Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960

From the moment I rounded a corner in the maze of galleries on the second floor of San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art the above Rothko constantly pulled my eye toward it.  It was three rooms down, rooms filled with great art, but every time I’d look down the center of the galleries I catch a glimpse of No. 14 and be momentarily sucked in. When I finally did make it to that room, where the Rothko stands alone on one long wall I spent probably a good forty-five minutes sat in front lost in its depths.  I’ve managed to see maybe a dozen Rothko’s in person, at MoMA, the Met, SAM and other galleries and this one is without a doubt the most powerful one I have seen. Don’t get me wrong, MoMA in particular has some great Rothko’s but this one is just utterly captivating. Of course I haven’t been to the really large Rothko installations such as the Tate or the Rothko Chapel, so I expect to continue to be blown away by further examples of his work.

I spent three days in San Francisco at the end of my recent bicycle tour down the Pacific Coast and the one thing I really wanted to do was visit SFMoMA.  I did so on my first full day there, Saturday July 23rd, arriving at the gallery not long after it opened for the day. SFMoMA has a big entrance hall, which was hung with some huge art pieces that honestly left almost no impression. At the ticket booth I’d been almost unable to make out what the agent was saying due to some fault in the speaker system so I ended up with a pass to their special exhibits. These were both photography based and were initially of little interest to me. I went right to the second floor where their modern collection was.  The first room, to the right of the stairs up was setup with an exhibit “from the collection” entitled Matisse and Beyond which featured paintings by Matisse paired with later works which you could claim some influence. I enjoy Matisse’s work quite a bit, but I don’t recall being too blown away by anything in this little show.  The next room though featured a nice Calder, Lone Yellow (1961) hanging from the ceiling, one of the larger mobiles I’ve seen, which was gently rotating in the museum atmosphere.

Alexander Calder Lone Yellow, 1961

Alexander Calder Lone Yellow, 1961

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain

It was in this room that I was first able to glimpse, three rooms down, the Rothko and as I worked my way around the pieces here (most of which I’ve forgotten) I’d constantly be distracted by it in the distance. The next room though commanded my complete attention as it featured a number of absolutely stunning pieces.  As you walk in you immediately see Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) on a pedestal in the center of the room. This is one of four authorized replicas that Duchamp commissioned by the artist in the 60s (the original was stolen) and seeing it in person is definitely witnessing a bit of history.  This piece, which so shocked the establishment in 1917, is I think the poster boy for so much of art to come.  Contemporary art today almost seems exclusively derived from the notion that “art is what artists do” which traces straight back to Duchamp’s readymades.  The improv music that I love so much also in many ways leads straight back to Duchamp, with its random radio grabs, found sounds and extraction of sound from everyday objects.

Equally entrancing in this room was a series of 12 Cornell boxes, including a shelf full of his Sand Box series which lay flat and feature scattered sand, often dyed blue, as part of the piece. I’ve long been a Cornell fan, in fact I can trace my appreciation of art to almost beginning with a set of Cornell boxes I saw in an exhibit in Chicago in the late ’80s, and this collection had some incredible instances of his art. The Sand Box pieces seemed a lot more indeterministic and impermanent like a Tibetan Sand Painting (though these are fixed I believe). The one (rather poorly) photographed below was the most striking to me, though the picture doesn’t do it justice.  Along with the boxes were a number of non boxed colleges that demonstrated more of his range then I think he is oft given credit for. All in all this collection of Cornell’s rather had it all: the nostalgic fragments of dreams, complicated constructions, and indeterminate abstractions.

Joseph Cornell Sand Box series

Joseph Cornell Sand Box series

The room after this contained the Rothko, which as I stated early captured the bulk of my attention in that room and is probably the piece I spent the most time with in the entire gallery.  There was also a nice Guston and Stella in this room (I think) , but most of it slips my mind, which is dominated by that Rothko. The next couple of rooms had Albers, Stella’s and one room was solely filled with large pieces by Clifford Still.  But a couple of rooms down had the next piece that truly captured me, what was by far the most amazing Rauschenberg I’ve seen to date, Collection from 1954. It always sort of boggles my mind that there are galleries that allow picture taking and I hadn’t really been aware of it in this gallery until the room with the Rothko. I’d rather surreptitiously grabbed the pics of the Cornell and the Duchamp but after a few more rooms I realized that people were indiscriminately taking pictures. So I spent a bit more time trying to get nice pics of a few of my favorite pieces. As I was framing Collection a tour group came though and the guide, after quipping that they’d wait for me to take my photo, led the group in a discussion of the piece.

Robert Rauschenberg Collection, 1954

Robert Rauschenberg Collection, 1954

This I found pretty strange, he spent most of his time trying to get the participants to talke about what they see, what they feel which is I admit a way to engage the people in the piece. But it didn’t seem to really educate them much, or offer them any context for the piece. I sat there looking at this piece throughout that process and it kept my attention long after they had moved on, it was really a striking piece that rewards close attention. Finally escaping the Rauschenberg, there was some nice Johns including his iconic Flag (1958) and Land’s End (1963)  which stood in stark contrast to Flag what with its dark colors mostly blues with red/yellow/blue text written in it. The last couple of rooms on the second floor were more contemporary pieces none of which really captured much of my memory space. I was pretty saturated at this point and went for lunch after these last few rooms.

