The Art of Serendipity: James Van Der Zee & Derek Fordjour

I love little moments of artistic serendipity.  I come across them often and they are the fuel behind this site.  Today, while looking at the work of photographer James Van Der Zee, I came across this picture:

The New York Renaissance, aka The Rens.  Photo: James Van Der Zee

It immediately reminded me of a painting by Derek Fordjour that I fell in love with a few months ago.

Derek Fordjour, Formation, 2015. Photo c/o Papillion

The Van Der Zee photo, circa 1925, was of The New York Renaissance,  the first all black and black-owned professional Basketball team founded by Robert “Bob” Douglas in 1923.  The team was named after the Renaissance Casino ballroom/casino in Harlem where they played weekly games. “The Rens” were also the first black basketball team to tour the U.S. to play against white teams. With a record of success throughout the 20’s and 30’s, The Rens recorded their first win against the original world champion Celtics in 1925 and during their tenure they won over 2,500 games.

I love both of these works of art.  When I first saw the Derek Fordjour show at Papillion Art in February, I was immediately drawn to it. The sheer size of Formation (60 x 40) pulls you into its 3D cubed pattern on the bottom half of the painting.  At the time I assumed the subjects were soccer players and I couldn’t figure out why three of them were concealed behind a curtain.  Were they on display?  The expressions on the players faces are ambiguous; are they simply numbers on a jersey, here for our entertainment, as the discarded numbers on the 3D floor suggest?

The Rens played basketball for black and white audiences, and in Harlem the games were often the precursor to an evening of dancing and partying in the ballrooms. The jovial environment in Harlem was rarely found during the team’s road travel.  Jim Crow laws forced the players to play under uncomfortable conditions in hostile environments.  Hotel rooms were impossible to come by, and race riots erupted during at least 5 of their games.  The hostility also extended to the governing body of basketball.  The American Basketball League refused to accept the Rens into the league in 1925. In a surprising form of solidarity, the original Celtics refused the join the league as well and as a result the Celtics and the Rens enjoyed a friendly rivalry that strengthened both teams.  As the son of one of the original members of the Celtics recalls:

“I was raised hearing that the Celtics were the greatest team of all time,” said Richard Lapchick. “My dad’s friends would say that and all our neighbors would say that. But he would correct them and say, ‘The Rens were every bit as good as we were in the beginning and were better than us in the end.'”

I think it’s important to view Van Der Zee and Fordjour’s works in tandem.  Through photography, Van Der Zee captured the history and stories of a time nearly forgotten.  Derek Fordjour’s work draws from sports, board games and circus/carnival motifs to explore ideas of vulnerability. Perhaps that is why Fordjour chose to obscure three members of the team in his painting.  The Rens are one of the greatest Basketball teams in history, yet their story is barely recognized in the athletic canon.  If these stories aren’t shared or given new life, the curtain slowly closes on their legacy.

I went back through my posts on when I first wrote about Van Der Zee-February 4, 2016.  I saw Fordjour’s Formation at Papillion on February 6th.  At the time I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why I was so drawn to the painting.  It is perfectly clear to me now.


Basketball in 1920’s Harlem, Digital Harlem Blog

Bob Douglas, The Father of Black Basketball, African American Registry

Derek Fordjour, Artist’s Statement

The Santa Monica Museum of Art Heads East


Last spring, in a strategic move that I related to on a very personal level, the Santa Monica Museum of Art decided to pull up stakes on its Bergamot Station location to re-evaluate its mission in a self-reflective, revitalization effort called SMMoA Unbound.

Today the museum announced that it would be relocating from Santa Monica in favor of the ever-growing Arts District Downtown.  The museum will have more square footage, a refined community based mission and a new name: the ICA-LA (Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles).  The museum has never held a permanent collection which enabled them to take risks and amplify early stage artists who were not regularly shown in larger institutions.

