MENLO PARK, California — I’m going to be honest: I haven’t been much of a fan of Pace Gallery in the past, or many of the blue-chip/dynastic galleries, for that matter; I find the programming too centered on celebrities in an attempt to garner press and sales. Recent examples at Pace include the opening of James Franco’s derivative ode to Cindy Sherman’s film stills this past week and Jay Z’s “Picasso Baby” performance/video shoot last year. This cult of celebrity as visual artist seems cheap.
On the other hand, Pace Gallery’s popup space in Menlo Park feels sober, fresh, and clean. The 12-week temporary space, which occupies the former Tesla Motors headquarters, opened to the public on Thursday with a crisp presentation of works by Alexander Calder.
It’s an interesting choice, setting up shop temporarily in Menlo Park. Pace’s exploratory venture into the land of tech and startups is roughly timed to coincide with the Silicon Valley Contemporary art fair, which launched last week, and represents part of an uptick in the art world’s presence in the area lately. It seems like an obvious attempt to cultivate an art-collector pool among the young, tech-y, and newly wealthy. It also seems at odds with the broader climate of what’s happening in the world of Bay Area art. With the tech industry’s increasing presence and migration into San Francisco proper, galleries are beginning to feel the impact of increased property values and rental demand. Landlords are kicking out art spaces to make way for tech companies that want to expand — many galleries have already received eviction notices. And while a segment of the art world eyes expansion to the Bay Area in order to develop this nouveau riche base of potential buyers, the tech industry seems blithely unaware of (or simply unmoved by) the fact that it’s extinguishing the ability for existing galleries to operate within the city.
Would Pace ever want to move to San Francisco proper? Who knows. In the meantime, Alexander Calder: The Art of Invention is the first of two exhibitions that will occur at the Menlo Park space before Pace moves out and the building is torn down this summer. The installation features around 30 works by Calder, ranging from gouache paintings and mobiles to large stabiles, jewelry, and more intimately scaled sculptures. The exhibition is laid out across the massive 15,000-square-foot exhibition space (about the size of all four of Pace’s New York locations put together), which is broken up by a series of partial walls, creating niches and alcoves for the works on display. This means viewers can experience each piece on its own, yet the works still enter into conversation with one another.
The exhibition is museum quality, beautifully curated and exquisitely crisp. The primacy of Calder’s work is on full view, showcasing his elegance and innovation and allowing for an expansive understanding of his diverse and imbricated practice. In addition to the Calder show, there’s a micro-library in the back of the gallery with curated texts on him, Albers, Chuck Close, and many other modern and contemporary artists. The library area also features a small taste of Pace Menlo Park’s next exhibition, of work by Tara Donovan, which runs from May 22 to June 30.
One has to wonder why Pace chose to exhibit Calder for its first venture in the Bay Area, rather than something contemporary and new. The artist is pretty much a household name and a crowd-pleaser, and surely that’s what the gallery is counting on, for both attendance and sales. It was a smart and shrewd decision to start with a megawatt like Calder, who hasn’t had an exhibition in the Bay Area for over five years, and follow up with Donovan, who enjoys a robust reputation in art world circles but doesn’t have Calder’s status.
Time will tell if this is a one-off by Pace in the Bay, or if it’s a rehearsal space in preparation for a bigger debut down the road. Even if it was a dress rehearsal, it deserves a standing ovation.
Alexander Calder: The Art of Invention continues at Pace Menlo Park (300 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, California) through May 13.