SFMOMA's collection is soon to leave its native habitat when the museum closes on June 3rd to reopen sometime in 2016. Snøhetta is designing the museum's expansion to accommodate over 1,100 works by 185 artists in the Doris and Donald Fisher collection (of Gap fame). In the meantime, the curators at SFMOMA have put together some of their greatest hits, trotting out works by some very famous artists. Visitors are greeted in the atrium by a hanging piece by the Chinese artist Gu Wenda, "united nations- babel of the millennium" from 1999. It's a diaphanous artwork commissioned for the site, featuring letters from multiple languages (I've included a picture of the Hindi above). But all those letters don't actually form any words. "The work reflects the open and porous nature of communication," according to the label, the description neatly sidestepping the issue that all those letters are actually formed out of human hair. I'm not sure what the connection between hair, languages, and Babel is, but my bet is that it has something to do with the detritus humans leave behind them, whether keratin or words.
In the "Selected Histories: 20th Century Art from the SFMOMA Collection" each of the galleries divide the SFMOMA collection into its big representative parts: French modernism, Latin American modernism, surrealism, pop art, and minimal art. The famous painters are on the wall: Magritte, Rothko, Pollock, and Warhol, along with Rivera's "The Flower Carrier." Always one to fall easily for Frida Kahlo, it was a pleasure to see the double portrait "Frieda and Diego Rivera" from 1931 up close. Painted by Frida while the couple was in San Francisco, Diego looms over the songbird colored Frida. Her tiny feet barely seem to rest upon the ground, while Diego is firmly rooted in his physicality and role as artist. A statement of artistic worth? Traditional gender dynamics in marriage? Frida's psychological landscape in the relationship? It's all possible, and it also appears this is one of the first portraits to feature Frida in traditional Mexican attire.
Since Clyfford Still donated 28 of his own paintings to the museum, creating a core of SFMOMA's collection, he gets his own gallery. His pieces are large, abstract, and initially difficult to approach. Above is a detail from "Untitled" from 1951 (the grey color in the picture is actually quite dark in person). The canvas is an overwhelming black rectangle dominating the white wall at first glance, but then the thick texture of the black paint emerges, broken by red lines and corners. The easy analogy is lava, of course, with molten ribbons of flame in the cracks of dark rock. Emotionally, this piece reminds me of the fiery aspects of Kali. I doubt Still was trying to evoke Kali, but the painting, like her, rewards the viewer with a unique glimpse of beauty after moving beyond an initial reaction of aversion.
The "Selected Histories" exhibit runs into "Don't Be Shy, Don't Hold Back: The Logan Collection" featuring 40 major works from the 1960's to the 1990's. I'm dating myself with my happy surprise to find a Takashi Murakami work based on the Oasis song "Champagne Supernova" from my senior year in high school. "Don't Be Shy" is about the shock value of art; but now Damien Hirst's "Philip (The Twelve Disciples)" is less a cow's head in formaldehyde than a work I know is historically significant. I spent a lot of time looking at Fred Tomaselli's "Field Guides" from 2003. Tomaselli has suspended hundreds of cut out photographs in polished resin. A multitude of human organs, mushrooms, and flying insects (including butterflies) coalesce into his finished image. It's a thoughtful exploration of how something is constructed out of its constituent parts, questioning whether meaning is made from the minute or the ensemble.
Although I was rather "arted" out at this point, I stopped to see some of Garry Winogrand's photographs upstairs. I was rewarded with some beautiful compositions that caught some very stylish New York clothing choices. But then it was time for refueling; I was tickled to find the SFMOMA cafe had cakes based on their art. Above is a takeoff on Damien Hirst's 1993 Amylamine that I'd just seen in the gallery, but this time I got to re-imagine his artwork through edible decoration. It's such a hip idea that I'm sorry to report the cake didn't actually taste very good. Maybe there was too much anticipation. Maybe it should have been served with a glass of milk. Or maybe I'm just a purist who wants my art to taste as good as it looks.