During their 17 year tenure in Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station, the SMMoA boasts an impressive curatorial resume:

They were one of the first museums to host first solo museum exhibitions for “Urs Fischer, Joyce Pensato, Alvaro Siza, Elias Sime, Al Taylor, and Mickalene Thomas; and the first solo museum exhibitions on the West Coast for such artists as VALIE EXPORT, Andrew Lord, William Pope.L, and Henry Taylor. Other distinguished exhibitions include: Freestyle (2001), a survey of work by 28 emerging African American artists curated by Thelma Golden; The Book Show: Raymond Pettibon (2001), curated by Roberto Ohrt; Cavepainting: Laura Owens, Chris Ofili, Peter Doig (2002), curated by the artists; George Herms: Hot Set (2005), curated by Walter Hopps; Michael Asher (2008); and Brian Weil, 1979–95: Being in the World, SMMoA’s current, critically-acclaimed exhibition curated by Stamatina Gregory.”

In total, SMMoA showed the work of 1,600 artists, of which 40% were artists of color and 46% women.*

Each May the museum held its legendary INCOGNITO benefit which gave aspiring collectors an opportunity to put their artistic instincts to work by anonymously choosing art created by over 300 artists.  Hidden amongst the works all priced at $300.00 each were blue chip contributions from John Baldesari, Bettye Saar, Mark Bradford and Ed Ruscha.  Their impressive programming and fundraising efforts cemented SMMoA’s reputation as an “Artists Museum”.  This transformation and the move downtown suggests a symbolic referendum on the current state of the westside’s art community as much as it is a gamble on DTLA’s.  The Arts District location will certainly place the new museum in closer proximity to the artists who live and work on the outskirts of downtown in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. The move also points to a missed opportunity for Bergamot Station, and the Barker Hangar in particular, which has in recent years been at the epicenter of contemporary art fairs in Los Angeles. The future of art fairs in Los Angeles will is likely to shift east as larger galleries, artists, institutions and young, emerging collectors have firmly planted their stakes downtown.

*2015 Unbound Press Release



SFMOMA in 3: Part 3

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Robert Arneson’s California Painter looking at Njideka Akunyili Crosby & Lynett Yiadom-Boakye paintings

Recognizing that 3 posts about SFMOMA may have been overkill, I would be remiss if I didn’t share some observations on the functional space and the technology in addition to a couple of warnings that may save you from some awkward museum moments.

Everything about the new building orchestrates visitors to the Fisher collection, which I felt was unnecessary since so much of the collection was distributed throughout the museum.  Nevertheless, the Red elevator bank is prominently situated next to the ticket area and leads specifically to Fisher collections on Floors 5 & 6.  This wouldn’t have been much of an issue except for the fact that I nearly missed visiting the 7th Floor Campaign For Art collection because it can only be reached by a separate Silver elevator bank or a fairly obscured stair case.

Despite numerous technological innovations launched by SFMOMA, the self directed guide hardware was a non-starter for me. The device is too clunky for a mobile dependent city like San Francisco.  As a whole, museums need to find a way to integrate mobile applications far better than they are now.


I was really disappointed in how the Botta lobby was treated like a neglected afterthought.  While the new open staircase provides better views of the Oculus and second floor lobby, it appears disjointed and doesn’t harmonize with the existing space.  With the exception of the Museum Store, the abandoned coat check area and former Schwab Room (undergoing renovations for a new restaurant), looks like sad cast aways that have seen much better days.  This was particularly sad to me for sentimental reasons.  I hope they find a better way to activate this space for public use.  At a minimum they could bring back the original Lewitt wall drawings that flanked the original entrance 10+ years ago.


When art has a warning sign on it, TRUST IT.  The strobe lights in Takeshi Murata’s “Melter 3-D” made me dizzy, but that’s probably because I tried to film it.  I also tapped into some latent vertigo I never knew I had walking across the Oculus bridge, but that didn’t stop me from crossing it multiple times, because it is beautiful.  I loved seeing pictures of it glowing in purple gels for the preview gala last Friday night.

