I’m a big fan of modern art. I like the way it permits an artist to break the rules to achieve his objectives. Its inherent quirkiness makes it more dear to my heart than anything created before 1880 (personal opinion here, I realize).
I was excited to check out the newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to see what they were able to bring out of the coffers after it reopened this May.
During the remodeling stage, the museum boasted that they are now erecting the largest modern and contemporary art museum in the world. Unfortunately, most visitors won’t get the impression that San Francisco has finally arrived on the world art scene. The museum either doesn’t have much of anything in storage or prefers to hoard it. This is what the museum looks like today:
MOMA’s permanent collection, which I like very much, hardly expanded. They are still featuring the same artwork by Matisse, Magritte and Kahlo that visitors have admired for decades. (As much as I want to hate Frida Kahlo for her politics and her all-around annoying persona, Me And Diego, her self-portrait with her equally annoying husband, is so very tender that I can’t. I do think she’s overrated, though.) That’s nice, I suppose.
Unfortunately, for the most part SF MOMA is not so much a museum of modern art, as it is a museum of contemporary art. Second floor aside, all exhibits were produced after 1950, and most of them are nearly impossible to like.
I can’t deny appreciating some of the contemporary art exhibits. For instance, Andy Warhol, whose work is scattered throughout the museum space, is among my favorites. Considering how Andy is the man of the current four 15-minute intervals, MOMA should probably give his prints more prominent placement.
I like Wayne Thiebault’s landscapes and my kids like his deserts. Having been both a student and a teacher, I found his painting of a student at her desk evocative. I feel both that I’ve seen this girl many times and that I once was her. That Thiebault is a local artist makes it all the more exiting to see his work.
I’m impartial to Richter’s eerie, blurred photorealism. Richter is from West Germany, but his black and white image a sprawling, unimpressive midcetury administrative building looks familiar to those who, like me, grew up with east block bureaucracy.
Richter, Warhol and Thiebault are exceptions in the sea of MOMA’s contemporary offerings that are, as a rule, neither evocative nor thought-provoking. I walked through gallery after gallery of abstract expressionism. I can squint and note that there is a certain “rhythm” to the way the paint is splashed on the canvas… and I don’t care. That said, giant abstract expressionist canvases fill the galleries rather nicely.
Likewise, Alexander Calder’s mobiles are likewise helpful in taking up exhibition space. Several galleries were devoted to the sculpture subgenre known as an installation. The common denominator in the exhibit appears to be the place of origin of the installation, Great Britain.
“What is it, mommy?” Asked my son about a two-feet high heap of red sand quartered by two perpendicular glass walls in the middle of one gallery.
Check out this fine contemporary art specimen:
Having recently painted my house, I think I know what the iconoclast creator was trying to do here. The museum generously mixed some wall paint meant to resemble Benjamin Moor’s 50% Gray Owl, the hue touted to be the new Navaho White. The white oak floor is tres chic these days and every self-respecting cafe uses black chalk boards to advertise its menu. So the piece above, with its erased blackboard must be evocative of an empty trendy eatery, something akin to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Or else it’s an exercise in empty self-congratulatory hipsterism.
In his very excellent 1975 essay The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe recalled that the arty New York socialites turned up at the opening of an Op Art exhibit wearing dresses cut out of fabric printed with the very paintings on display. Wolfe commented that back in the 60’s it was possible, by looking at the brochures of the forthcoming exhibit, to have the Op Art fabric printed and the dresses manufactured just in time for the opening. In 2016, however, minimalist grays were in fashion for nearly a decade before the leading museum of contemporary art put the blackboard against the grey wall. It’s no longer the case of art leading design but of mass culture leading art.
The Brit show is on rotation, visiting the leading exhibition spaces around the world, but I recall seeing some of the other MOMA installations years ago. The one bellow, for instance.
Oversize objects displayed were by no means limited to installations. Observe the masterpiece below:
This configuration of pipes and sheet metal shook when touched, and, as curators put no rope around it, it was touched often. When that happened, a soft-spoken Muslim lady with a museum badge invariably approached the meddling visitor and asked him to “please stop”. Is she part of the exhibit too? Is she there to challenge our ideas about what a bouncer should be?
Then there is the case of the sculpture garden wall covered in a variety of ivies. It’s pleasant, and I have nothing against gardening. I can see how the project can strike all the right notes on the grant application: the artist wants to explore the use of natural materials while “pushing the boundaries of art” to heighten our awareness of the climate change. Except that “climate change” is ubiquitous, gardening is a millennia-old activity and no, he’s not creating any conceptual breakthroughs. One hundred years ago Marcel Duchamp already pushed “the boundaries” as far as they go. What artistic establishment does today is dutifully policing the boundaries, making sure that, God forbid, they don’t slip back to where they belong – to making something meaningful.
Tom Wolfe’s brilliant insight was that most of contemporary art amounts to an illustration of lofty art theory, and that the art theory comes first. The artists and the critic insist that they want to get beyond narrative, but, in effect, they do just the opposite, artists would be nowhere had critics not developed a thesis that they later paint. In reward critics write books about them.
The 1970’s were the apogee of obscure academic theory, resulting in equally obscure art trends like abstract expressionism. That’s because if the viewer didn’t understand those trends or jargon-laden theories, it was because he was stupid, and, incidentally, because he was stupid, he also didn’t understand Marxism. Today, as the long march through the institutions achieved its ends, every artist wants to be “relevant”. He takes his dictate directly from the politicians and the bureaucrats, hence the incorporation of environmentalism and the language of “natural elements” like sand, rocks and plants into their projects.
Some MOMA artists paint words literally. I apparently glossed over the one canvas that had the words YOU ARE ALL FOOLS drafted on it. My husband was less fortunate. “How true,” he commented. “If one is not somehow making a living off this kind of ‘art’, but allows himself to be suckered into even entertaining the idea of admiring it, he is a fool.”
Several visitors to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this week were fooled into thinking a pair of glasses set on the floor by a 17-year-old prankster was a postmodern masterpiece.
“Upon first arrival we were quite impressed with the artwork and paintings presented in the huge facility,” TJ Khayatan toldBuzzFeed. “However, some of the ‘art’ wasn’t very surprising to some of us.”
“We stumbled upon a stuffed animal on a gray blanket and questioned if this was really impressive to some of the nearby people.”
To test out the theory that people will stare at, and try and artistically interpret, anything if it’s in a gallery setting, Khayatan set a pair of glasses down and walked away.
Soon, people began to surround them, maintaining a safe distance from the ‘artwork’ and several of them taking pictures.
I like to think they imagined the floored glasses to represent the dumbing down of culture, or perhaps the viewing of life through a lens, possibly with a nice, lower-case title like ‘myopia‘ or ‘real eyes (real lies)‘.
SF MOMA charges a $25 admission fee.
One of the better works displayed in the pop art section of SF MOMA is the ceramic self-portrait by Robert Arneson titled California Artist. The sculptor made it as a response to a New York critic in whose opinion Arneson represented “impoverished sensibility of the provincial cultural life of California”. Arneson sculpted a smirking hippy perched on a podium adorned with marijuana leaves and squirrels grazing on acorns, a stereotype of a California artist.
It didn’t take the establishment long to figure out that Arneson is actually one of them and to properly enshrine him at the MOMA. And yet his story makes me wonder how many artists who live and work here in Northern California today are disregarded of utterly despised by the taste-makers for their provincial sensibilities. Meantime we fill gargantuan museum spaces with sand.