PARIS — During springtime in Paris, one frequently meets beaming American newlyweds on their honeymoon. That identifiable “lovers on cloud 9” scenario pretty well sums up American Icons: Masterworks from SFMOMA and the Fisher Collection at the Grand Palais. No snark intended. Curated by Gary Garrels, it is a tasteful, modestly sized show of postwar painting and sculpture that merely demonstrates what the works will look like in their new home in San Francisco, where its Museum of Modern Art has forged a partnership with the Fisher Collection to house and display its massive collection in a new Snøhetta-designed building in 2016. In 2007 the Fishers announced plans to build a museum of their own in the San Francisco Presidio to house the art collection. However, the plan stirred opposition from historic preservationists and was canceled. American Icons includes a fraction of the 1,100 works by 185 artists from that collection. On view are only a few (14) of these artists, including wonderful well-known paintings and sculptures by Americans.
The Fishers started collecting art in the 1970s with fine art prints from Gemini or Tyler Graphics and hung them in an office building for Gap, the retail company the couple co-founded in 1969. Eventually they added paintings, sculpture, drawings, photographs, and other media by American and European artists that were obtained from the likes of Paula Cooper, Mary Boone, Marian Goodman, André Emmerich, Pace, and Anthony d’Offay. These buying binges brought in key examples of first wave Pop Art, Minimalism, Abstraction, Figurative Art, and Color Field painting.
The Fisher Collection is narrow but deep, with often 40 or more pieces by a single artist, such as Gerhard Richter (47), Ellsworth Kelly (45), Alexander Calder (40), Sol LeWitt (40), and Andy Warhol (20). The artists presented here each get either an entire gallery devoted to their work or share a very large gallery with another artist to mutual benefit. The artists are all blue-chip white males (but one): Calder, Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Warhol, LeWitt, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Richard Diebenkorn, Brice Marden, Cy Twombly, Chuck Close, Philip Guston, and Agnes Martin.
Calder, who first moved to Paris for a time in 1926 and settled in France in 1962 at Indre-et-Loire, opens the show with four delightful Joan Miró-influenced works from the 1940s and ‘50s, including “Tower with Painting” (1951). These early abstract experiments with motion and balance show perfectly his engineering skills mixed with his artistic sensibility for machine-like, playful design.
The following gallery is devoted to Kelly, where I was very impressed with his early painting “Cité” (1951). It is a piece made of movable parts, constructed using chance operations, and is very much influenced by his meeting Jean Arp while living in Paris from 1948 to 1954. “Cité” came from a dream Kelly had and is constructed of twenty joined wood panels whose abutting edges amplify the flickering rhythm of the painted stripes. The work reflects Kelly’s belief that his paintings are objects, while his other earlier work on display, “Spectrum I” (1953), explores the retinal aspects of the color spectrum.
Following a group of typically free-form Cy Twombly paintings, there are a number of very beautiful canvases by Richard Diebenkorn and Philip Guston that have been juxtaposed in a room of sensual painting. Besides the Matisse-influenced “Ocean Park #54″ (1972), there are two sensational gushy paintings by Diebenkorn from 1955, “Berkeley #23” and “Berkeley #47,” that took me by surprise. Guston’s distinctive abstract painting for his wife, “For M.” (1955), a fracas of pink brushtrokes, is intelligently positioned next to his much more unrestrained, “Evidence” (1970), a painting that bridges the abstract and representational — conflicting positions that were much in debate during the early ‘70s, thereby bringing decades of theoretical combatants to their knees.
Then the show cools way down with a big gallery containing three Donald Judd stacks, including the terrific horizontal “To Susan Buckwalter” (1964), some Carl Andre floor sculptures, and two delicate wall drawings by Sol LeWitt, “Wall Drawing 1: Drawing Series II 18 (A & B)” (1968) and “January 2002, Wall Drawing 1A: Drawing Series II 18 (A & B)” (2002).
The show climaxes with an enormous Andy Warhol gallery, particularly with Warhol’s two silver chefs-d’oeuvres, “Silver Marlon” (1963) and “National Velvet” (1963). Of course, it is with Warhol where the term “Icon” in the title of the show is appropriate, as he piggybacks on Hollywood movie stars’ promotional material, rendering stud Marlon Brando and cute Liz Taylor as flickering, glamorous, almost devotional images that appear to fade and deteriorate, suggesting the need to be stoic in the face of death. For all those who see art as message, that room attempts to approximate the misty, complex world of media.
If you follow the path that moves historically through the exhibit, it closes with a hat trick of Brice Marden noodle-like line paintings, a shining pair of classic Dan Flavins, and three large Agnes Martin meditations on tonality. Quality all the way down.
The ‘60s-heavy artwork holdings that span two mega-collections are impeccable and impeccably installed. If there is a fault, it is that the exhibit lacks the punch of doubt. Only Warhol’s work continues to conceptualize doubtful, fragile questions: Is this painting? Is this printmaking? Is this rip-off? Is fame worth it? Everything else in American Icons is a Masterwork that projects one aspect or another of assured American self-confidence. The show has a professional polish, conveying a sense of mastery and assurance that doesn’t quite mesh with dusty, existential Paris. It reminds me of what André Malraux said about culture: that it is not inherited, but won through individual efforts against bureaucratic culture. In that sense, American Icons reminds us that art in context matters.
American Icons: Masterworks from SFMOMA and the Fisher Collection continues at the Grand Palais (3 Avenue du Général Eisenhower, 75008 Paris) through June 22. The exhibit will travel to Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence from July 11 to October 18, 2015.