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Autumn Circle, Richard Long

Someone will accidentally kick rocks out of alignment in the Autumn Circle installation on the 5th floor.  I saw someone do it and so help me it was awkward for all involved–of course I laughed which made it worse.  I can hardly blame them though, there’s enough art here to make anyone disoriented.  Luckily there are plenty of “palate cleansers” and spaces to give visitors a seat, some fresh air and opportunities direct their gaze to city views from the large windows that circle the museum.

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Sleeping Woman, Charles Ray

So now that SFMOMA has officially put San Francisco’s art scene on the map be sure to experience so many of the area’s culturally rich institutions nearby.  The area remains my favorite block in the entire city.

SF MOMA in 3: Part 2

SFMOMA LG Crop.jpg

Now that we got the essentials out of the way in yesterday’s post, it’s time to see some art! As I previously warned, I don’t suggest you try to see everything in 1 day.  There are 7 floors of art, so I suggest that you pick 3 and spend some quality time with the collections.

With tongue firmly in cheek, I came up three tours depending on what you might like to see:
1.  The Traditionalist
2.  The Naturalist
3.  The Iconoclast
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For those of you who missed the permanent collection on the 2nd floor of the original SFMOMA (the Old SFMOMA), you are in luck because it remains in tact with selections from the permanent collection on view in the old Botta Building.

Mark Rothko, No.14, 1960

Floors 5 & 6 will give you a good overview of the Fisher Collection. The 5th floor features Pop, Minimal and Figurative art, while the 6th has a large collection of German artists.  This floor also has a  stunning 2001 Shirin Neshat video installation called Passage, scored by Philip Glass.

2 Circle

Sculpture and Photography are the focus of this tour.  I suggest you start off by taking the stairs from the 2nd floor Lobby entrance off Howard Street to the 3rd floor installation of “California and the West”.  This exhibition features photographic works obtained from the Campaign for Art.  My favorites were a series of prints by Jim Goldberg called “Rich and Poor”.  A precursor to the famed Humans of New York, this series cracks the artistic firewall between photographer and subject as Goldberg gave his subjects a voice to tell their own stories of poverty and wealth.  Their observations are raw, personal and surprising.  I was captivated by each photograph.

Living Wall
Living Wall

The Alexander Calder Motion Lab on the 3rd floor leads to an outdoor sculpture terrace featuring a tall, multi story living wall.  The terrace is a breezy, airy respite from the crowds and the art.

Oculus Bridge
View of Alexander Calder and the 5th Floor Oculus Bridge

Floors 4 and 5 will provide looks at more sculpture in addition to a robust collection of Ellsworth Kelly.  Be sure to check out the Oculus Bridge for an interesting vantage point of another Calder that hangs above the Botta lobby off 3rd St.

3 Circle

For those of you who want to start and stop with Contemporary art, head straight to the 7th Floor using the Silver elevators (for some reason there are 2 separate banks of elevators that lead to different floors).  Here you will find works by David Hammons, Glenn Ligon, Mark Bradford, Mark Grotjahn and Jeff Koons.  This was personally my favorite floor because I love David Hammons’ Basketball Drawings.  The Conservation wing tucked into the back of this floor is a large open space with incredible views.  From a curator’s viewpoint, the 7th floor appears to be the most versatile.  Windows can be covered with movable panels to display more art and the architects left the ceiling exposed in an attempt to make the space less formal.

Glenn Ligon’s “Double America”


Mark Bradford, Untitled (“Buoy”), 2014

After the 7th floor, head down to the 5th floor for sculptural works by Anish Kapoor and Richard Long.  This floor also features gallery space dedicated to Andy Warhol and Chuck Close. My 3rd tour ends on the 3rd floor for an immersive, interpretive experience at the Photography Interpretive Gallery which is part of the Pritzker Center for Photography.


