Tag Archives: San Francisco


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.

The Legion of Honor

7 Dec

Some blogs have movie or TV or book reviews. Here’s a museum review. Not like a museum exhibition review, because you see those sometimes too. Just an overall museum review.

Thumbs up for Neoclassical architecture

Thumbs up for Neoclassical architecture

The Legion of Honor is in Lincoln Park in San Francisco. It’s on the top of a hill in the middle of a golf course. The golf course aspect is weird but overall it’s a really cool place for a museum. Lots of great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin County and such.

I told you it was a great view

I told you it was a great view

The Legion of Honor is a cool name for a museum. Its full name is “The California Palace of the Legion of Honor”. Boss. The building is a replica of a palace in France. There should be more palaces in the US.

One thing I like about the Legion (I’m calling it the Legion from now on) is that it’s a fairly small building, and it seems content to be small. One thing I don’t like is museum expansions and additions. They’re always a big architectural mess. I love the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It’s a beautiful Beaux-Arts building with a giant International Style disaster tacked onto the back. The mishmash is depressing. A big part of the problem is that museums are under pressure to be adventurous and bold architecturally. The idea is that buildings holding art should be art themselves. This is dangerous. I think too many museums hop onto architectural trends that end up looking dated very quickly. The MIA mentioned above being a prime example.* Here’s how to do a museum: build it and then fill it with art. If you run out of room either start making hard decisions, build something new, or build an inconspicuous addition. The Legion of Honor has gone with the third option–they just added a basement that doesn’t really change the building. (This might be incorrect. I assume the basement is newer. It feels like it. I could be wrong.) They should be applauded for it.

*I’d make an exception for museums focused on modern/contemporary art. I can see the logic in that case. The Walker, also in Minneapolis, is a nice example.

What a great museum building

What a great museum building

Ohhh noooooooo

Ohhh noooooooo

The Legion’s permanent collection isn’t spectacular or large, but it has a lot of variety while retaining some sense of focus. It’s unapologetically a museum of European art. The collection spans from the middle ages to 1900 or so, and they have works by a lot of famous painters you find in museums. There’s a lot of early religious art, which isn’t my favorite. I still enjoy looking at it in museums. It’s amazing to think that there are pristine paintings from the 1400s on display in America. That’s a long time ago.

The most well-known work is probably one of Monet’s big water lily paintings. I saw a special show of two of his giant water lily canvases in Kansas City once. That was impressive. Like 8×30. Just huge. Monet painted the one in the legion between 1914 and 1917. It’s tempting to think of art history as a sequential series of events and schools and trends. 1917 was a decade after the emergence of Cubism and the same year as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. The general idea is that Impressionism ended in the 1890 or so, and it’s hard to make yourself think of all these things as overlapping and interrelated.

The Legion also has a lot of sculptures by Rodin, including a huge cast of The Thinker in the courtyard. I like Rodin, but sculptures like this don’t really thrill me since there are so many identical casts around the world. There isn’t the same feeling of seeing a one-of-a-kind piece. Still good though.

This is a good statue to have in the courtyard

This is a good statue to have in the courtyard

The Legion is a fairly small building, and I mostly like the way its laid out. The building is like a big “U” with the entrance in the middle. There are 20 or so galleries, in mostly chronological order from one tip of the U to the other. This is a perfect way to do it–except that the entrance is in the middle. You have to walk through half of the museum to get to the start. That’s not ideal. Although honestly it wouldn’t really work to make the tips of the U the focal points of the building. It would really diminish the courtyard and the sense of the building having a front, so to speak. I guess I can manage.

The current special exhibition at the Legion is decorative arts on loan from the Louvre. These are pieces from the collections of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI. It was pretty good. Bowls and tea services aren’t usually my favorite, but this was an impressive collection. The best part were several snuffboxes that were given by the French royal family as gifts to foreign diplomats. They were gold, enamel, or jade, often with miniature paintings and encrusted with copious amounts of gemstones. Diamonds mostly.

I couldn't find a snuffbox picture so here's a gold coffee grinder with an ivory handle

I couldn’t find a snuffbox picture so here’s a gold coffee grinder with an ivory handle

I’m a member of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which includes the Legion and the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park. Members get free admission, which I enjoy. When I have to pay admission to a museum, I always feel like I have to get my money’s worth and I have to see everything and spend a lot of time at the museum. That’s not always the best way to do it. I like that I can just pop in whenever I want and see what I want and it’s no big deal. Maybe not everyone feels this way. I’m a pretty cheap guy.

One of the cool things about the Legion is that it was the place where the museum scenes in the movie Vertigo were filmed. Vertigo is a great movie. Some might even call it the greatest film of all time. I don’t want to get into explaining why Kim Novak goes to the museum in the movie, but I think you can watch the scene without spoiling the movie. Seriously, watch the whole movie. I should watch it again and then visit all the filming locations in the City and write a blog post about it. That’s a good idea. I bet no one’s ever done that before.

The Portrait of Carlotta is just a prop painting and isn’t in the museum. That’s a shame. It would be cool to see it.