Category Archives: review

Universe of Maps

After spending time at the Cantor Center, I wandered over to Green Library to check out the Universe of Maps exhibition. The Rumsey Map Center is a wonderful resource and I’ve long enjoyed exploring davidrumsey.com. Being able to see highlights from the collection in person was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

The exhibition is really a greatest-hits kind of show. No overarching theme, just case after case of cool shit. So I’ll just go down my notes and write about what jumped out at me.

Coloney & Fairchild's Patent Ribbon Maps ... Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters. Coloney, Fairchild & Co. St. Louis: 1866

Coloney & Fairchild’s Patent Ribbon Maps … Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters. Coloney, Fairchild & Co. St. Louis: 1866

The Colony & Fairchild ribbon map of the Mississippi is impressive as both a map and an artifact. It’s an eleven-foot-long tape measure of a map which seems utterly unusable since you have to unspool it completely in order to see the headwaters. At the same time it’s a wonderful way of looking at the river and perfectly demonstrates how it functions foremost as a transportation route. What’s most important on this map is what you encounter as you go up or downstream as towns and tributaries function the way you’d expect train stations to show up on a modern transport map.

The process of straightening out the river—but not too much—is one which I’d love to learn more about too. They very clearly had to get the river to fit in a straight line but there’s still a lot of meander detail visible. I don’t know the river well enough to gauge whether or not it’s done well but I love how this map keeps a sense of riverness in the abstraction.

The Road from London to Aberistwith, in Britannia, Volume the First. Or an Illustration of the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales. John Ogilby. London: 1675

The Road from London to Aberistwith, in Britannia, Volume the First. Or an Illustration of the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales. John Ogilby. London: 1675

Similarly, the London to Aberistwith wayfinding map interested me because it’s another map built around a specific use case. As with the Mississippi map, this one is very clearly a navigational map which takes a traveler from one point to another.

These kind of maps are also interesting because while the intent of these kinds of maps is to help inexperienced travelers, they also end up describing the journey and the territory covered. Where my kids like to trace on their maps the exact route of their journey, this would be like giving them a straight-line map showing them only what they encountered.

Photo-auto maps–Albany to New York. No. 745,744, 743, and 742, in Photo-Auto Maps. Photographs of Every Turn, Together with a Topographical Outline of Road Showing Railroad Crossings, Bridges, School Houses and All Landmarks with Accurate Distances Between. Gardner S. Chapin; Rand McNally and Company; Arthur H. Schumacher. Chicago: 1907

Photo-auto maps–Albany to New York. No. 745,744, 743, and 742, in Photo-Auto Maps. Photographs of Every Turn, Together with a Topographical Outline of Road Showing Railroad Crossings, Bridges, School Houses and All Landmarks with Accurate Distances Between. Gardner S. Chapin; Rand McNally and Company; Arthur H. Schumacher. Chicago: 1907

Seeing the Aberwistwith map paired with the Photo-auto “map” was fantastic. While I have a hard time calling this a “map” I also don’t know what else to call it. It very clearly serves the same navigational use-case as a map does. It’s probably even easier than a map for some people to use as it mimics the kind of verbal instructions that people create. When we tell people where to go we highlight waypoints and tell them what to look for. Yes, street names and cardinal directions are also helpful, but it’s really things like “second left after the gas station” which make directions useful.

This also reminded me of Google Streetview and GPS-based navigation. Very useful when you can’t get verbal directions from someone but also no sense of the overall journey. While I am grateful for step-by-step directions, I’m never satisfied unless I can also figure out how they fit in to the general area.

A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America, in An Historical Atlas; in a Series of Maps of the World as Known at Different Periods; Constructed upon an Uniform Scale, and Coloured According to the Political Changes of Each Period … Edward Quin. London: 1830

A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America, in An Historical Atlas; in a Series of Maps of the World as Known at Different Periods; Constructed upon an Uniform Scale, and Coloured According to the Political Changes of Each Period … Edward Quin. London: 1830

The historical atlas with fog-of-war to give a sense of what hasn’t been explored yet was very striking. I love the idea of “what we don’t know yet” being an integral part of the design. Instead of zooming out to reveal more of the world, it’s very obvious that there’s a lot of world out there which is unknown.

I also enjoyed how this depiction reminded me of the fog-of-war feature in Warcraft and Starcraft. As with the Street View navigation photos, it’s fun to see how old ideas have been rediscovered today.

Maine, in Atlas of the United States, Printed for the Use of the Blind. Samuel Gridley Howe; Samuel P. Ruggles. Boston: 1837

Maine, in Atlas of the United States, Printed for the Use of the Blind. Samuel Gridley Howe; Samuel P. Ruggles. Boston: 1837

I don’t have much to say about the atlas for blind except to note that I was impressed that it was raised relief text rather than Braille.* It’s also just a neat artifact to see since we rarely see things like this in any museum. Even in the design exhibitions at dedicated art museums I can’t think of any pieces of accessibility design.