The special exhibits that I had paid extra for turned out to be: Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keefe Natural Affinities, which was paired photos and paintings from the same, or similar locals in New Mexico. I’m not really much into either artist so I merely did a survey oft his room, of which little stood out.  Adams I find too starkly realist in his photography and when he’d go more abstract (like in Foam, 1951 or Snow Sequence from the 30s) I felt the black and white photography distracting.  When creating abstracts with photography I think any artifice gets in the way be it forcing the palette in this way or the use of processing in development. The most effective abstract photos are archived solely through composition in my opinion. The other special exhibit was also photography in this case portraits:  Richard Avedon Photographs 1946-2004.  This had the largest crowds but was the least interesting to me. Mostly just portraits with no backgrounds of famous and ordinary people. For what they were they were striking but they don’t do much for me. However the collection did include some of his earliest work before he focuses purely on portraits and some of this were pretty fascinating.  Of his portraits he did take some of people that interested me: Merce Cunningham, Roy Lichenstein, William S. Burroughs, Samuel Beckett and a great sad picture of the old Groucho Marx.  All in all though I mostly just moved my way through this show, only spending a bit of extra time with the above mentioned portraits. One amusing note, is that I normally take notes in galleries on my iPhone but it was acting up so in this show I was using my Moleskin notebook. As I was jotting down some notes a guard came up to me and told me that pens weren’t allowed in the gallery and he gave me a pencil to use.  “Really?”  was all I could say but I took the pencil. Fortunately I was able to reset my iPhone and it was back in business but an odd deal you ask me.

Going up a floor I was at their contemporary art exhibit which they entitled Between art and Life Contemporary paintings and Sculpture. I was of course quite interested in this as I’m still trying to get my head around contemporary art.  Apart from a few pieces by 20th Century modernists who were still at work and still changing, such as Rauschenberg, I was as usual not that taken by the works on display.  Obviously with older pieces there has been a winnowing and selection process that come with time but I have to say of the vast amounts of contemporary art I’ve seen of late I’m rarely taken by much.  After all of the explorations of the mid 20th Century and the meaningless excesses of the 80s it seems that contemporary art now is somewhat at a loss. The interest of the public is gone, the big obvious areas of abstraction thoroughly mined, the natural areas of rebellion fully revolted arts today seem to either scrabble around the edges for an area to make their own or to simply retreat into the “Art is what I do” dead end. The best of those that I thought found a fruitful scrap of abstraction was Jim Hodges whose series of photographs  Even Here 1-12 (2008) of light on hardwood floors in an empty gallery was ghostly, beautiful and evocative (below picture not one of mine).

Jim Hodges  Even Here 1-12 (2008)

Jim Hodges Even Here 1-12 (2008)

The contemporary floor wended its way around to an indoor/outdoor sculpture garden which had a number of great pieces.  A nice Calder stable/mobile, Big Crinkly (1969), was the immediate attention capturing piece. Additionally there was a nice Barnett Newman Zim Zum I (1969 )- two W shaped prices if steel you can walk between that had a bit of the feeling of a small Serra.  The more recent piece by Mario Merz The Lens of Rotterdam (1988 ), a glass done with triangular rocks was interesting in that it was held together by clamps giving it a temporary or unfinished feel. The best piece in the indoor par was Louis Bourgeois’ The Nest (1994) a creepily interlocking steal spider like structure.

Louis Bourgeois The Nest 1994

Louis Bourgeois The Nest 1994

As I headed back down there was one final show I had skipped on the way up. This was an exhibit dedicated to Robert Frank’s The Americans, which I had skipped initially have just seen two photo oriented exhibits in a row.  I figured I’d run through and do a quick survey of this but in the end I got totally captivated and spent more time here then with any of the other photo shows.  It  began with his early pics some from America taken in the 40-50s which I found pretty uninteresting, they were b&w street scenes mostly. But once he finally got his concept and funding together for his epic road trips and took the pictures for his book documenting America I really got into it.  The quotes from Kerouac (who wrote the books preface) and his semi-candid photos seem to capture a genuine slice of America in the mid 50s with little of the distance, romance and distortion that dominates reflections on that era now.  The show had large prints of all of the prints from the book many of which I was familiar with from their place in popular culture now.  The Americans is back in print and you can buy an expanded version that more or less is this shows catalog. The final rooms were of Robert Frank’s work post this project, which was an immediate success, but which he never traded on. He went on to do abstract film and video work some of which repudiated and even destroyed some of this earlier work.

“…but maybe nothing is really true.” – Robert Frank

I left after this exhibit, overly stuff and saturated with art. As is always the case with these big museums I was totally overwhelmed and burnt out. I really should do them over a couple of days, but when traveling that is so rarely an option.  But I know that I’ll be back, to see what’s new but to delve deeper into their permanent collection.

Check out all of my photos from SFMoMA in this Flickr Set.