After all of that you may need a cortado or an espresso from the Sightglass coffee bar located adjacent from the Interpretive Gallery.  The S.F. based coffee roaster has set up a new outpost here boasting the perfect cup of coffee.

No trip to SFMOMA would be complete without a visit to their museum store and I would highly recommend the newly expanded store on the 1st floor.  I’m kicking myself for not buying a Lumio Lamp!

Lest you think every inch of this museum is sheer perfection, I must admit there were some missed opportunities and some functional flaws in the space that will likely lead to some awkward moments in art…  My 3rd SFMOMA installment will provide you with some caveats and my final thoughts on the new space!


SF MOMA from Yerba Buena

Seasoned arts professionals who visited San Francisco last Thursday for a press preview of the magnificent new Museum of Modern Art also ambitiously popped over to the new Gagosian space, the Wattis Institute or Minnesota St Projects all in the same day.

I am far from seasoned.  After my day at SFMOMA I stumbled into the bar at 111 Minna where I was immediately offered a drink, because I clearly looked like I needed one.

The L.A. Times’ own Christopher Knight tried to warn us all with his deep dive preview published last week:  “SFMOMA’s inauguration is marked by a whopping 18 shows — all drawn from the collection. (I saw all 18 in one day, which I do not recommend.)”  There’s actually 20 shows, but after 3 who’s counting?


Well, I am hard-headed and I tried to see everything; as a result I was stuck on what to write about SFMOMA for a few days.  When faced with a task that is too overwhelming, you can only do one thing. Chunk it down.  So, to prepare you for the museum’s Grand Opening on May 14th, I’ll break down SFMOMA in 3 short posts. I like things in threes and apparently so does the museum; you’ll start to see a trend here… My goal is prevent any other poor souls from spilling into the streets, dazed and confused because there’s a lot, and I mean a LOT to see – so let’s start with some facts.

SF MOMA Expansion by Snohetta. Photo Credit: SF MOMA

SFMOMA closed its doors in 2013 to begin its $305M expansion by Snøhetta .  The existing Mario Botta designed building is now enveloped by a large, snow-white expansion that was designed to mimic the undulating hills, water and fog of the bay. When viewed from the Yerba Buena gardens, the strength of the iconic Botta building remains, while the Snøhetta expansion hovering behind it provides interesting sight lines for a structure that now spans an entire city block. The gallery space is now 3x the size of the original Botta gallery and provides 7 floors of viewable art (10 floors total) in a new building that provides ample room for its 20 exhibitions.  For simplicity’s sake I distilled the 20 shows into 3 collections.  Understanding the differences between 3 three collections is important as you enter the new space.


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The Botta building continues to house the original SFMOMA collection which remains the soul of the museum.  While critics deemed the collection light and limited in scope, for those of us who grew up with SFMOMA, being reunited with the preserved collection was a welcome sight.  Here you will see works by Rothko, Warhol, Lichtenstien, Jasper Johns, Sargent Johnson, Diego Rivera and Rauschenberg.

2 Circle

The Fisher Collection
Gap founders Doris and Donald Fisher amassed a collection of over 1,100 works between the early 1970’s-1980’s and in 2009 they announced a 100 year loan partnership with SFMOMA.  The collection spearheaded the museum’s expansion and eventually the works will be integrated with the permanent collection.  For the inaugural show and every 10 years thereafter (during the partnership) a special exhibition in the Fisher’s name will be on view.  While their collection spans over 185 artists, their non-curator, non-dealer based blue chip collection concentrated on Calder, Ellsworth Kelly, Lichtenstein, Cy Twombly, Warhol and Serra.  Curatorially, the collection had a few gaps (notably artists of color and women in addition to an anemic photography collection).  This is why the 3rd collection is key.