*That this was published the same year that Braille was developed is a nice coincidence.

Underground, in Map of London's Underground Railways. Underground. A New Design for an Old Map. Henry Charles Beck; London Transport. London: 1933

Underground, in Map of London’s Underground Railways. Underground. A New Design for an Old Map. Henry Charles Beck; London Transport. London: 1933

It’s always lovely to see a classic in the flesh. The Beck map is one of those landmarks of design. I can’t imagine the world without it as we’ve absorbed its lessons so thoroughly that this is what all subway and transport maps have as their reference now.

As is often the case with landmarks of design, I was surprised by how small this was. I know I know, of course it’s small, it’s a subway map. But because of its prominence in the history of design, I had imagined it as something bigger.

Panorama of the Seat of War. Birds Eye View (from) Virginia (to) Florida. John Bachmann. New York: 1861

Panorama of the Seat of War. Birds Eye View (from) Virginia (to) Florida. John Bachmann. New York: 1861

What I like most about Bachmann’s Panorama of the East Coast of The Confederacy is that it’s a view looking West from the Atlantic ocean. In addition to not being a standard view, it also ends up being a specifically political view. Orienting the map this way makes it represent the point of view of the Union blockaders. It’s not just the seat of war it’s an “us versus them” view of that seat.

A Map and History of Peiping (Beijing). Frank Dorn. Tientsin-Peiping: 1936

A Map and History of Peiping (Beijing). Frank Dorn. Tientsin-Peiping: 1936

Frank Dorn pictorial history of Beijing was just a lot of fun. It’s a reminder of how maps aren’t just about super-accurate roads and locations, they’re also a way of depicting and remembering a place. When I was a kid, these kind of pictorial maps—typically a gimmick for local advertising—where what sucked me into being interested in maps in general. The Dorn map is a much older example which is about memory instead of advertising.

This map has also gotten me thinking about trying to draw my own pictorial maps of my youth. As I’ve come to be more of a tourist in my hometown, I’ve been finding myself filling in my childhood memories and connecting where everything used to be. I’d like to be able to share these with my kids rather than be one of those dads pointing out the window while driving past where something used to be decades ago.

Also at the Cantor

A few quick reactions to other things which I saw at the Cantor Center after I finished looking at The Art of Water.

Lewis Hine (and Jason Francisco)

Lewis Hine, Fall River, Massachusetts, June, 1916

Lewis Hine, Fall River, Massachusetts, June, 1916

Jason Francisco, Fall River, Massachusetts, March 2015

Jason Francisco, Fall River, Massachusetts, March 2015

There was a Lewis Hine show consisting of small prints of his child laborer photographs. It was nice and focused and played with the idea of childhood as depicted in the photographs. The kids are working, but unbowed still. So in addition to being a time capsule of a moment in American history, these photos also capture a fleeting moment in our development where we’re reminded of what childhood itself means. The catalog by Alexander Nemerov looks interesting to read too.

These photos were paired with modern photos by Jason Francisco which, while not exactly rephotographs, complement to sense of fleetingness in the Hine photographs in how we not only have child labor anymore, we don’t have any labor anymore. Francisco’s photos aren’t exactly my cup of tea (too much tilt-shift for my taste) but they work well enough when paired with Hine’s.

Art++

I really liked the Art++ experiment. As with the previous Rodin’s Hands exhibit, this exhibit brought iPads into the room and set them up with augmented reality so, when you point the camera at one of the articles on display, a whole bunch of digital overlays become available for you to explore. In addition to providing additional context, these overlays also explained how the artifacts have been constructed, retouched, reconstructed, etc.

I’m excited to see where they go next with this idea.

Blood in the Sugar Bowl

Henry Corbould. Fashionable Women Pouring Tea, c. 1805.

Henry Corbould. Fashionable Women Pouring Tea, c. 1805.

William Blake. A Negro hung alive by the Ribs to a Gallows, 1792.

William Blake. A Negro hung alive by the Ribs to a Gallows, 1792.

This was wonderful. But then I’m a sucker for when an exhibition brings a whole bunch of different media together and puts them in conversation in an unexpected way.

In this case, the objects were all about the theme of sugar and slavery. So we had portraits of plantation owners and prints from the plantation estates. Books about the atrocities committed on those plantations. Sugar bowls and decorative objects and how those were used culturally. And the wall text pulled no punches and got its politics absolutely correct.

The Basement

Lucy Lewis. Owl, 1966.

