SFMOMA’s reopening: a ‘game-changer for San Francisco’ and contemporary art

With its newly acquired collection of Richters and Warhols and a multi-million dollar renovation, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is aiming to join the top rank of galleries. Ahead of its reopening, Paul Laity takes a tour

For years, workers at the San Francisco HQ of the clothing chain Gap walked past an enormous piece of fruit. At the entrance to the company cafeteria sat the 8ft-high Geometric Apple Core by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen the Gapple, a classic of contemporary art. Though held in great affection, however, the sculpture was, in those offices, rather commonplace. Art was everywhere, including a 1963 silver Triple Elvis by Andy Warhol, a roomful of monumental Chuck Close portraits and an array of dazzling Ellsworth Kelly abstracts.

Gaps founders, Donald and Doris Fisher, used their millions from the 1970s onwards to amass 1,100 works of prestigious mid and late 20th-century art including 21 Warhols, 23 works by Gerhard Richter and 45 Alexander Calder mobiles. It was recognised in art circles as a hugely significant collection, but, outside their firm, was kept largely under wraps.

All that changed in 2009 when, just two days before Don died, a longstanding agreement (unusual in the art world) was reached to show the collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for at least 100 years. It was a momentous occasion for SFMOMA, which began to plan a major expansion to accommodate the new treasures. Having been closed for nearly three years for the redevelopment, the museum now doubled in size, with three times the gallery space reopens on 14 May.

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An external view of Snhettas expansion. Photograph: Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

Alongside 260 pieces from the Fishers the first trawl will be not only the old permanent collection but hundreds of new works donated by the regions art collectors, as part of a special campaign led by the museums director, Neal Benezra. The new SFMOMA is about to join the very highest rank of galleries of contemporary art in the world.

The museum, which opened in 1935, got its own building 60 years later the postmodern structure by Mario Botta, recognisable by its stacked boxes of red brick and central cylinder wrapped in zebra stripes of black and white stone. This exterior has been left alone, but wedged around it is a distinctive new building on seven floors, created by Norwegian architects Snhetta: its white rippled facade, were told, evokes the waters of the bay surrounding San Francisco and the rolling in of the citys famous fog.

The interior has been designed to merge the two buildings seamlessly. Benezra and I walked around as the installation of the art was in its final stages, and only a few pieces were left in crates or cellophane. Much of the ground floor is near-complete: a huge Richard Serra sculpture, Sequence two spirals of weathered steel transported to the museum on 11 flat-bed trucks has long been in place at one glass-walled gallery entrance; a dozen people had just lifted a 26ft-wide Calder mobile to help in its suspension over the main atrium.

The director talks of the reopening being a game changer for San Francisco, but is careful to emphasise that the museum is now world-class in contemporary art work, that is, from the last four decades of the 20th century and since rather than modern. I define modern art as going up through abstract expressionism, he explains, then with Warhol and Lichtenstein and the pop artists, Johns and Rauschenberg, there is a return to the visible world in one way or another. And to me thats contemporary art.

When the Botta building opened in 1995, reviews noted how spotty or skimpy the museums permanent collection was: its highlights include Matisses Femme au Chapeau and works by Paul Klee and the Mexican masters, but it has no examples of futurism or Russian constructivism and no significant Picasso. There are plenty of firstrate pieces to fill the galleries now, but SFMOMA still has a different, less historical, story to tell than its New York equivalent, the core collection of which comes from the early 20th century.

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Gerhard Richters Geast (Branches) (1988). Photograph: Gerhard Richter

So there is not much in the way of cubism, but plenty of pop art and minimalism as well as postwar German masters (Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys) and the works of such California painters as Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud and Joan Brown. There is a whole room of Calders, a sun-filled gallery devoted to modern British sculpture (by Anthony Caro, Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley, Richard Long and many more), and a new centre that, Benezra hazards, might just make SFMOMA the most prominent photography museum in the US.

