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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Artist a Day Challenge 2016-2: Alma Thomas

“The Eclipse”, 1970, Alma Thomas.  Photo c/o the Smithsonian American Art Museum


Alma Thomas is the first African American woman to have her work displayed within public spaces in the White House.  The 2015 addition of her painting, “Resurrection”, (1966) represents the Obamas aesthetic preference for contemporary and injected modern works into the otherwise traditional permanent collection.  Thomas’ work joined those of Mark Rothko, Sam Francis and Robert Rauschenberg which were all selected to grace the Obama’s White House collection.

The artist’s work was inspired by New York School Abstract Expressionism which emphasized dynamic, energetic gestures, however Alma Thomas’ paintings also have an objective, cerebral focus on movement, light, color and sound characteristic of Impressionism.  Because her work fused the two schools of painting, Thomas’ work could easily be described as “Abstract Impressionism”, a term coined by Elaine de Kooning that represents a method that evokes an artist’s emotion and expresses “lyrical and thoughtful qualities in paintings.”

“Spring Grass”, 1973, Alma Thomas.  Photo c/o Smithsonian American Art Museum 

Thomas’ career was prolific in the 1960s, a period that posed many challenges for her as a black woman artist.  Rather than focus on identity, she chose to paint musical representations of harmonies found in nature. The inspiration for many of Alma Thomas’ paintings was found in the garden of her Washington D.C. home where she spent time “watching the leaves and flowers tossing in the wind as though they were singing and dancing.”

“Atmospheric Effects”1970, Alma Thomas. Photo c/o Smithsonian American Art Museum

The “Artist a Day Challenge” celebrates Black History Month by highlighting Black artists and diverse forms of cultural expression across the African diaspora.  






Artist a Day Challenge No. 24: Beauford Delaney x Ella Fitzgerald

Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, Beauford Delaney. Photo Credit, SCAD
Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald, Beauford Delaney. Photo Credit, SCAD

This painting by Beauford Delaney out of all his portraits of fellow artists really stuck out to me, not just because it is a beautiful piece, but I wonder why he chose to obscure the Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald amongst this colorful palate of brushstrokes.  Delaney’s work transitioned from figurative to abstract upon his move to Paris to flee the persecution and isolation he felt in New York as a gay black man in the 1940’s. This piece seems to demonstrate the artists transition.

One thing I did not know about Ella Fitzgerald was that she was horribly shy and extremely meek when it came to recognizing her own talent.  This is so shocking to me for someone who is so universally cherished for their talent.  Perhaps what was more shocking to me was a comment I heard in an NPR interview featuring a singer from the Manhattan Transfer that said, “I never listen to Ella for emotional depth”….

… and she proceeded to laud Fitzgerald for her technical prowess and the precision of her voice.  WHAT?  Without question Fitzgerald has one of the most dynamic, precise voices but to dismiss it as lacking emotional depth was strange to me.

That blew me away.  I look at this painting of Beauford Delaney and listen to Ella Fitzgerald with this new knowledge of her shyness and hear something very different in her music.  Taken together, I hear so much more than Janice Siegal manages to distill and I have a deeper, more profound appreciation for what Delaney conveys in this portrait of her.

Artist a Day Challenge No.4: Elizabeth Catlett

Sharecropper, 1952 by Elizabeth Catlett

In November I saw “Sharecropper” by Elizabeth Catlett at LACMA.  I loved the depiction of the duality of strength and despair shown as byproducts of exploitation in this piece.  As a graphic designer and sculptor in the 30’s and 40’s, much of Catlett’s art highlighted African-American and Mexican women as caretakers, patriarchs, workers and nurturers; her work was used as a platform for social commentary.  In the 40’s the artist moved to Mexico City where she continued to express her activism by working with with the mural and graphic artist collective, El Taller de Gráfica Popular. During this time she was arrested during a railroad workers strike and she was declared an undesirable alien by the State Department in 1949.  She subsequently became a Mexican citizen and remained in Mexico until her retirement in the 70’s and her death in 2012.  Her sculpture work is reminiscent of Brancusi or Henry Moore but the strength of her conviction and the power of her subjects reflect a style and technique that stands on it’s own.

Beneath the Bronze- “Little Dancer” Comes to Life at the Kennedy Center


Edgar Degas’ love for the ballet is prominently featured in his body of work and one of his most iconic works is “The Little Fourteen Year Old Dancer”.  This piece has been reproduced in all mediums and has served as an artistic inspiration for artists and dancers around the world.

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen at the Norton Simon in Pasadena

The Kennedy Center will bring the story behind Little Dancer to life in a musical directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman.  The piece will be performed by Tony award-winning performers and a principal dancer from the NYC Ballet.  Tonight the Guggenheim features a panel discussion about the musical and inspiration behind it.

Degas’ Little Dancer is one of my favorite bronzes.  I simply liked the piece, and never knew its history.  My initial reaction to his work was that I remember being struck by the way Degas captured the fluidity of movement.  In Little Dancer however, the rawness of her facial expression juxtaposed with the strength of her carriage was always so striking.

No Pressure, No Diamonds. ~Thomas Carlyle

No Grit, No Pearl ~ Anon

I want to peel back a few layers of the Little Dancer that I found interesting. The first is not too surprising: When Degas’ originally showed the wax mold of Little Dancer in 1881 it was met with the extreme, unrelenting criticism at the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition.  Critics found Degas’ use of clothing and hair to adorn the sculpture cast “ugly and degenerate” ; many derided the physical features of the subject, calling her a “flower of the gutter”.

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen
Edgar Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

I find this critique interesting because it sits square at the center of the dichotomy of the cultural zeitgeist at the time.  Degas’ chose to feature all aspects of Parisian life during the Belle Époque, including the economic underclass necessary to maintain the affluence of the wealthy elite.  The Paris Opera Ballet was a mirror reflecting both of these worlds.  Many dancers were plucked from underprivileged families who saw ballet as a gateway to a better life.  The career track for these dancers was quite limited.  They performed and frequently became mistresses to wealthy male benefactors.

Degas’ muse for Little Dancer was Marie von Goethem, a 14-year-old daughter of a deceased father and a laundress.  Her mother sent her to the Paris Opera Ballet at 13 in hopes that she would find a better life and escape a life of poverty.  The act of artistically revealing this very unseemly aspect of the Belle Époque in lieu of the gilded, pristine facade of the ruling class, was viewed as an anathema to critics.

Tonight’s panel discussion along with excerpts of the musical will be live streamed on the Guggenheim’s website. The museum will also host extended hours to view some of Degas’ works exhibited in the Thannhauser Gallery.  I’m looking forward to learning more through this musical and discussion!