Lucy Lewis. Owl, 1966.

I’m kidding. While the Cantor Center is laid out by region and segregates Asian from Native American from African art from everything else, those are not relegated to the basement or any other remote corners of the museum. So it’s relatively straightforward to walk through these galleries just to see if they’re doing anything interesting—or anything that’ll piss me off.

The African galleries are still very much like how they were a couple years ago in focusing a lot on contemporary African art and treating it all from a post-colonial point of view. It’s a point of view which still works for me.

I was very pleased to find that the Native American rooms were also focusing on contemporary artists. In this case though the theme was contemporary artists working within native traditions.* Highlights include Kent Monkman, Calvin Hunt, and Art Thompson. I also particularly liked Lucy Lewis’s work. One of my pet peeves is recent art displayed in ancient rooms as ancient craft, so I took great joy in finding a room which highlights how these traditions are art which is still being practiced and taught today.

*This isn’t Cantor-related but this SFMOMA blogpost by Linda Yamane is worth looking into for more information on this kind of thing.

The Asian gallery meanwhile took a completely different approach by focusing on ceramics and grouping everything by technique. Thankfully they clearly labeled contemporary stuff as “artist, country, year” instead of forcing the  “country, dynasty/period (years)” label on everything.

 

California: The Art of Water

Albert Bierstadt. Lake Tahoe, Spear Fishing by Torchlight, c. 1875.

Albert Bierstadt. Lake Tahoe, Spear Fishing by Torchlight, c. 1875.

William Keith. Headwaters of the Merced, 1876.

William Keith. Headwaters of the Merced, 1876.

Carleton E. Watkins. Malakoff Diggins, North Bloomfield, Nevada County, Cal., ca. 1871.

Carleton E. Watkins. Malakoff Diggins, 1871.

Thomas Hill. Untitled (Irrigating Strawberry Fields), 1888.

Thomas Hill. Untitled (Irrigating Strawberry Fields), 1888.

Dorothea Lange. Field Worker Irrigating Alfalfa and Barley Fields, 1937.

Dorothea Lange. Field Worker Irrigating Alfalfa and Barley Fields, 1937.

Ansel Adams. Shasta Dam and Mount Shasta, 1961.

Ansel Adams. Shasta Dam and Mount Shasta, 1961.

Richard Misrach. Diving Board, Salton Sea, 1983.

Richard Misrach. Diving Board, Salton Sea, 1983.

Robert Dawson, Private Property, Lake Tahoe, California

Robert Dawson. Private Property, 1988.

Edward Burtynsky. Owens Lake #1California, USA, 2009.

Edward Burtynsky. Owens Lake #1. 2009.

David Maisel. The Lake Project 3, 2001.

David Maisel. The Lake Project 3, 2001.

The Stanford Museum’s Art of Water show is one of the most California exhibits I’ve ever seen. It’s very very interesting and very very good as it uses art’s depictions of water to tell California’s environmental history. Stanford’s press release is actually a great primer on what the exhibition is doing so I don’t need to rehash much of that part. But in short, while water access is one of, if not the, biggest issues in California, art has presented the opposite reality for much of California’s history.

Since artists are drawn to water as a subject, they gave impression that water is more prevalent than it really is. Combined with the way that early photography is often either “land which needs to be tamed,” or “land which has just been tamed” there’s a real sense of California as being the land of unlimited resources.

As someone who’s not normally interested in American landscape painting, I was very excited to look at the paintings with this context. It also forced me to think about the way my perspective is biased* in terms of the subjects I’m attracted to, the places trails take me to when I’m hiking, or the open space destinations I’ll drive to.

*As with war photography, it’s always worth remembering that perspective is a disease of the eye

This view continues well into the 20th century as photographs of water infrastructure tell a story of continued development. I was reminded of the Edison Archive and how the increased water infrastructure is intimately tied to the creation of suburbia and the white consumer class. There’s still a sense of water being infinite and something that we should completely harness to power homes and fuel agriculture.

It’s only later when the environmental movement kicks off that we start to get more critical views of water usage. While there’s not much “traditional” environmental photography showing unspoiled nature which is under threat,* instead we jump straight to ironic views which riff on the expectations and show how we’ve depleted what little resources we actually had.

*While not photographing California, Eliot Porter is the best example of this type of thing.

In these cases we see how fragile water—and access to it—is. Lakebeds are drying up. A single pipe snakes vulnerably through the mountains. There’s not enough water to go around and the resulting ecosystem is an alien landscape of salt deposits which looks nothing like the lush depictions we’ve become used to.

Robert Dawson’s work is particularly noteworthy here. He just photographs the quixotic nature of water infrastructure but it’s so effective because of how much we’ve internalized what rivers and lakes and waterways should look like.