Benezra offers no apology for where SFMOMAs strength lies, and as we tour the galleries his excitement at the remarkable bounty of the new museum is obvious. Youll be hard pressed to see a better room of Warhols, he says, pointing out celebrated new acquisitions including Silver Marlon, with Brando on his Triumph motorbike from The Wild One, and the Triple Elvis, as well as the museums own famous study of Elizabeth Taylor on horseback, National Velvet. There is also a museum within a museum of 26 works by Kelly, who became a good friend of Doris Fisher. These include the jazzy arrangement of rectangles Cit from 1951, and the vivid stripes of Spectrum I, as well as the sliced shapes of Red Curves (1996) and Blue Panel (1985). The Kelly rooms, Benezra says, are strikingly beautiful: We expect our colleagues in other museums to be green with envy. Geometric Apple Core proudly sits on the fifth floor (after a special party was held at Gap HQ to say farewell).

The Fishers collected certain artists, among them Kelly and Calder, in great depth. Partly in consequence, according to Benezra, the new SFMOMA runs counter to normal museum practice these days. Most museums the Tate is a pretty good example of this are working more thematically. Youll go to a gallery and the curator has authored an idea and the pictures illustrate that idea. Weve done something just the opposite, and terribly old-fashioned were refocusing on the artists and letting each one speak. The curators are not imposing their will on the paintings at all You work with what you have, and with artists in such depth, why would we do anything else?

Benezra talks of how big public art galleries have changed their role, from being good stewards of the works of art in their custody to more popular and fully public institutions, places where people come to meet and spend time. To reflect this, the new museum has more free-access space: the architects have knocked out the forbidding stairwell that dominated the old atrium to create a brighter entrance where two enormous Julie Mehretu murals will eventually adorn the walls and built a new wood, cantilevered grand stair that leads to an admission-free art court. The architects buzzwords include reaching out so that the museum becomes more extroverted.

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Andy Warhols Triple Elvis (1963). Photograph: The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Allied to this now obligatory inclusiveness is Benezras desire to explode the cliche that contemporary art is difficult. For me, he says, if you want something really hard to understand, youll stand in front of a multipanel Renaissance altarpiece you have to know who all the saints are, and why theyre there. Contemporary art such as minimalism is, in contrast, much more accessible, and people shouldnt think it esoteric because of its simplicity gallery goers should feel very confident about what they bring to the work.

There are several new welcoming features at the museum. One is the vivid green living wall that lines a courtyard on the eastern side and comprises nearly 20,000 plants, all California native species. This triumph of vertical gardening involved planting in huge sheets of porous felt. Another is the expanded restaurant, called In Situ, run by chef Corey Lee, who Benezra calls, with a straight face, our curator of food the idea being that, as well as serving up his own dishes, Lee will borrow recipes from chefs around the world much as a curator putting on a Picasso exhibition would identify and borrow the best pictures.

To help with the design of the galleries, an astonishing, tiny replica of SFMOMA has been constructed: over the past four years, a model-maker has made maquettes detailed, accurate and some as small as half an inch long of at least 2,000 artworks, which have been moved around by the curators to see how effective different hangings are, and what connections between pieces are suggested from different viewpoints.

Benezra calls the gifts recently acquired in the campaign for art an outpouring: news of the museums expansion enabled us to tap more fully into the energy all around us, in a region known for its special creativity and philanthropy. Much of this campaign involved approaching known collectors: We tried to be as specific as possible with our requests, asking for work by a particular artist or from a critical period in an artists career. We know who owns what. Before recent efforts, for example, SFMOMA had almost no works by Beuys: now there are drawings, a vitrine, a blackboard. Other donations include major works by Rauschenberg, Philip Guston, Lee Krasner, Pollock, Cy Twombly and Brice Marden.

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A sculpture by Alexander Calder beside a living wall on the Pat and Bill Wilson Sculpture Terrace. Photograph: Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA

The campaign shines a fascinating light on how a major American art gallery such as SFMOMA operates; it is also the latest chapter in the story of how the museum has been transformed by the tech-led boom in the Bay Area. One aspect of this is the neighbourhood, SoMa, in which the museum stands: as recently as the early 90s it was, Benezra points out, not a place where polite company would go looking for culture. Today it is one of the centres of the tech industry, dynamic and lively. Another aspect is the availability of great wealth. Entrepreneurship is a big thing in San Francisco, and the visual arts are particularly amenable to it, investment mogul and chair of the SFMOMA board Charles Schwab said in 2000. The art world moves quickly It reflects our changing society. According to Benezra, the city has, outside of New York, the greatest body of private collectors of contemporary art in the US.

