SFMOMA

30 Jan

There was once a show on MTV called Austin Stories. It was a great show. There was only one season which aired in 1997. The main character was a layabout schemer named Howard. One bit on the show was that Howard got a woman’s phone number and set up a date with her. Howard didn’t have a car. He concocted a reason why the woman needed to pick him up for the date. He then got a ride from a friend to the nice part of town (the town being Austin). He hung out in front of a mansion where the woman picked him up. When his ride asked him what he was doing on the way, he explained his plan thusly, “I like to make the girl think I have money. That way when I take them on a cheap date they think I’m being cool and hip instead of lame and broke.” That quote is from memory so I can’t vouch for its accuracy, although I do have a very good memory.

That’s kind of how I think about writing posts like this. It’s a review of a museum. By review, I mean I’m mostly just writing discursive thoughts that come to mind when I think of my visit to said museum. My hope is that picking subject matter like museums and using words like discursive instead of rambling makes me sound smart and insightful instead of unfocused and lazy. You might say I’m writing from the steps of an Austin mansion. Sometimes I do this with bulletish points or footnotes. I don’t always like to do it that way. The footnote thing seems especially lazy. It took off when people started imitating David Foster Wallace. Now you see it everywhere. It’s pretty much the defining feature of the house style at Grantland. From what I’ve read DFW was pretty in touch with how addicting and lazy it was when not used for a purpose. I don’t think most other writers think about the purpose of notes and how they affect the reader. It’s just a good way to look smart. That was just a long way of saying that I’m not using any asterisks today. I’m just putting everything in the main body. One big piece of text. No links or pictures either. No attention interruptions at all. We’ll see how it works.

I’m getting nervous about the pictures. I get most of my pageviews from Google image search. Since I steal all of my pictures from Google myself and don’t attribute credit anywhere, I will probably get a lot of cease and desist orders after TPY becomes hugely popular. A lot of those searches are for “East Oakland”. My picture of a guy with a wad of bills and a girl in a thong in front of a low rider is on the first page of that particular search. Which is funny to me.

Disclaimer before I start: I have no background or education in the practice, theory, or history of art. I prefer discursive to rambling. It makes me sound smart instead of unfocused.

SFMOMA is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They call themselves SFMOMA because it looks cool and makes the museum seem even more modern. The whole concept of modern art confuses me sometimes. What counts as “modern”? I think the generally accepted definition is Impressionists and anything after. To me that’s stupid. The Museum of Modern Art in New York’s most famous painting is probably Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. It was painted in 1889. That’s 124 years ago. It isn’t modern in any strict sense. Will that painting still be at MoMA in 2113? Will it still be modern then? The concept of modern art and modern art museums was born when Van Gogh actually was modern. The idea was to focus on current or very recent art that couldn’t get a foothold in traditional museums. I don’t think that’s the case now, especially at some of the more famous modern art museums like SFMOMA.

When I went to SFMOMA a couple weeks ago, there were two major exhibitions. One was a retrospective of works by Jay DeFeo. She’s from the Bay Area so I can understand the desire to feature her, but she’s been dead for almost 25 years. Her major works were completed in the 50s and 60s. The big blockbuster was a Jasper Johns survey. Jasper Johns is fine and everything. I saw a very similar show at the Art Institute of Chicago a few years ago. Some of the same pieces, even. His most famous works are 50 years old. He’s famous. He’s widely regarded as an important figure in American art. Every museum in the country would love to get its hands on a Jasper Johns. He doesn’t need the advocacy of a modern art museum.

Most mainstream museums have substantial collections of 20th century art. The modern art canon has solidified. Some time ago I saw a Rembrandt exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art with my parents. At dinner afterwards, we were discussing it. Rembrandt was obviously a technical master in addition to all of his other contributions to painting. My dad made the point that he didn’t know of any current artists with the same skill. He said, furthermore, that he didn’t know of any current artists at all. I think this is pretty common among the general population, even that part of the population that visits art museums. Even people who can name a couple current artists probably know them better for whatever controversies surround them than their work. Damien Hirst or Ai Weiwei, for example. There are good artists working today. There must be. Even if I don’t know about most of them. I wish they were the focus of SFMOMA. Right now they most certainly are not.