What I enjoyed most about the photography portion of this show though is how it not only tells the history of California but it also neatly fits into the old topographics vs new topographics story of photography. This results in a much-more-focused and much-more-coherent version of SFMOMA’s California and the West exhibition. It’s missing the social aspect of things but with regard to landscape photography, it makes a lot more sense.

About Time

I really liked SFMOMA’s other photography show, About Time. Maybe a good pun is all I need. But the show was literally about time and how the essence of photography is in messing with that element. It works well as both a history of photography and as a nice slice into the permanent collection.

Eadweard Muybridge, Ascending an incline with a bucket of water in each hand, plate 81, from the series Animal Locomotion, 1887

Eadweard Muybridge, Ascending an incline with a bucket of water in each hand, plate 81, from the series Animal Locomotion, 1887

Hiroshi Sugimoto, U.A. Playhouse, Great Neck, New York, 1978

Hiroshi Sugimoto, U.A. Playhouse, Great Neck, New York, 1978

At its most-basic level, photography is about depicting a moment of time in the photographic image. Sometimes we’re conscious of the motion because a subject is blurred—as seen in old photos where motion blurs due to the technical limitations of the media or in newer ones which blur motion on purpose—or whatever you want to say is going on in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s movie theaters—in order to make an artistic point about time. Similarly, John Divola’s “As Far As I Could Get” series is explicitly about having time in the frame.

Other times the photograph is clearly about stopping motions which are too fast for our eyes to see. These photos often feel more like science experiments than art but for every Doc Edgerton there’s someone like Aaron Siskind. This section also includes works by Eadward Muybridge and Paul Graham which get at the way that photography both captures and replays motion for us.

As much as photography education still focuses on the “decisive moment” it’s important to see that a “moment” can be anywhere from the thousandths of a second to many hours. And that even after that, there might be nothing decisive and instead the combined moments tell the story.

Alfred Stieglitz, Old and New New York, 1910

Alfred Stieglitz, Old and New New York, 1910

Drex Brooks, Ghost Dance Site in the Badlands, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, from the series Sweet Medicine, 1989

Drex Brooks, Ghost Dance Site in the Badlands, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, from the series Sweet Medicine, 1989

We’re also very familiar with photography as evidence that something has happened. Rather than being about the moment of time in the frame, it’s about what happened before the photograph—or what’s going to happen afterward. These photographs rely on our understanding the image’s context. These are the photos which come closest to the ways that we all use photography every day.

Everyone uses photographs to mark the passage of time. Family albums, kids growing up, parents growing old, the photographs are waypoints which we’re all familiar with. Fittingly, this show dedicates an entire gallery to The Brown Sisters* since Nicholas Nixon’s project is one of the best examples of photographs telling a story about what happens over time.

*Though I found it interesting the latest print was missing.

Similarly, there are many photographs of cities which show their change over time. While SFMOMA had no series which covered a period of change, we saw photographs marking what’s about to be lost—e.g. Zoe Leonard’s storefronts or Janet Delaney’s South of Market—or, as with Eugene Atget’s photos of Paris or Alfred Stieglitz’s photos of New York, what’s being built.

Instead of gradual change, photographs also document what just happened. This show has photos by Rineke Djjkstra and Frank Gohlke which require us to know the story about what’s being depicted. This context isn’t optional. We need to know that the bullfighters have just come from the arena or that Mt. St. Helens just erupted to really understand what we’re seeing.

There are also some wonderful George N Barnard photos which show the impact that war has on the land. These photos of the Sherman campaign are both about evidence of what’s going on—both before and after the photo was taken—but also hint at larger-scale time issues in photography. Namely that you don’t have to photograph evidence of an event immediately after the event has occurred.

Photography is wonderful for revisiting a place where something happened a long time ago. We need the same context about what happened but we’re no longer looking at the evidence of that event. What’s of interest is what’s happened in the time since that event happened and what our understanding of that history brings to our understanding of the scene in the photography. In addition to Mark Ruwedel, I enjoyed being introduced to Drex Brooks’s photographs of locations from the Indian Wars.

Matthew Buckingham, Image of Absalon To Be Projected Until It Vanishes, 2001

Matthew Buckingham, Image of Absalon To Be Projected Until It Vanishes, 2001

Jason Lazarus, Recordings #3 (At sea), 2014–2016

Jason Lazarus, Recordings #3 (At sea), 2014–2016

What I loved most about this show though is that it dealt with photographs as objects in and of themselves. It’s not just that photographs capture time in the image, they also exist as physical things which are subject to the forces of time.

