Category Archives: SFMOMA

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.

Soundtracks

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.

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Good 70s

Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the series Mrs. Kilpatric, 1974

from the series Mrs. Kilpatric, 1974

Mike Mandel, Seven Never Before Published Portraits of Edward Weston

Seven Never Before Published Portraits of Edward Weston

Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the portfolio People in Cars, 1972

from the portfolio People in Cars, 1972

Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the series, Myself: Timed Exposures, 1971

from the series, Myself: Timed Exposures, 1971

I was sad to miss the Larry Sultan show but I’m very glad I made it up to SFMOMA for the Mike Mandel show. Sometimes it’s nice to just see things that are fun and make me smile.

This isn’t to say that Mandel’s work is somehow simple or trivial, just that the concepts are both remarkable easy to grasp and Mandel’s default approach mines the humor. It’s a goofy humor which I really love and, despite being funny, manages to maintain a certain seriousness and empathy for the subjects. I’m not laughing at the photos or the people in them, I’m laughing because of them and what they make me recognize. This is an approach which is sadly lacking in a lot of photography.

Seven Never Before Published Portraits of Edward Weston is a perfect example of this. It could easily be seen as a stunt. Or something making fun of Edward Weston—or all these other Edward Westons. But it avoids those pitfalls and becomes so much more. It touches on how everyone takes and consumes photography—each of the Edward Westons supplies a portrait and talks about photography. It touches on the nature of fame and what it’s like to have a name in common with someone famous. It provides a sympathetic glimpse into seven men’s lives. Seven men whose only thing in common is that they share the same name as a famous photographer and were generous enough to share about their lives to a complete stranger.

It’s also hilarious. Not because of who those men are what their responses are but because there’s simultaneously an everyman, what if I shared my name with someone famous, thing going on plus the sly suggestion that maybe each of these guys is actually the Edward Weston. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face when I read each of these and looked at the photos.

Mrs Kilpatric is also fun. So simple that in many ways it’s just about goofing around with a friend and neighbor. But the unposed—well, semi-posed—unplanned nature of it all is completely disarming. She’s incredibly trusting of Mandel to let him take her photo no matter what she’s doing or wearing. But the photos are great. They’re the kind of photos that she might not like because they’re a bit silly but which her family members will love because of how they portray her.

People in Cars is a similarly straitforward project.  One of the things which stands out looking at Mandel’s work is how visible he must’ve made himself as a photographer. Even a series like this which lends itself to surreptitious shooting is very clearly full of interaction. Most of them are people being amused by whatever Mandel is doing when he’s behind the camera. Which makes the few where the subject is upset really stand out in a way which produces a wry smile from me.

Myself meanwhile had me laughing in the gallery. I love the Half Dome one (of course there’s a Half Dome one) but they’re all great. Mandel is indeed a goofball. The idea of photobombing his own photos is hilarious. As is the way that the other people in the frame end up having to react to him. Sometimes there’s surprise, other times there’s group acceptance, and sometimes he’s ignored. But you know that everyone in the frame has watched him set up the tripod and camera and is now trying to figure out what the hell this skinny kid with long hair is doing standing with them while the camera is buzzing.

You can hear the camera buzzing.

There’s confusion. There’s joy. There’s curiosity. There’s all the things that we all do when confronted with a camera. But Mandel is in the frame along with the “subjects” adding an extra layer of bizarreness and humor. It’s fantastic.

Mike Mandel, Skyway

Looking at how Mandel interacts with the people he’s photographing brings me to his photos of The Boardwalk.*  Having just been at Pier 24 earlier that day I couldn’t help comparing Mandel’s photos to Winogrand’s. Mandel isn’t creepy even though many of his subjects are Winogrand-bait. It’s not just that he’s made eye contact or something before taking the photo, there’s a level of interaction which gets a flirting versus a death stare.

*The first time I’ve seen an extensive series about a place which I’m super-attached to as home. My kids love going every summer. Just seeing what it looks like in the 70s and how much has, or hasn’t, changed is wonderful from a purely documentary point of view.

And yes, a lot of this might be 1960s New York versus 1970s California. But Mandel was a skinny goofball kid and Winogrand was a larger more serious presence. And it certainly seems like their approaches were also quite different—especially in that Mandel appears to be having fun with his photography. It doesn’t feel like an obsession or quest but instead just messing around and playing with the camera.

Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the series SF Giants, an Oral History, 1978–1979

from the series SF Giants, an Oral History, 1978–1979

Mike Mandel, Untitled, from the series Prelude to Making Good Time, 1979

from the series Prelude to Making Good Time, 1979

Which brings us to Mandel’s baseball photos. I had a hard time viewing these as a photographer since I was a Giants fan first and those instincts are much more deep-seated than any of my art appreciation instincts. But they’re great. I’d love to spend a lot more time with SF Giants, an Oral History—it’s a shame this isn’t part of the catalog—but just looking at the photos is plenty enjoyable.

Mandel again both includes himself in the frame and manages to create an interaction where players are encouraged to be silly rather than serious. The resulting images feel like insider snapshots more than anything else. Part of me wonders whether this approach would’ve worked on a better team—mid 70s to mid 80s Giants were not so good—and part of me feels like he only took photos of the players who were cool with him anyway.

In any case, even with everyone having access to social media, Mandel’s photos manage to capture a view which we still don’t usually see.

And his light painting images caught me by surprise. This is one of those gimmicks which has been beat to death as self-indulgent Flickr explore bait. Mandel‘s images though show that he understands the game. Rather than being a gimmick they illuminate key action traces like how and when a batter twists his wrist during a swing or a pitcher’s hands come apart during his windup. It’s motion capture which highlights important details in the motion.

Mike Mandel, Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards, 1975

Mike Mandel, Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards, 1975 Mike Mandel, Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards, 1975

Which brings me to the Photographer Baseball Cards. Aside from Evidence, these are what I knew best about Mandel. I’ve always loved this project but had never really had a chance to look at a complete set before. So many wonderful things going on with these just as photographs without even getting into the baseball card aspect.

I love that his range of subjects runs from Ansel Adams to Bunny Yeager.* We’ve got star photographers who everyone knows, photographers’ photographers who aren’t appreciated as much as they should be, and photographers who’ve kind of been forgotten now. It’s very much a proper baseball card set in this way.

*Though women are still outnumbered like four to one and the non-white photographers can be counted on one hand. As always, lists are a bad idea.

I love that we get to see what the photographers look like. That Lewis Baltz is called “Duke.” That John Divola’s card features him in blurred motion. Divola’s card is the best in the entire set in terms of capturing a sense of what Divola was interested in as a photographer—pushing the boundaries of the concept of what a photograph depicts, or should depict in terms of time or reality— while also being “baseball” in terms of its pose and language.

I love the way that these are mass-produced offset lithography. Photography, especially art photography, is almost always obsessed with process and image quality. Even in  a book we get duotones or quadtones and insanely fine line screens and every attempt to make them look like “real” photographic prints. But these are printed by Topps. The line screen is coarse. The cuts are common. The ink is black only. And that’s not only appropriate but any other option would be just wrong.

I love the way that everyone seems to know what baseball and baseball cards are. You can see this especially in the contact sheets where each subject plays with different tropes of baseball posing. There’s a common language both in terms of baseball and baseball cards that we all know. But of course we should know, we’ve been making and consuming these photos since the 19th century.

I also appreciate that SFMOMA dedicated two rooms to showing samplings from many of the depicted photographers. This is helpful as both a reminder to people like me who recognized names but momentarily blanked on what they photographed* and an explanation for people who may have questioned whether the subjects of the cards were photographers at all.

*Nathan Lyons, Art Sinsabaugh, and Judy Dater in this case for me.

Sometimes though the photograph selected by SFMOMA felt like the wrong choice. This sampling isn’t the time to go on a deep dive into a photographer’s work but rather an “explain this person in an image or two.” So yes, I was mightily confused why they selected an black and white Eggleston image to display for him.

All in all though, a great show. I knew who Mandel was when I walked in. I just wasn’t aware about how much I liked his work. Also, while I still have concerns about SFMOMA’s new direction turning away from local art and artists—especially given the general sense of its upcoming exhibitions being much more FAMSF rather than what I’ve gotten used to at SFMOMA—I have to give them props for putting on a show which couldn’t possibly be more local.

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.

