Joy in Modern Art at the SFMOMA Reopening

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – “Just walk around and find what speaks to you.”
     Though given sincerely, the advice Saturday might have felt flippant stacked against the long queue of people awaiting their turn at the information booth during the first week of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s much-anticipated reopening.
     It proved useful armor, however, against the urge to run around from famous work to famous work, like a tourist trying to get in all the sites in a day.
     In addition to setting the tone for a slower course, the advice prioritized the personal journey over the critical consensus.
     Perhaps modern art’s reputation as angst-ridden and willfully incomprehensible precedes it. Perhaps because art museums prove breeding grounds for individuals in designer eyewear standing around saying patently pretentious things, people tend not to think of these museums as necessarily fun.
     But the newly renovated and finally reopened SFMOMA challenges this notion.
     There is a simplicity in just walking around and finding things that speak to you.
     It also reveals what places such as the SFMOMA are supposed to be. Not arenas for intellectual show-offs. Not proving grounds for the initiated, or classroom crucibles. Rather they are playgrounds. Places to have fun.
     The comprehensive renovation process precipitating this month’s reopening shut down the West Coast’s most iconic modern art museum for three years.
     Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta led the 235,000-square-foot expansion, which entailed appropriating one of the city’s historic firehouses and doubling the amount of space available for art presentation, while offering about six times as much public space as the previous.
     A large-scale vertical garden wall new to the museum is also now the city’s largest.
     “The space feels the same as it used to, but it’s gotten better,” said Gabriella Giuliani, an SFMOMA worker who was also on staff 10 years ago. “I think the theme of the museum is boundaryless, and it works because you start at the base and you just expand outwards.”
     The architects said they wanted to preserve SFMOMA’s straightforward feel and gridlike layout on the first couple of floors, while building both up and out from it as the seven-story building ascends.
     Though meant to encourage a sense of meandering — allowing museumgoers to flow from room to room, floor to floor and exhibit to exhibit — some found the layout disorienting.
     “It was greatly expanded, but I found it very confusing,” Manuel Eruiti said. “It was too hard to find the stairs.”
     Others seemed to enjoy the building’s purposeful, at-times bewildering oddities, similar to the deceptive grid of San Francisco’s own streets.
     “The visitor should sense that the building is inspired by one of the great cities of the world, San Francisco,” said Craig Dykers, founding partner of Snohetta.
     Cameron Woodward, a member of the museum who lives in Oakland, said the expansion facilitates access to the entire collection.
     “To me, it’s not so much the individual works, but the collection as a whole and watching culture shift as you make your way through it,” Woodward said.
     Woodward sees the building itself as an artwork. He noted how it wanders from indoor spaces to outdoor spaces, and uses windows both to frame the city for those inside and to offer glimpses of art for those passing on the street.
     Those inside quickly appreciate how the museum itself, like the art it showcases, plays with the concept of perspective. While walking on the third floor, for instance, a visitor will encounter apertures that afford glimpses of floors above and below.
     Ascending tapering stairwells, the visitor can walk out to abrupt balconies and witness the seethe of people coursing through the atrium below. On the fifth floor, there is a bridge that connects an open sculpture garden with the main painting exhibition. The floor of the bridge is just transparent enough to be able to see the first floor about 75 feet below, enough to incite vertigo.
     But while the museum itself is the attraction, particularly in the first few weeks of its much-anticipated reopening, its primary function is as an exhibition space, a place to present the works of a diverse set of modern artists.
     The museum first opened in 1935, occupying the fourth floor of the Civic Center on Van Ness.
     Some of the major acquisitions of the museum at the time, including “The Flower Carrier” by Diego Rivera, went on to form the foundation of the museum’s permanent collection. Paintings by Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Frieda Kahlo, Mark Rothko and Pablo Picasso now comprise the backbone of SFMOMA’s collection.
     While the works of these highly influential modern artists demand a visit in their own right, the collection has been bolstered significantly by a slew of recent acquisitions. There is a room dedicated to the meditative works of Agnes Martin, who uses grids and soft colors to evoke a sense of calm. It’s a great place to rest and take in the feeling of the paintings.
     There are two rooms dedicated to the work of famed photorealist painter Chuck Close. The artist’s large-scale, vivid portraits of faces are an astounding accomplishment, particularly since a spinal artery collapse left Close almost entirely paralyzed. The large portraits on display at SFMOMA are of Close’s friends and fellow artists, and they represent a true highlight of the collection.
     Visitors can see Andy Warhol’s famed Pop Art works, including the “Three Elvises” and other portraits that make use his silk-screening techniques. Another highlight for fans of painting is Gerhard Richter, an East German artist who uses photographs to reconstruct haunting paintings and ghostly portraits of ordinary people, families and streetscapes.
     Two rooms are dedicated to the work of Ellsworth Kelly, whose modulations of color and form will make your eyes swim. Literally, his subtle optical illusions that require time to develop evoke the effects of a neurological disorder, if that’s your thing.
     Aside from painters, the exhibit by sculptor Richard Serra can’t be missed. Other media permeating the museum include video, furniture, photo and even mobiles.
     Whatever the vehicle, there are plenty of expressions about life in the modern world.
     Playfulness, even joy, shine from these expressions.
     As one merry prankster proved, however, not all are museum-sponsored. The art world had a laugh at its expense this weekend when a teen boasted about SFMOMA patrons pausing to photograph the pair of eyeglasses he set on the museum’s floor.
     But that is what so many find appealing about modern art — it’s lack of boundaries, or rules.
     So try it on. Think about color and form for a day, about method, or medium or how to say things without using words, about different types of visual expression. Or just wander around and find what speaks to you.

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