Phil Chang’s unfixed photographs reminded me of Rauschenberg’s white paintings in how they’re about the concept of repeated aging despite being essentially blank. They critique how art, especially photography, is conceived of as being something which doesn’t change once it’s been hung on the wall.

Matthew Buckingham’s work takes this a step further in that it also involves how technology will age. His work isn’t just about the slide projector destroying the image which it is projecting, it’s also a race between the projector and the slide as to which will vanish first. Photography, by being so interwoven with technology, is also subject to the way technology changes over time—whether it’s the technology of the image making or the technology of the image display.

Jason Lazarus’s work is worth special comment here because of how it’s about both how we try to attach extra context to the photographs and how that content is often hidden and forgotten. Rather than focusing on the photographic image, Lazarus shows us the backs of the photos where people have written notes about who’s in the photo, when or where it was taken, notes to the intended recipient, etc. None of these things is typically art but they’re all part of the medium and how we relate to it.

For a relatively new medium to already be wrestling with issues of preservation and aging and the way that the art is a physical object beyond what it depicts is a lot of fun to see. I don’t see these discussions in most museums. Preservation is performed on an artifact, but the art itself doesn’t usually concern itself with how it wants to be preserved. I’m looking forward to further explorations along this line in future shows.

California and the West

 Timothy H. O'Sullivan, Cañon de Chelle, from Photographs Showing Landscapes, Geological and Other Features of Portions of the Western Territory of the United States, Obtained in Connection with Geographical and Geological Explorations and Surveys, 1871-1873

Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Cañon de Chelle, 1871-1873

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite, 2004

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite, 2004

The main photography show at the new SFMOMA is on California and the West and how they have had an integral role in the development of the art form. It’s good but is more of a primer, introducing the different photographic “schools” that have developed here. In other words, it’s a bit thin and I wish it had gone deeper.

The main issue is that it sort of waffles between being organized thematically versus being ordered chronologically. The wall text suggests that things are chronological but the actual photos for a supposed time period end up covering over a century. This is most obvious in the Early Landscapes room. It feels like it’s about the 19th century Watkins, Russell, Muybridge, and O’Sullivan school of mammoth plates, albumen prints, pristine spectacular western landscapes, and our early attempts at taming them. But it goes into Ansel Adams work from ~50 years later and even includes a Friedlander photo from 2004.

In many ways the exhibition would’ve been better off just making the rooms purely thematic—similar to Oakland’s Inspiration Points show a couple years ago. This is pretty much how I chose to approach the show after the first couple of rooms. By focusing on the themes and ignoring the chronology cues, I found myself thinking about how each theme could cover ~150 years of photography in the West.

Robert Adams, Arvada, Colorado, from the series Gone? Colorado in the 1980s, 1984-1987

Robert Adams, Arvada, Colorado, 1984-1987

Stephen Shore, Fifth Street and Broadway, Eureka, California, September 2, 1974

Stephen Shore, Fifth Street and Broadway, Eureka, California, September 2, 1974

Early Landscapes was intended to set up a transition to the New West.* These photographs are very much my thing. I love Baltz and Robert Adams. Henry Wessel’s photo of the  Richmond garage tree is fantastic.** It’s always nice to see Shore prints.

*I’m tempted to start calling the pristine landscapes either “Old West” or “Old Topographics” a retronyms to either The New West or The New Topographics.

**And I’m completely unable to find it online anywhere.

The comparison between these views of The West is one which I feel deeply in my own photography. I very much love going out into nature and hiking with my camera. I also love going out into the suburban sprawl and taking photos of—and criticizing—the cityscape that has resulted. They’re more than just a core part of my visual literacy, they’re home. 

I also like the older landscape photography because of how its message differs from landscape photography today. Modern landscape photography is often environmental-minded, relying on the glory of unspoiled nature to remind the viewer that nature needs to be preserved. 150 years ago, the message was almost the opposite. The glory of unspoiled nature was all potential and something we could, and should, tame.

Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums

While the Old West is distinct from the New West, the New West is visible in many of the Old West photos. “Photographing the incursion of technology into nature” is one of photography’s original subjects. Watkins and Robert Adams may have had different goals with their photography, but we can see as many similarities in their work as we can see between Watkins and Ansel Adams.

Michael Jang, TV news outside Milk-Moscone murder scene, 1978

Michael Jang, TV news outside Milk-Moscone murder scene, 1978

Pirkle Jones, Black Panther demonstration in front of the Alameda County Court House, Oakland, California, during Huey Newton's trial, July 30, 1968, from The Vanguard: A Photographic Essay on the Black Panthers, 1968

Pirkle Jones, Black Panther demonstration in front of the Alameda County Court House, Oakland, California, during Huey Newton’s trial, July 30, 1968

Jim Goldberg, Edgar G. and Regina Goldstine, 1981

Jim Goldberg, Edgar G. and Regina Goldstine, 1981

I found it interesting that the conflict and chaos theme—really more about demographic change—only started with photos from the 1960s. Muybridge photographed the Modoc War 100 years prior.* Dorothea Lange has photographs from the Great Depression in the adjoining room. The history of California is a history of conflict and demographic change, it’s not something which started in the 60s.