On SFMOMAs board are real estate magnates, venture capitalists and the CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer. The museums trustees have dug deep into their pockets and it has benefactors that represent really big money the families behind the Hyatt hotel empire, for instance, and Levi Strauss retail. And when the museum held a party to celebrate its 75th birthday, Mark Zuckerberg came along.

The Fishers are, of course, the most obvious embodiment of immense wealth combined with a loyalty to San Francisco and an intense desire to collect art. The LA Times has described their collection as very 1980s big, brash, expensive, even vaguely avaricious in tone. Call it Dynasty-style acquisition focused on big-ticket artists born of the American art worlds first, big, market-driven era.

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Dan Flavins untitled (to Barnett Newman) two (1971). Photograph: Don Ross/Katherine Du Tiel

Yet the quality and range of Fisher pieces on show at SFMOMA, from David Hockney to a Louise Bourgeois black spider, speaks for itself. At one end of the fourth floor is a hexagonal Rothko-type chapel of superb near-monochrome minimalist works by Agnes Martin. When I ask associate curator Sarah Roberts to choose a few favourites, she mentions untitled (to Barnett Newman) two by Dan Flavin, a rectangle of red, yellow and blue fluorescent tubes; the coils and drips of Note 1 by Twombly; and Bracket by Joan Mitchell, a 15ft-wide late-career work.

Perhaps the best instance of an artist the Fishers collected in depth is Richter, the worlds most revered (and expensive) living painter. He is also the practitioner of contemporary art par excellence thanks to the famed plurality of his output. The whole set of assumptions about modern art was that it was incumbent on an artist to define for him or herself a particular signature style, something that was indisputably their own, Benezra explains. So Jackson Pollock poured and dripped paint, and so on. But with contemporary art you dont allow yourself to be boxed in.

On the sixth floor of the new museum its possible to see Richter in all his conceptual glory. The variety of his work is immediately evident in one room, which juxtaposes the conventional-seeming grey-blue Seascape with the near-abstract aerial view of a city titled Townscape Madrid and 256 Colours, one of his canvases based on paintshop colour charts.

Nearby is the well-known, Vermeer-influenced study of Richters wife, Sabine, The Reader, and yet another contrast of style examples of his big abstractions made using a squeegee. Propped against a wall, waiting for hanging, is the Richter work Benezra describes as perhaps the most important for the Fishers in their entire collection: the delicately blurred Two Candles, which the family took off the wall and slipped into the back of their car twice a year, as they moved back and forth between their house in San Francisco and their place just south of the city, on the Peninsula.

The top floor of the museum leaves the Fisher collection behind and brings the museums holdings up to date, by showing media arts and works made since 1980. We wanted it to be the most contemporary space, Benezra says: instead of a ceiling, the ductwork has been left exposed for a rather predictable touch of industrial chic. We walk past a Jeff Wall light box not yet switched on, and pieces by Ai Weiwei, Matthew Barney and Richard Prince.

Perhaps the most noteworthy piece for the reopening, however, is Sleeping Woman, a solid stainless steel sculpture by Charles Ray of a clothed black woman, clearly homeless, asleep on a bench. With the influx of tech money, the homeless situation in some neighbourhoods of the city has become acute: its a powerful piece for San Francisco, Benezra comments.

Strenuous efforts are being made in the marketing of the new museum to link it to all parts of the local community. (One initiative is free admission for under-18s). Benezra expresses the hope that San Francisco remains not just a great consumer of culture but also a producer of culture. Thats a big challenge because its increasingly hard for people of ordinary means to live in the city, and those who produce culture the up-and-coming artists themselves are often-times doing so on a shoestring.

With its Calders, Warhols, Richters and Kellys, SFMOMA is about to rise high up the table of art museums and become an unmissable attraction on the west coast. Without doubt this achievement is in part a product of the money-fuelled transformation of the Bay Area and the gallerys expansion is unlikely to silence the increasingly loud talk of how the tech industry has stripped San Francisco of its culture and its soul. Yet both the Snhetta building and the augmented collection will surely continue to please and impress after any number of Silicon Valley bubbles have burst. And as its director reflects: the new museum represents something that simply would not have been possible in another place at another time.

SFMOMA reopens on 14 May at 151 3rd Street, San Francisco. sfmoma.org.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/apr/22/sfmoma-san-francisco-museum-of-modern-art-reopening-warhol-richter-gap-fisher