Before and After

So this didn’t fit in my general new SFMOMA comments but while I was there I found myself comparing the installations of some of the sculptures with their previous installations. In particular, I ended up comparing Richard Serra’s Sequence and Barnett Newman’s Zim Zum I.

Richard Serra—Sequence

Before the expansion Sequence was installed at the Stanford Art Museum. I visited it many times there. I also much much much prefer it there. Outside it does much more interesting things with light, weather, and sound. In bright sun it casts wonderful shadows. On overcast days you get a real sense of the texture of the steel. Late in the afternoon the color glows as the sun sets. On rainy days there will be dry spots where the sculpture has protected itself, or the floor, from the drops. And because there’s no enclosing space, the sounds of talking or footsteps change as you walk through. You truly feel inside and enclosed when you’re in it.

Inside, you’re always conscious that you’re in a museum. There’s noise from the ticketing lobby that echoes in. You’re on a tiled floor instead of poured concrete. There’s tracklighting above you. The light is flat but not strong enough to see details. The shadows are weak and multi-directional. It’s still an interesting piece to walk around in and explore but yeah…it’s not what it used to be either.

2011 at Stanford

Sequence
sequence-wet-4
Sequence

2016 at SFMOMA

DSC_0375
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Barnett Newman—Zim Zum I

Zim Zum I used to be in the fifth floor sculpture garden where it received full sun and framed both the Pacific Telephone Building and the sky when you were inside it. Now it’s in the new third floor garden, protected by an overhang and framing the living wall. I liked it where it was but the way it interacts with the wall is nice.

2012

Inside Zim Zum I

2016

DSC_0382

Neue SFMOMA Grotesk

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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.

Portraits and Other Likenesses

I made it up to San Francisco last week to see SFMOMA’s Portraits and Other Likenesses show at the Museum of the African Diaspora. I always love seeing shows which include photos, paintings and sculpture all in conversation together. As a photo-leaning person it’s especially nice to see photography taken out of its own little bubble. This show mixes all media together under the umbrella of portraiture—in this case taken broadly as any artwork that represents a person or people. I’ve seen a few SFMOMA on the go shows now that have done this and I hope it bodes well for the approach the new and improved museum will take when it opens next year.

I am increasingly interested in issues involving portraiture and representation and how frequently-stereotyped communities choose to represent themselvesNavigating the tropes of how they’ve been represented and othered is both difficult and fertile territory. The individual pieces on display aren’t always directly about representation but the entire show, by consisting of representations of blackness by black artists, is.

This is difficult territory. There are so many representations on display— costumespersonalstereotypes, etc. And there are multiple levels of thought behind all of them. This show invites me to look and stare without flinching. As a non-black person of color I ended up both confronting a lot of my socialization as to what my instincts are when viewing black people while simultaneously sympathizing with the amount of effort it takes to present yourself to the white world.

Stereotypes suck. Especially in how they make you second guess and overthink everything in your self-presentation.* Do you avoid the stereotypes even if you happen to enjoy some of them? Do you have to dress extra nice whenever you go out? Is your presentation of beauty based on white beauty standards?

*Man do I wish SFMOMA had a copy of Carrie Mae Weems’s Ain’t Jokin in addition to Boneyard. Also, I wish there was more by Fred Wilson than Me and It. Sadly, SFMOMA appears to be thin on both of their work.

Consuelo Kanaga. Annie Mae Meriwether, 1935.

Consuelo Kanaga. Annie Mae Meriwether, 1935

And at a certain level almost everything on display is intended for white consumption. Who else buys art? So while there may be important statements in a piece, the way the art market chooses to frame it ends up being out of the control of the artist—no matter how intelligently-considered the representation is, at the end of things it’s still warped by being put in a museum. I wish I could remember the full details of Annie Mae Meriweather’s* story but the story of Consuelo Kanaga’s portrait of her being reduced to just its beauty demonstrates how cruel the market is.

*Google does turn up a Woody Guthrie story related to her but nothing about the photo.

I have similar feelings of guilt by how much I love Seydou Keïta’s work. I’m reacting to the image because of its almost-effortless grace and beauty* while at the same time not knowing, or even really caring, about the subject—who he is, why he might be having his portrait taken, what was going on in Mali at the time.  Yes, there may be perfectly legitimate reasons for the erasure of much of the contextual information, but at the same time I’m still consuming his image** in a way that embodies a lot of the things I dislike about photography. I don’t like erasing the humanity of the subject and while I try not to do it here, I find myself slipping each time I view it and swoon at its beauty.