*Also an exhibition at the California Historical Society which I need to see this summer.

I do however enjoy seeing how photographers address the social issues of their time. Where political comment is often absent from the rest of the modern art canon,* photography has always been on the front lines. As much as there’s disagreement about what the democratic camera means, it’s pretty clear that as an art form, photography is somewhat unique in how it’s accessible to many more people and has always had an element of not just witnessing, but being part of any conflicts.

*In the rest of the museum, it’s only visible in the Anselm Keifer and Gerhard Richter rooms. But for the rest of the art from the 1960s and 1970s? If there were politics in it it’s long been scrubbed from the wall texts. 

It’s not just conflicts either. A lot of the changes are long-term gradual things which may not even depict changes but rather illustrate existing inequality. These images though, by Jim Goldberg or Carrie Mae Weems, get short shrift in this exhibition. Goldberg’s Rich and Poor is hung on both sides of a hallway—which makes no sense for a series which encourages both close inspection and zig-zagging between images. Weems’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried meanwhile is one of those photo series which needs to be seen in its entirety yet only two of the images are on display.

That economic and racial inequality are the two big issues for this year’s election, I can’t help but sort of side-eye the way both of them are minimized here.

Edward Weston, Whale Vertebra, 1934

Edward Weston, Whale Vertebra, 1934

Dorothea Lange, The Road West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, 1938

Dorothea Lange, The Road West, U.S. 54 in Southern New Mexico, 1938

Speaking of Lange and social justice, while I approve of featuring the “founders/ƒ.64” as being an important theme of western photography, keeping so much of their work outside of the themes in the rest of the rooms felt strange. The group wasn’t about content but rather technique. Their photos fit with all the other themes in the exhibition. There are pristine landscapes, technological changes, and demographic conflicts on display here, but the exercise in tying them into the other rooms is left to the viewer.

As an ƒ.64 room though I liked that they stayed away from most of the super-iconic photos. There’s Lange’s road. And a few of the Weston images are very familiar. But this room could have been full of just photographs I’ve seen over and over again.* I enjoy just absorbing more of their other work.

*Note, there should probably be such a room at SFMOMA because many of those ƒ.64 photos are extremely important to both photography and the idea that photography is art and all of them are inherently part of the Bay Area’s role in art history.

Larry Sultan, Hamilton Field, from the series Homeland, 2009

Larry Sultan, Hamilton Field, 2009

Klea McKenna, Rainstorms & Rain Studies, 2013 - 2016

Klea McKenna, Rainstorms & Rain Studies, 2013 – 2016

The last theme involves photographers playing with the medium itself. I’ve been on record saying that I consider Weston to be part of this group but most of these photos are much more recent. As such, many of them don’t quite do it for me.* The ones that do though I really like. In particular, Larry Sultan using day laborers as models and the weird ethical questions they create in the resulting photos. Did they know what they were getting in to? What does it mean to stage photos of gente day laborers using those day laborers as models? I don’t have good answers here either but I enjoy thinking about the questions.

*Contemporary Art is still being sorted by Sturgeon’s Law.

I also loved Klea McKenna’s photograms. And it’s always nice to see Trevor Paglen on display although putting him in the playing-with-the-medium room risks reducing a lot of his work to being about technique rather than interrogating the inherent nature of photography as being surveillance.

Looking at the recent photos though provides a clear example of how art photography has embraced the “make it fucking large” ethos of the collector-driven market. So many of the prints are not just huge, but possibly too big to the point that they feel like they’re only trying to be appreciated for their size rather than as images to be looked at. I understand why this is the case* but I don’t have to like the results.

*They have to compete with paintings and other media in a “bigger is better” arms race in the art-collector world rather than focusing on just photography collectors.

So yeah. I like many of the individual photos but was kind of unsold on the larger theme of the exhibition. As with the opening shows in the rest of the museum, this felt very much like a for-the-masses sketch of possibilities for future shows while staking a claim on a lot of territory.

Neue SFMOMA Grotesk

DSC_0373

I’ve missed SFMOMA.* I visited it enough to develop a standard beat through the museum each time—visiting my favorite spaces and getting to know the collection as it rotated through. It closed the same time I moved away from the Bay Area and something’s been missing every time I visit. Ever since it reopened last May I’ve been looking forward to summer when I could both get to know the new, expanded space and revisit an old favorite.

