Photo Essays

Impressions from SFMOMA: A Photo Essay

by Ben Valentine on September 24, 2012

SFMoMA’s atrium with a huge installation by Jim Campbell, “Exploded Views”, 2011.

BERKELEY, California — I just moved to Berkeley, California, after living in Brooklyn for two years, and the second arts institution I visited was SFMOMA (the first was the Luggage Store gallery, but I didn’t have my camera with me). The museum has consistent zebra-stripe patterning throughout the structure, and during my visit I realized it reminded me of the Orvieto Cathedral in Umbria, Italy.

In the large darkened atrium there is “Exploded Views,” the largest LED array I have ever seen by the San Francisco–based artist Jim Campbell. I always want to believe Campbell’s work is interactive with the environment, and although I have never seen one that actually was, his pieces always convey a ghost-like presence in the space. “Exploded Views” creates shadowy figures of varying abstraction that appear to move through the grid as museumgoers walk into the galleries. Although this is a less technologically advanced version of “Future Self,” which I covered earlier, it still is very contemporary and moving to watch.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s light installation “Homographies” and Tauba Auerbach’s floor “50/50 Floor”.

Tauba Auerbach is an artist who can do no wrong by me. Her giant floor-tile installation is currently part of the exhibition Field Conditions, and is coupled with a kinetic light installation by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. “50/50 Floor” is made of 50% black tiles and 50% white tiles, which are randomly distributed over the floor in a QR code–like pattern. Auerbach’s work often deals with generative systems, and the aesthetics of this floor are determined by a nearly impossible to achieve mathematical idea of randomness, all the while feeling perfectly balanced.

Lozano-Hemmer’s work often deals with some sort of interactivity, creating installations with unexpectedly kinetic objects. “Homographies” is comprised of many fluorescent tubes and surveillance equipment that abstractly interacts with the audience walking on Auerbach’s floor. The lights spin in a circle at varying speeds, creating patterns or suggesting a maze. The whole space feels like it should have a stomach-churning, disorienting effect, yet it remains an exceptionally pleasing space to be in.

Installation of “Untitled” (1996) by Barry McGee.

Barry McGee is one of the more famous street artists to emerge out of San Francisco. His work “Untitled” (1996) struck me as being very much a logical museum display method for an obsessive street artist. If McGee is anything like the street artists I know, he probably is constantly drawing on anything, from stickers to walls to found pieces of paper. That obsessive street artist quality was definitely felt in this large installation that was part documentation of illegal tags, part paintings, part blackbook, and more.

Detail of McGee’s “Untitled.”

Robert Bechtle, “Watsonville Olympia” (1977)

Although we mostly hear artists talk about the quality of light in Los Angeles, I have noticed that the Bay Area has a unique quality of light unlike anywhere else I have lived. The morning can be completely grey and foggy, turning quickly to sunny and pleasant throughout the day, and then the light can transform into a very intense, almost harsh golden sun as it nears sunset. I have only been here for three weeks so maybe I am jumping to conclusions, and Watsonville is actually south of the Bay Area, but this painting by Bechtle struck me as very much a painting of the area. The laid-back nature of the place, the beautiful and golden sun in the evening, and the highly manicured mini-lawns of the area are all new to me, and I enjoyed seeing that reflected by Bechtle, a San Francisco native.

Mark Rothko, “No. 14, 1960″ (1960)

For a long time I hated Mark Rothko. I had never seen his work in person, and my art-history text books always made it look so splotchy, dead, and boringly simple that I didn’t want to include this photograph because I knew it would do the same. Yet I stood in front of “No. 14, 1960″ for longer than any work in the entire museum, and not to mention it here would be an injustice. This painting is intense, dynamic, and held my gaze for some time. Suggestive of a truly mesmerizing sunset, Rothko’s work rarely lets you down if you give it some time in person.