*There are days when this is my favorite photograph ever taken.

**I’ve seen this image described on occasion as a self-portrait. I’ve never seen this description though in an actual museum. And I’m not sure if his official website is treating it as a headshot or just the best example of his work. If it is indeed a self-portrait I’ll feel a lot better about liking it.

This is potentially bad behavior with many subjects but with black subjects it’s especially awful. The spectre of Black Lives Matter and all the police violence in the news over the past few years is unavoidable. Pieces here touch on issues of presenting and demonstrating and claiming humanity in the white world—actions that shouldn’t be necessary but frustratingly are. And despite all that it’s still frightening easy to erase their humanity and see just surfaces and tropes. This is deadly and violent behavior.

Which is why Glenn Ligon’s Narratives is my favorite piece in the show. They don’t just reference slave narratives and how humanity gets mediated by whiteness. They also, through their size, suggest fugitive slave posters and the erasure of humanity by whiteness. Yet they’re written fully by Ligon so it’s clear that he’s in control and crafting his own story—explicitly bringing together many different threads of the performative aspects of race, americana, assimilation, and authenticity.

The entire content of the pieces are details about Ligon’s humanity—details you’re invited and encouraged to look closely and really observe. It’s a presentation, and representation, that is difficult to erase. That it’s often wickedly funny is the icing on the cake.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Sapphires Under Cotton, 2013.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Sapphires Under Cotton, 2013

Caille Millner

I timed my visit to correspond to Caille Millner’s short talk on the exhibition. I’ve been following her on Twitter and Tumblr for a few years now and I was interested in her observations. I was not disappointed. She discussed two of my favorite pieces (Keïta and Ligon) and I especially loved her comments on Keïta where she placed the image as exemplifying, for her, Mali’s belle epoque and the brief joyous period when independence from France was coming but the the realities of being an independent country and undergoing a military coup hadn’t blotted the horizon.* Comparing Keïta and James Van Der Zee by contrasting the societal context and internal migrations going on when each photograph was taken is a great way to think about them

*It helped that I was standing in front of a case of 1960s Malick Sidibé photos while she was making these comments.

Millner also had some nice comments on Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and the idea of portraits of non-existent people. Yiadom-Boakye’s work is also complicated—in a very good way. I share Millner’s concern about how making people up as a way to address a lack of representation may not be the best way to address an erasure. At the same time, there is something to appropriating classic western/white techniques and making them your own. I also thought of Medieval People of Color’s ongoing work in highlighting the black servants in these classic paintings and how those servants are often crushed into unrecognizable shadows in photo reproductions of those works. There’s an aspect of this piece that I see as being the painting equivalent of fighting against Shirley and learning to depict black skin.

The audience discussion about Yiadom-Boakye and Van Der Zee though had me shaking my head and thinking about white comfort. Van Der Zee is a name. When The Met digitized all of its photography holdings, a number of us started counting and confirmed that he was the exception to all their non-white photographers. He’s someone you’re supposed to know and boy did the white audience know him. Lots of comments, most of which seemed intended to demonstrate that they’d heard of him and accepted him as a master. Similarly, Yiadom-Boakye seemed to relax those people because it looked familiar and like other things they’d learned to think of as good.* It was safe and comfortable to appreciate it.

*Reminding me a bit of watching Death and the King’s Horseman at Ashland and how the audience was super-uncomfortable for most of it until the white characters came on stage.

Which frustrates me because this was a museum of black artists. As a visitor, you’d expect and want to be introduced to people you’ve never heard of in the general museum circuit and to gravitate toward the names and styles you recognize misses the point.

Sargent Johnson. Forever Free,1933.

Sargent Johnson. Forever Free,1933

Note on SFMOMA

One piece that caught my eye was Sargent Johnson’s Forever Free. I really liked it because of its depiction of black motherhood and how it captures the pride and strength of black women while also acknowledging the vulnerability they feel because of how their children have to navigate society. I’m sad that I can’t remember seeing it before at SFMOMA despite it being one of their founding pieces. I’m hoping it’s more likely to be on permanent display in the new building.