*Bumping Tripod Holes 4 since I have another new camera.

As a museum, the expansion is great. It’s full of light. There are plenty of places to sit—benches, window ledges, etc. Every floor but one has access to an outside gallery or balcony. It’s easy to navigate without getting lost or overwhelmed. For such a large space it flows well without forcing you through a specific path. For a museum which now requires close to six hours to do all of,* having these breaks is crucial for getting through it all.**

*Compared to the two hours or so that the old museum required.

**The only rough part is the bathrooms where every surface is covered in the same super-saturated color (each floor of the museum features bathrooms in a different color). It hurts your eyes as they first think that there’s colored light to adjust to and then realize—much too late—that it was wight light all along.

And it serves the Fisher Collection perfectly. The Collection consists of many of the big names people will want to see. Rather than just featuring one or two pieces from each big name, the Fishers’ collection has both depth and quality. The large galleries dedicate entire rooms to specific artists and there’s plenty of space for the art to breathe.

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Bernd and Hilla Becher

So instead of than having favorite pieces I want to go back and see, I have favorite rooms. I love the small octagonal Agnes Martin room and how it invites quiet contemplation and rewards her subtle paintings. The room of Bechers is wonderful and probably the best display of their work that I’ve seen anywhere. The William Kentridge room is pure joy and I could watch Preparing the Flute repeatedly.

Outside of those, the Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter rooms are great.* As are the Sol Le Witt, Alexander Calder, and Ellsworth Kelly rooms. There’s a lot of good art to see and return to.

*Actually, most of the rooms involved with the German Art After 1960 theme are pretty good.

But it’s funny. I like the new SFMOMA in general but I can’t stop wanting to call it Neue SFMOMA Grotesk. What I used to find interesting about SFMOMA now feels like an afterthought—both architecturally and in terms of the collection. As per SFMOMA’s statement, “Seventy-five percent of the work on view in the expanded galleries will be drawn from the Fisher Collection and the other 25 percent will come from SFMOMA’s collection.” The expansion dwarfs the old museum so it feels more like a Fisher Collection museum than anything else.

I suspect—and hope—that most of this is growing pains and an opening set of shows which feels more like four distinct museums housed in one building.

  1. The Fisher Collection with its focus on mainstream (mostly) white male artists.
  2. The original SFMOMA collection which had been trending toward making a case for greater Bay Area involvement in the narrative of modern and contemporary art.
  3. The Campaign for Art which consists of contemporary artists—including many non-male or non-white.
  4. The photography collection.

Right now we’re being introduced to everything again. Hopefully in a year after we’ve gotten used to the space, things will mix more and the emphasis on “This is a Fisher Collection Gallery” versus “This is a Campaign for Art Gallery” will be toned down and it will feel more like one cohesive museum.

I am concerned though at how the original collection is now almost completely detached from everything else. There’s a massive ticketing and membership lobby with “entrance this way” signs pointing toward the elevators and staircase up to the galleries. In the exact opposite direction are two doors leading to the original building. It’s basically a distinct museum.

From 2012:
iconic works

As things are currently displayed, new visitors to SFMoMA will come up the stairs, turn left toward the permanent collection, and find Femme au chapeauFrieda and Diego, and The Flower Carrier right there welcoming them. This is exactly how it should be. All three of those pieces are the kind which the museum could market as things to see in San Francisco.

SFMOMA roundup

The art is still in the exact same place only now it’s no longer welcoming anyone. They’re like the dioramas at the Academy of Sciences—a vestige of an earlier iteration of the museum—which makes me sad.

I used to feel like SFMOMA had made a major change in direction around the Anniversary Show in making a claim on early, important modern pieces (Femme au chapeauFrieda and Diego, and The Flower Carrier) being locally-promoted. Same goes with how  many of SFMOMA’s big acquisitions over the past decade (e.g. Robert Arneson and Margaret Kilgallen) were also important local artists. Heck, even their foray into Google Arts and Culture emphasized the local angle. But the Fisher collection now dominates and it feels like SFMOMA has given up on its claim that the Bay Area is important to the modern art discussion.

I do enjoy the larger photography space. The old space always felt like it could handle either a special exhibition or the permanent collection, but not both. The new space has enough room for a good-size exhibition in addition to keeping a significant number of galleries of just the permanent collection on display. Photography also, both because of its relatively-recent emergence into the world of art dealers and collectors and because of its close ties to the Bay Area, counteracts the dominance of the Fisher Collection in being able to tell a different, more local tale of art and its importance to the larger art world.