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The Campaign for Art and the Pritzker Center for Photography
Shortly before MOMA announced its expansion and partnership with the Fishers in 2009, the museum launched a contemporary acquisitions campaign that challenged trustees and curators from across all disciplines to expand the depth and breadth of their respective collections.   The result of their combined efforts expanded the collection by 3,000 works integral to rounding out and harmonizing the existing collection and the Fisher collection.  Among the artists included in the expansion campaign are Cindy Sherman, Eva Hesse, Glenn Ligon, Mark Bradford, Doris Salcedo, Ai Weiwei, Ruth Asawa and Garry Winogrand, many of which are included in the inaugural exhibition.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, “Wedding Portrait”, 2012

This was a crucial piece of information that was frankly lost on me as I initially viewed the galleries at the preview.  I was puzzled by the random placement of a beautiful piece by Njideka Akunyili Crosby  hidden in a back corner gallery on the 2nd floor alongside works by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Alice Neel. I was concerned that diversity started and stopped with these three pieces, but luckily I was wrong. With that said, you have to know where to go, otherwise you will surely miss some of the best features of the new space.  Tours are recommended, but if you are like me and prefer to experience a museum without a herd, I have some tips.

Tomorrow I will give you 3 Culture Shock Art tours that will help you get the most out of your time at the new museum.

Why Are We Asking the Same Questions About Lemonade?

Photo: Slate

I promised myself I was not going to write about Lemonade, but here I am shaking my head.

Why is everyone asking the same questions about Lemonade? 

Who is Becky?
Did Jay really cheat?
Is Beyoncé paying homage to Pipilotti Rist?

Ok that 3rd one is pretty esoteric, but that’s what the art world is asking:

“Is Beyoncé’s Windshield-Destroying Stroll in Lemonade Based on This 90’s Art film?” 



I think it’s rather cute that their only contribution to Lemonade commentary was an observational link between Beyoncé’s bat wielding, Cavalli wearing cat walk and Pipilotti Rist’s fanciful iron flowered frolic down the street in Ever Is Over All, her 1997 dual screen video installation.  Both Beyoncé and Rist, playfully walk down the street clad in beautiful dresses in slow motion, then both proceed to smash the windows of cars parked in the street.  Window smashing is nothing new in video, but the juxtaposition between both artists as “delicate”, “feminine” beings that transform a riotous act into something beguiling was a brilliantly smart commentary on power & feminism. In Lemonade the scene gave Beyoncé’s character a visual arch in telling her story.

1.  Everyone who made that observation just parked the similarities there.  Let me re-park some more:

2.  Rist won a prestigious Golden Lion for that video.  Beyoncé is being called a domestic terrorist that’s calling for race wars.
3.  In Rist’s video a police officer looks on as Rist smashes the window; she gets a salute by the officer.  Beyoncé lies on a sinking NOLA cop car in Formation and she’s criticized for being anti-police.
4.  Commentary on Pipilotti Rist’s Ever Is Over All rests squarely on feminism, yet Beyoncé’s media criticism frequently takes a sharp right turn that veers the discourse far from a lucid artistic dialog.

After the 20th art world luminary in my Instagram feed pointed out the comparison to Pipilotti Rist, I looked at it for myself.  Has anyone thought to ask Kahlil Joseph, the video visionary director behind Lemonade?  If you are familiar with his work, his style is a distinct one, yet you can see his influences in his work.  Joseph’s dual screen presentation of “m.A.A.d”in Double Conscience at MOCA last summer is very similar to Ever Is Over All so it’s clear to me that the team of directors for Lemonade were influenced by many artistic sources.  For those willing to do a little more digging beyond flashy ledes & gossip, you will be rewarded with experiencing something new.  I was.  I’m sure that was the intent of so many that were hell-bent on isolating this one similar element of a visually stunning piece.

Maybe we should be asking ourselves why there’s such a disparity in our reactions to art?

