Exploring the New SF MOMA

Last Sunday, I finally had an opportunity to visit the newly expanded and greatly transformed Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco (SF MOMA). Given what I discussed in my July 6th post about how much we can/cannot take in during a museum visit, I kept in mind what several readers and I agreed on: If you eat from the whole smörgåsbord, count on getting indigestion! With seven floors devoted to art, the museum has enough to keep you there for days. I limited myself and felt joyful when I walked out, eager to explore other galleries next time. I'm keen on discovering places and art I haven't seen yet.

Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA. Photo by Henrik Kam. Source: https://www.sfmoma.org/

Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA. Photo by Henrik Kam. Source: https://www.sfmoma.org/

I love the "new" museum. It is not only more spacious (the galleries alone have gone from 70,000 to 170,00 sq. ft), but also filled with more natural light along with views of the neighborhood. Terraces now invite you to walk outside among sculptures with a garden wall as backdrop. I appreciated being able to get fresh air in the presence of real plants and Alexander Calder's work. Whereas the "old" museum felt closed in, the latest incarnation feels open.

Maquette for "Trois Disques" (Three Disks), formerly "Man" (1967), by Alexander Calder. Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace, floor 3, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Maquette for "Trois Disques" (Three Disks), formerly "Man" (1967), by Alexander Calder.
Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace, floor 3, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

The Living Wall is a wonderful addition for its greenery, its environmental consciousness, and its connection to art. The largest of its kind in the United States (almost 30 feet high and 150 feet wide), it was designed by Habitat Horticulture. The approximately 20,000 plants of 37 different species (40 percent of which are native to the state and the San Francisco Bay Area) are irrigated by a recycled water system. And the wall is stabilized by felt made from recycled water bottles and polyester. Visitors were lining up in front of it to take photos of each other.

"Big Crinkly" (1969), by Alexander Calder. Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace, floor 3, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Big Crinkly" (1969), by Alexander Calder. Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace, floor 3,
Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

The galleries have everything, even items that some might not consider art at first glance (even at second and third glances!). No matter, for wherever I walk, whether inside or outside, what I see first are shapes, forms, and flow lines. I saw lots of them and, of course, color, as I went from room to room or out to a terrace. I was surprised by artwork I don't remember viewing at SF MOMA prior to the expansion, perhaps because they couldn't be accommodated in the old setting or because they're recent additions.

"In Winter Burrows" (1985), by Martin Puryear. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"In Winter Burrows" (1985), by Martin Puryear.
Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Two Plus Seven" (2004) by Martin Puryear. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Two Plus Seven" (2004) by Martin Puryear.
Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Richard Serra's "Sequence" is particularly striking in size, shape, and texture (waterproof steel). Raised in San Francisco, as a teenager, Serra worked in steel mills in the East Bay. I stepped around and through "Sequence" as though I were traversing a canyon. Serra has said, "I found very important the idea of the body passing through space, and the body's movement not being predicated totally on image or sight or optical awareness, but on physical awareness in relation to space, place, time, movement."

The sheer vastness of the two torqued ellipses connected by an S-shape is awesome. I learned that Serra and a German steel fabrication plant have collaborated for nearly twenty years to develop both the machinery and manufacturing areas that are capable of creating such large-scale complex forms. "Sequence" was the first artwork to be set in SF MOMA's new building; then exterior walls were erected around it.

"Sequence" (2006), by Richard Serra. Floor 1, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Sequence" (2006), by Richard Serra. Floor 1, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Sequence" (2006), by Richard Serra. Floor 1, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Sequence" (2006), by Richard Serra. Floor 1, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

My immediate impression of Ellsworth Kelly's "Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" was to wonder whether he'd been inspired by scrap quilts. The title card explains that, when he found a bunch of colorful gummed paper squares, he turned them into a series of gridded collages by randomly selecting the colors. One of them became the basis for the oil painting below. According to the museum's description, chance techniques kept Kelly "from following any conscious or subconscious guidelines for balance in these compositions. The unexpected color juxtapositions break down any clear distinction between figure and ground, a disruption that Kelly found fruitful and would soon make a central concern of his work." His intention was for viewers not to analyze or interpret his work but to experience its structure, color, and surrounding space instinctively, physically.

"Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" (1951-1953), by Ellsworth Kelly. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" (1951-1953), by Ellsworth Kelly. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" (1951-1953), by Ellsworth Kelly, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance" (1951-1953), by Ellsworth Kelly,
Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Accustomed to Kelly's rectangular or square colorful paintings, I wasn't aware that he was one of the first artists to create irregularly shaped canvases, some of which I saw at SF MOMA.

Ellsworth Kelly Gallery, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Ellsworth Kelly Gallery, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Quite a few of Gerhard Richter's paintings remind me of lovely fiber art that has been dyed, painted, and otherwise manipulated in interesting ways. When I came upon "Geäst" (Branches), I overheard two women on a bench discussing what they imagined could be reflections in a forest stream or pond.

