rust-brown color of the walls, suggestive of the iron-red rocks in the Southwest that form slot canyons. Still, its position here seems a little forced: feeling a bit claustrophobic inside the piece seems right, feeling claustrophobic in the space around it just feels uncomfortable. Perhaps that was intended? A wall of bleacher-like wood seating gives a view of the sculpture from a less overwhelming perspective, but, standing next to it you can't see the room you're in.

The main lobby is sort of a gutted version of the old lobby. The striped, black stone staircase is gone (sadly) and so are the ticket desks with people who used to greet you as you came in (ditto). Entry is now through a bank of ticket sales desks on the second floor in a very large room that seems half empty and therefore much too big for its purpose--and, if I had to sum up the new SFMOMA experience in a few words, that would do nicely: the place seems much too big for its purpose.

One of the first rooms I wandered into shows a selection of modern British sculpture (above). A large, mostly empty room, it's a case in point. One wall was entirely blank save for a couple of labels for sculptures so far away from the pieces they describe that they seemed to have been placed deliberately to annoy. The wall might have made a good backdrop, but it goes virtually unused. Other pieces are placed in front of windows that create a great deal of "noise." Shown here with a noisy backdrop is Henry Moore's Oval with Points (Bronze, 1967-68); the black upright bar in the photo is part of the window frame, not the sculpture. The wood floors in this and other galleries, while attractive, were distracting as well. It's fashionable to criticize "the white cube," but all-neutral backdrops do at least focus attention on the art.

The wall labels were oddly placed in most of the galleries I visited. Some are 10-12 feet away from the artworks they accompany. Often it's difficult to know what refers to what. The result is a lot of unnecessary and repetitive walking. I was reminded of the ludicrous distances between venues in Las Vegas (although labels were more conventionally placed in the photography galleries, alongside the images they describe).

No one likes a gallery that feels overcrowded, but many of the spaces I walked through felt underused. Perhaps museum planners have left a lot of space anticipating new arrivals? Oddly, an otherwise engaging display of chairs made from novel materials was given barely enough room to breathe (photo). On the whole, the gallery layout didn't make a lot of sense to me. There seems to be no logical path through the spaces. Hence the feeling of disorientation and fatigue I felt. Signs for cafés and restrooms are so small and infrequent that they are virtually useless. Signs throughout the spaces mark work as part of the "Campaign for Art," but, unless you already know the details of the campaign, these signs are simply puzzling. Nowhere is the campaign explained (apparently, it was a 2009-2015 drive to solicit donations of modern and contemporary art that added more than 3,000 pieces to the collection from more than 200 donors; pieces labeled "Campaign for Art" came into the collection this way). I had to ask and then do a Google search after I got home.

It may sound petty to point it out, but I found the guards distracting too. Guards wear plain dark trousers, white shirts, and dark jackets with no tie. They don't wear conspicuous badges. There are no identifying marks on the jackets. Without ties and because the clothes were often (though not always) ill-fitting, the guards sometimes looked a bit slovenly. At times it was hard to be sure who the guards were. The "uniforms" they wear fail in the single most important thing a uniform is supposed to do: clearly identify a member of the team. Young people in red T-shirts stationed here and there as guides seemed more alert and better informed.

Having said all this, there is a lot worth seeing. The museum has a very deep collection of works by Ellsworth Kelly now (shown here above is his Cité; oil on wood, 1951). There are five or six pieces by Martin Puryear, one of my favorite modern sculptors (although it's a shame there's nothing by Eduardo Chillida, another favorite--at least that I saw). There's an entire room of Calder mobiles, with several of his large stabiles placed in adjacent outdoor spaces. There are multiple strong pieces by Cy Twombly, Brice Marden, and Canadian painter Agnes Martin. There is a large collection of drawings byJoseph Beuys. A large show of graphic design from the museum's permanent collection is now on display.

Photography is much better represented than it used to be; particularly interesting were selections from Jim Goldberg's Rich and Poor series (1977-1985, pictured here is Carol Green Wilson, from among these); a large group of late Diane Arbus works; a nearly complete set of Nicholas Nixon's well known The Brown Sisters series (the 1975 to 2014 images) interestingly paired with Idris Kahn's 2004 every ...Nicholas Nixon's Brown Series (below), which is a layered montage of each of the series images; and historical photographs including examples of many different early processes. Among these, I particularly enjoyed seeing examples of Wilson Alwyn Bentley's Snowflake prints done on collodion printing-out paper** (bottom of page).

And, as I've said, I didn't even make it into the newly added spaces above the 5th floor or go through sections that appear to feature the core of the collection on display before the expansion. So, yes, I will be going back, but it seems to me there's some room for improvement here.

*Since writing this, I decided to become a member. For $100, an individual membership will ultimately be cheaper than paying for admission multiple times, at least in the first year, as it will allow many visits for two people.

**Bentley's snowflake photographs were taken with a microscope-mounted camera. Bentley is often credited with making the first snowflake micrographs, although German researcher Dr. Johann Heinrich Flögel (1834-1918) is known to have photographed a snowflake on February 1, 1879, about six years earlier than Bentley's first such photograph, on January 15, 1885. Still, Bentley went on to take thousands of snowflake photos over many years and he is most closely associated with snowflake photography and with popularizing the idea that every snowflake is unique. The collodion printing-out paper process is one of a number that use a printing-out paper—a sensitized paper that forms an image when exposed to ultraviolet light. No darkroom is required because the image is not developed in the sense we think of today—in a chemical bath of some kind. These processes involve contact printing in sunlight (or today commonly with an artificial UV light source). "Printing out" processes are so called because the image gradually appears on the paper with exposure, the image printing out as you watch. Other examples of printing-out processes include the salted paper, albumen, gelatino-chloride, and collodio-chloride processes.


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