Also at SFMOMA

Having visited Pier 24 that morning and having viewed the Mike Mandel show first, I did a quickish walk through of the rest of SFMOMA. There wasn’t any other big exhibition which I had on my must-see list and, after having done a comprehensive walkthrough the previous year I was able to quickly visit my favorite rooms and wander through the other special exhibitions.

So I stuck my head into the always-excellent Agnes Martin room and made my way through the vestigial old galleries on the second floor to remind myself of the SFMOMA I used to know and love. It’s still there as a shell of its former self. I’m glad that more and more of it is being integrated into the new building even while it seems like the focus is increasingly on “the canon” of old white guys as opposed to the weird California stuff it used to be doing.

Yes, the Mandel show is both very weird and very Californian. But it’s not what the museum has been trumpeting. Instead all I see is press about Edvard Munch and Walker Evans and other shows which, while I agree with the artist’s importance, very much make me think that I’m no longer part of SFMOMA’s desired audience.

Edvard Munch

The Munch show is fine. Very FAMSF, but fine. The paintings are good to see. The brushwork is interesting and the color is fantastic. Just, I have no idea why it’s here. Part of me wants to be generous and suggest that this is intended to be a connection to Femme au chapeau and how a decade ago SFMOMA seemed to be setting that up to be their iconic painting.

The rest of me feels like that’s a total reach. This is art presented as something important because it’s by a famous artist. There’s even a line to take photos of the painting which looks the most like The Scream. There’s actually very good wall text about how he worked with models and had to deal with severe childhood trauma* but even with that the show feels like something which is geared toward moving merchandise in the gift shop.

*He’s an asshole but for sympathetic reasons. 

And I’m not inherently against that goal. It is, after all, something that helps museums stay in business. Just, in this case, it feels like a cynical cash grab.


Thankfully not all the shows are like the Munch one. Soundtracks is great and confirms that the top floor is likely to be the first place I head after I hit the photography wing. Besides being the floor of contemporary art where SFMOMA attempts to balance out the demographics on display in the rest of the museum, in this case that the exhibition is about sound was a welcome change of pace from the visual nature of the rest of the museum.

It was fun to revisit Ragnar Kjartansson. It’s always a good sign when I’m going to enough museums that I’ll catch a contemporary piece in multiple locations. I first saw The Visitors in DC, it’s interesting to see it in a smaller room with a different layout of screens. I preferred the more spread-out DC installation but SFMOMA’s framing of this as less about the performance-art nature of the piece and more about the music in it meant I got to try a different perspective and isolate each instrument in the score with the musician.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s large pool of floating bowls is also great. It’s an obvious showstopper just based on the visuals—despite the request for people to not take photos everyone was taking photos—but more importantly, the bowls sounded wonderful. The different combinations of sizes produced a handful of clear, pure tones which sounded like bells. I can see wanting to sit by myself just watching and listening to this for a long time.

Other fun highlights included: Rafael Lozano Hemmer’s pieces—especially Sphere Packing and the way it works as a history of music, visually compares different composers’ outputs, and totally messes with our expectations for how music is supposed to be consumed. And Amalia Pica’s Switchboard which takes a childhood game and turns it into something which encourages interacting with other museum goers.

Noguchi’s Playscapes

The design gallery this time had an exhibition of Noguchi’s unrealized playground designs. It’s always great to see design in a museum where the “how will this be used” question is clearly at the forefront of the process. These are all design and architecture for human use and health and it’s a shame that only a couple of them were ever built.

Looking at them today I couldn’t help but envision them as being clad in the now-typical rubber safety padding that would allow them to be built without the safety concerns which seemed to sideline so many of these in their day.* Heck, a lot of the standalone structures such as the cylindrical stairs/slide combination look like things that could work today as smaller plastic playspaces for little kids.

*Though having played on enough cast-concrete playgrounds as a kid these don’t look any less safe than what passed as water-play structures in the 70s and 80s.

The best of the rest

The Nam June Paik show is fun. I most-enjoy the sketches which play with language and character forms. There’s a sense of spontaneity and play in pushing what the symbols mean, or could mean, which just makes me smile. His more TV-centered work doesn’t grab me as much.

It’s also always neat to see the SECA Art Award winners. I only ever expect to really like one of the artists on display—the newer the art the more likely we are to run into Sturgeon’s Law issues—and this time was no different. In this case I really liked Sean McFarland’s work. McFarland works in photography poking at the grey area between truth and representation that most photographers tend to ignore. So he takes photographs and provokes them in the printing to show how they’re artificial. Or he finds simple objects like broken glass and photographs them so that our brains fill in the details and think they’re a mountain landscape.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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