That was my screed for the day. I wish SFMOMA had a different goal or function or whatever, but as it is, it’s a fun museum to visit. It has an impressive collection. The main attraction is the museum’s permanent collection, which is housed all in one series of galleries on the second floor. It’s organized in a mostly chronological order, starting with a roomful of Matisses. As it goes on, there are Riveras and Kahlos, Picassos, Oldenburgs, Warhols, etc. The highlight for me might be a really spectacular Rothko. It’s red-orange and indigo. It’s huge. I don’t have the art knowledge to explain why Rothko is great, but it isn’t something that I could appreciate until I saw it in person. I’ve seen a couple similar Rothkos in other museums, but I didn’t have the same reaction to them as I had to this one. Maybe it’s the colors, maybe it was how it was presented in the context of the rest of the collection, who knows. My advice is to find a museum with a big Rothko. Go and look at it for awhile.

The third floor has a decent photography collection. Nothing too memorable, if I’m honest. I was disappointed they didn’t have any Tina Barneys on display. They have three in the collection, but they’re not out right now. There’s an expansion going on right now, more on that later. I don’t follow the art scene closely or at all, but Tina Barney is one contemporary artist I like very much. She gave a lecture in Minneapolis last year, which I attended. I asked her a question at the end and she said it was a very good question. That was like the highlight of the year for me. Another disappointment was the absence of two paintings by Robert Bechtle that were two of my favorites when I’ve visited the museum before. Lack of space maybe. Bechtle is a photorealist painter from San Francisco and the two on display at SFMOMA are–were–compelling. Compelling is one of my favorite words. I probably use it too much.

I don’t have anything to say about the Jasper Johns show that you couldn’t learn by reading his Wikipedia page. Same with Jay DeFeo. Both worthwhile exhibitions.

The museum has a little cafe and sculpture garden on the roof. The cafe is run by, or serves, I don’t know really, Blue Bottle coffee, which is a hyper-trendy local coffee company. Their roastery is near my place in Oakland. They also have a coffee bar at the roastery. This is a place where it’s hard for me to go without laughing at it all. A little building in an Oakland warehouse district with a line out the door, snobby baristas who border on self-parody, and $4 cups of coffee individually prepared pour-over style. Just a ludicrous little slice of life in what’s apparently one of America’s hipster capitals.

I was dragging towards the end of my visit so I went to the cafe and got a cappuccino. The only food options were some various baked goods. One caught my eye. It was the highlight of my visit. A little 4”x4” square of something called Mondrian cake. If you’re familiar with Piet Mondrian, you know why this is so terrific. Mr. Mondrian is famous for his paintings of irregular black grids on a white background with strategically placed blocks of color. The cake was a little replica of one of these paintings. White cake with a chocolate grid and little inserts of blue and red cake. I’d like to shake the hand of whoever came up with that idea.

I mentioned that there’s an addition being built. I’ve written about my feelings on museum additions before. We’ll see how this turns out. I will say that the gallery space at SFMOMA does feel pretty limited. I think that’s more a function of the size and scope of the museum collection than anything. This brings me back to the beginning. If the museum’s goal was to showcase and educate the public about contemporary art and artists, they wouldn’t need an addition. But when you have to have big showy Jasper Johns exhibitions and still find a place to keep all your Matisses, you end up needing a lot more space than you might imagine.

That was fun. I like museum reviews. Get ready for more. There are a lot of museums in the Bay Area. Hell, the Museum of Cartoon Art and the Contemporary Jewish Museum are both within a couple blocks of SFMOMA. I’m sure I’ll get to them eventually.

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