Mural Buffings Confirm Fears of Runaway Development in DTLA’s Arts District

E. 3rd St. Mural by Dabs & Myla and How & Nosm.  Photo c/o:  Mural Conservancy of L.A.

Early on in my career I was given a small piece of advice that dictated how I presented myself professionally:

“Dress for the job you want.”

In the intersecting space between gentrification and street art, developers have applied that age old career advice to the neighborhoods they invest in.  When it comes to street art, they’re dressing buildings for the returns they seek;  in other words, they want to maximize their investment. Good street art is an indicator of investment’s appreciation potential. This not so subtle distinction is an important one when you think about the historic role murals and street art have played in the cultural growth of Los Angeles.

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Photos c/o:  KCET, Downtown Muse (via Instagram)


On April 16th a popular mural on a building in DTLA’s Arts District was whitewashed for its new tenants.  The mural was originally created in 2011 by 4 artists (Dabs & Myla on the left panel and How & Nosm on the right) and was located in the parking lot on the east side of the Neptune building.  For residents and frequent visitors to the Arts District, the mural’s buffing was another stark reminder of the negative impact of rapid change taking place there in the last 5 years. The small neighborhood, flanked by Little Tokyo and Skid Row, contains historic vacant warehouses and manufacturing facilities.  In the late 80’s and early 90’s these abandoned buildings were popular among artists, musicians and creatives who converted many of these spaces into un-permitted live/work lofts.  It was far from an artistic utopia; the deserted area was riddled with crime, drugs and homelessness that spilled over from Skid Row’s 1970’s “containment strategy”.

As street art gained cultural cachet in the late ’00s, the neighborhood encouraged murals and building owners quickly commissioned wheatpastes, stencils and other graffiti art by popular street artists.  The popularity reached its peak with Jeffrey Deitch’s “Art in the Streets” show at MOCA in 2011.  The show and the resulting murals that were imported into area brought the Arts District and other L.A. neighborhoods into focus eventually bringing attention to the residents of this small, connected artistic community.

When the Dabs/Myla and How/Nosm mural was buffed last week, it created an uproar among the current residents and patrons of the Arts District who were not only angered by the lack of notice of the mural’s demise but also by the seemingly clandestine decision making that led to its destruction.  In the court of public opinion (social media) it appears as though few discussions took place among community/arts advocacy groups, the building owner and its new tenants (the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pensions).  This mural was viewed as a symbol of the dynamic creativity that transformed the Arts District into a thriving, desirable neighborhood.  While the mural was a favorite of many who considered it representative of the present day Arts District, it was not immediately embraced by everyone living there when it was originally painted.

In April 2011 the 4 artists who created the mural were commissioned by the LA Freewalls project to paint the Neptune Building’s east wall.  The mural was a gift to the community that at the time was accepted with some trepidation.  L.A. has a history of mural creation that spans decades including works that represented the cultural richness and diversity of the communities where the murals reside.  When it was painted some questioned if the mural accurately represented the community and the residents within the Arts District at that time.  Even more problematic, leaders within the LA Freewalls project were viewed as polarizing figures in the street art community. They were characterized in the press as cultural opportunists who profited from brokering deals between street artists and building owners to create the murals that pepper the neighborhood.

Flash forward 5 years. The neighborhood is “on trend”.  In addition to the legendary murals, the neighborhood is now peppered with coffee shops, artisanal toast, blue chip galleries and haute (yet eco-friendly) designs.  The beloved 3rd Street mural now accurately represents the history of the community yet in an ironically cruel twist of fate that brief history was erased; perhaps to make room for bigger pockets and newer, “trendier” artists…

In an attempt at some damage control, the LAFPP claimed that they legitimately pursued due diligence in notifying the artists and the community prior to buffing the mural (those claims are still being challenged by arts activist groups).  They also maintain that plans are underway to create a new mural on the blank white wall that sits on the property today.  Sadly, street artists have been forced into an odd game of musical chairs where the winner gets to dress the new building… undoubtedly for the job the owner wants– to maximize their investment.