At the same time, part of the photography galleries also feels like a step backwards. While SFMOMA was closed, they had a few On-The-Go shows which mixed photography with painting and sculpture. Flesh and Metal explored the new textures and surfaces which resulted from the mechanical age. Portraits and Other Likenesses approached as portraiture any artwork which represents a person or people. I was hopeful that the expansion would embrace this level of mixing media. Instead, the photography wings feel even more isolated than they did in the old museum.

That said, the two opening exhibitions, California and the West and About Time are both interesting and warrant their own posts. So those will be coming later.

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Glenn Ligon

The Campaign for Art is also in the new building so it benefits from the same large gallery spaces. Unlike the Fisher collection though, the rooms a little more crowded and there are many artists on display in each room. While I was a little too tired by the time I made it to the top floor to fully engage with the contemporary art, I can note that the artists on display are noticeably more diverse than the artists in the floors below—e.g. Glenn Ligon, Ai Wei Wei, and Brad Kahlhamer.

It’s good to see that SFMOMA is collecting in that direction now. There’s obviously nothing calling out how 75% of the museum is supposed to be dedicated to white guys but I’m very interested in the directions the new acquisitions will take.

There are some hints of SFMOMA doing this in the permanent collection downstairs too. There’s a prominent display of Ana Mendieta’s work (balancing a bit of the prominence that Carl Andre has in the Fisher galleries) as well as a room featuring Ruth Asawa and Martin Puryear.

If merging with the old collection is one huge challenge that SFMOMA will have to tackle in the future, taking the modern and contemporary collection into a more diverse direction is another. I’m glad the early signs look good in this department.

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Corita Kent

I was also pleased to see that SFMOMA has kept a large space for design. This used to be the first place I headed to in the old museum. It’s no longer as easy to get to but I’m already working out what my new standard path through the museum will be. The current design show is Typeface to Interface and covers graphic/information design as it’s evolved from mechanical to digital typesetting.

It’s one of those shows which is good but never really becomes more than the sum of its parts. I totally buy the idea that graphic design is inherently interactive. It’s how I’ve always approached my own work in design and typesetting and an exhibition which took that approach and really addressed how would have been awesome. This one has nice objects and artifacts which all involve text—much of Helvetica—but I have to stretch to make the connections.

Still, it’s always wonderful to see Corita Kent or Susan Kare in a museum. Same goes for the Feltron Annual Reports. I really enjoyed learning about Aaron Marcus. And the video of how the IBM Selectric typewriter works is fantastic.

All in all, the new SFMOMA is both a good museum and one which I look forward to revisiting many times. I can’t help myself from being cynical and thinking that massive wealth and development completely changing the character of a place does capture a certain San Francisco gestalt. But I’m also an optimist who believes that the museum’s trend of acquiring artwork by both local and more-diverse artists will continue. I’m excited to watch the results.

Tabaimo: Her Room

Tabaimo DanDAN, 2009 Video installation with sound 4 minutes, 34 seconds Installation view at James Cohan Gallery, New York, September 2011 photo: Jason Mandella © Tabaimo / Courtesy Gallery Koyanagi, Tokyo and James Cohan Gallery,New York/Shanghai

After seeing Border Cantos, I wandered through San José’s Tabaimo show. Seeing videos in an art museum is always a weird thing where I have to remind myself to give the loop some time to grow on me. It’s a good thing that there’s a space for short films that can play with not conforming to the expectations of plotting, etc. that we have about films shown in a theater. I just have to remember myself that I can’t judge these like I would judge a movie. Yes there’s often a start but I don’t always begin there. Nor can I expect it to hook me immediately when I start watching.

As an animation junkie, I liked a lot of  this show. Tabaimo’s pieces are more like video sculptures than films. They’re projected onto three-dimensional surfaces and often involve additional depth and dimension in addition to those surfaces. I especially liked DanDAN and the way it slipped through the different units and floors of an apartment building. I also found myself appreciating just the craft of putting together and staging everything. Juggling the animation, how the projection will hit the surface, and how the different projections will interact is an impressive amount of stagecraft.

I also always like looking at hand-drawn animation which mimics other media in its brush and line styles. This is especially true now when so much of the goal of computer animation is achieving a realistic look. Instead, I love when the animation still looks like drawings or paintings that have come alive. All of Tabaimo’s work has that sketchy/brushy quality and it’s just fun to look at.

At the same time, all of the work on display draws on cultural references which I don’t understand. This isn’t a critique of the art as much as it’s a critique of how it’s displayed. I don’t think really any of the museum goers will understand the textual or cultural references and while the works are named on the wall text, there’s not much about what those works are about. Which is a shame since I think I’d enjoy these all a lot more if they were presented in a way which took them beyond the “don’t these look cool” appeal.