Diego Rivera, “The Flower Carrier” (1935)

Having seen the fantastic exhibition Diego Rivera: Murals for The Museum of Modern Art at MoMA earlier this year, I was ready to walk by this painting. Yet as I did, I was struck again by how relevant Rivera’s work is to today’s socio-political climate. As demands for fair trade and worker unions grow, how can we forget an artist like Rivera? The formal simplicity and obviousness of message is reminiscent of propaganda in one way, but there is a real energy to this work, and I suppose I simply love the message.

Ed Osborn, “Night-Sea Music” (1998)

Recalling work I covered earlier by the artist Zimoun, Obsorn’s installation “Night-Sea Music” (1998) is a lighthearted, interactive kinetic and sound installation. Reading as an erratic spider web of electrical cords upon first glance, this installation springs to life when a visitor pushes a button. The cords begin to wind in on themselves, creating coils until they snap straight again, a process that slowly has scuffed up the wall around them. The wires are attached to musical boxes playing “The Merry Widow,” and the entire piece is apparently representing the short and often tragic life of a couple of spermatozoon. I wouldn’t have guessed that until I read the description, but I enjoyed it much more after I had.

On display was also the Cindy Sherman exhibition that started at MoMA. Hyperallergic already covered that showing here and here, and because photography was not allowed in the exhibition, I won’t go into detail. Cindy Sherman is considered by many to be an immensely important photographer and the giant exhibition is well curated and a must-see for any Sherman fan, yet I would agree with Leah Ollman, who wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

As Sherman’s work itself transformed over the decades, it has become something of a self-perpetuating spectacle, growing more and more impressive (the scale! the vivid color! the inexhaustible variety of disguises!) but less relevant, less resonant on a personal level. Her photographs are never less than entertaining, but neither are they consistently more than that.

I couldn’t say it better. Although Sherman’s early work still strikes me as shockingly important and interesting, it appears as though she hasn’t taken another step forward since.

Matthew Barney’s “Drawing Restraint 14″ (2006)

Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint series is some of his best work. Using architecture, his own bodily limitations, and the endless narratives Barney always pulls into his work, these performances-turned-installations always please me. Although when recalling Barney’s interior installations, one can justifiably default to his “Cremaster Cycle” at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, “Drawing Restraint 14″ maintains the rigor and intensity Barney is famous for.

Matthew Barney “Drawing Restraint 14″, 2006.

The museum’s beautiful architecture and highest point in the atrium.

Of all the art I saw on my first visit to SFMOMA a couple of years ago, one of the most visceral memories I have is walking on this walkway and passing over the top of the atrium. Reaffirming a certain admiration for Barney’s work, which had him rock climbing up to this point, this beautiful and sun-filled walkway is not for those afraid of heights. One can see through the walkway to the floor five stories below, and it is an experience in and of itself.

After the walkway on the top floor was a recently opened exhibition, 6 Lines of Flight, which did not allow photography but was exceptional. Basically focusing on important international artists that are located in cities outside of what is considered major art-world locales, this exhibition highlights and uplifts the art practices of the underrepresented. The art world is a truly global entity now, and it is always nice to see major institutions seek to embrace that. Among those whose work I especially enjoyed were Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz and Romanian artists Ciprian Muresan and Adrien Ghenie.

Tony Cragg, “Guglie” (1987), on the museums roof and cafe area.

Tony Cragg is a British sculptor who has consistently been creating enjoyable large sculptures for several decades. Although the SFMOMA is probably more known for its Louise Bourgeois rooftop installation “The Nest,” I was particularly drawn to their large work by Cragg. Something about found objects fitting together so perfectly was intensely pleasing. It makes me wonder if Things Organized Neatly can branch out to include things stacked neatly or if that demands a different tumblelog entirely.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to SFMOMA, and I know I will be returning every month on free day. However, the visit started with the sad news that the museum will be closing its doors on June 2, 2013, for three years of renovations and construction. Unlike the MoMA’s brief move to Queens, there will be no pop-up museum in its place.

SFMOMA is open every day of the week except for Wednesday. For hours and directions visit www.sfmoma.org.

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