"Geäst" (Branches), by Gerhard Richter, 1988. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Geäst" (Branches), by Gerhard Richter, 1988. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Geäst" (Branches), by Gerhard Richter, 1988. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Geäst" (Branches), by Gerhard Richter, 1988. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Although I'm not much inclined toward figurative art, "Walking Man #2" by Nathan Oliveira made me pause because of its intense texturing and mood. Questions arose in my mind about what's possibly going on with this man: Where was he walking? What was he feeling? The landscape seems so stark, the emotions dark. Along with Richard Diebenkorn and others, Oliveira was part of the development of the Bay Area Figurative style.

"Walking Man #2" (1959), by Nathan Oliveira. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Walking Man #2" (1959), by Nathan Oliveira. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Walking Man #2" (1959), by Nathan Oliveira. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Walking Man #2" (1959), by Nathan Oliveira. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

One of the things that amazes me about abstract art is how much non-literal work can convey something we know and feel in our environment. To create the rhythm and surf-like pattern of "Three Pointed Waterfall," Pat Steir smeared and hurled white paint onto a black-washed canvas. Because I wasn't familiar with her work, I did a bit of reasearch and learned that John Cage and Agnes Martin were long-time mentors in her ongoing search for the essence of painting. Cage taught her the importance of egoless “non-doing” and the role of chance. Martin conveyed how an artist invests his/her spirit into a work. So Steir poured the paint, let it flow downward along its own unpredictable path, keeping herself out of it by allowing gravity, time, and the environment to decide the result. A blending of Buddhism and Taoism?

"Three Pointed Waterfall" (1990), by Pat Steir. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Three Pointed Waterfall" (1990), by Pat Steir. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Three Pointed Waterfall" (1990), by Pat Steir. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Three Pointed Waterfall" (1990), by Pat Steir. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

I remember an exhibit of Ruth Asawa's work at SF MOMA years ago. of which I have the catalogue. I was glad to see some of her delicate yet strong fiber art is still there.The shadows they cast are like a secondary intangible work.

"Untitled" (S.114, ca. 1958), by Ruth Asawa. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Untitled" (S.114, ca. 1958), by Ruth Asawa. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Untitled" (S.114, ca. 1958), by Ruth Asawa. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Untitled" (S.114, ca. 1958), by Ruth Asawa. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

I enjoyed coming across more fiber art after a sea of paintings, drawings, and metal or wood sculptures. The textile collage below, with brass, thread, and wood, is by Romanian artist Greta Bræsecu. On the title card, I read that it is "the capstone" to a series of abstract compositions which she produced over a period of six years, in which the Greek myth of priestess-sorceress Medea "becomes a metaphor of creation through defiance and subversive transformation." An fascinating point about Bræsecu's life is that she did not leave communist Romania while other intellectuals were fleeing. She managed to express radical ideas by using handcraft-like techniques and simple gestures that avoided scrutiny for ideological content. Who knows, maybe the apparatchiks figured that a woman working with cloth was more domestic than political!

"Metabola" (1981), by Greta Bræsecu. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Metabola" (1981), by Greta Bræsecu. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Metabola" (1981), by Greta Bræsecu. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Metabola" (1981), by Greta Bræsecu. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Because male artists and white artists still predominate, I noted when a work belonged to a woman or a person of color. Sadly, I didn't find equality, though Diane Arbus has a room devoted to her photography and Agnes Martin has a small alcove of paintings. There are large canvases by Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner and a self-portrait of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera by Kahlo. Perhaps the floors I've not yet visited will reveal more art by Asian, Hispanic, African, and African-American artists.

Detail of "Harm's Way" (1987) by Joan Mitchell. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Detail of "Harm's Way" (1987) by Joan Mitchell. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Harm's Way" (1987), by Joan Mitchell. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

"Harm's Way" (1987), by Joan Mitchell. Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

On the other hand, I was glad to notice that at SF MOMA fiber art is integrated into various areas according to artistic movements or periods rather than segregated from the so-called fine arts. This makes me hopeful for textile art in general, especially because the fifth floor, which I didn't reach, has a major fiber piece. Claudy Jongstra of the Netherlands was commissioned to create a site-specific mural installation in a transitional space between the white-walled galleries and the outdoor rooftop garden. On a lower floor, I watched a video interview with her about the entire process involved--from tending a flock of Europe's oldest breed of sheep (Drenthe Heath) for their high-quality wool through natural plant dyeing and felting. I look forward to seeing the finished product on my next visit.

SF MOMA's holdings are greater than 33,000 works of art and design. All I could and wanted to do was focus on a few galleries on a few floors. Although I have lots more photos to share, I'll end here with arguably the most unexpected experience. Opening the door into the Ladies' Room reminded me of stepping into a color-filled James Turrell elevator at another museum. Every inch of SF MOMA is dedicated to art in one way or another!

Ladies' Room at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Ladies' Room at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco.

Questions & Comments:
Even if you're not a fan of modern art, what can you cite as interesting, intriguing, or challenging about it?
If you are a lover of modern art, what about it floats your boat?

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