San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Amidst all the politics, gentrification and grit stands the landmark San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and it is a home to art lovers around the world. Inside its massive and whimsical, curious white and cobblestone façade, something out of Marvel’s Dr. Strange lair, houses some of the greats of modern, pop and contemporary art.

Past the four lane highway outside it’s glass doors an atrium opens up to you taking your spirit higher than the eye can see. It’s all enclosed but you can’t help but look up, up, up, up! It’s magnificent in a silent modern way. Minimal but warm. Signs are in red blaring the shows and collections. I’ve never been the kind to take tours. I’m much too light footed to wait plus it’s more fun to get lost in a museum by yourself than being stuck to a group. I buy a ticket for one and start letting the signs lead me. The stairs leading up to a literal huge name, in big bold graphic letters ‘Walker Evans’ are wood and rounded giving a cascading effect. People are buzzing about. Here, there, groups and couples walk about. The ‘Walker Evans’ collection is interesting. Different sized photographs bordering on the surreal hang displayed. The monochromatic black and white picture cells lay bare under focus light. Buildings become eyes and hands and faces as a couple hold each other. Not all in the same work. 

Past the photographic gallery primary, black and gray colored sculptures by Calder stand. The kinetic energy and shapes of red, blue and black are evocative and enticing. If not for the taught wire keeping visitors from getting too close these sculptures ask to be touched. The black ones’ cuts not the form but the essence of an animal, implying its bulk and shape. Finely colored the scale of some are towering. The overpowering ones evoke a sense of play that one would get as a child at recess. Can these tails be played with? There aren’t any taught wires keeping you away from changing its placement. Why create a lever and weight if they aren’t meant to be adjusted? I’ve added an image with a person to give you the sense of scale some of Calder’s work possess’. Pure joy and fun!

A huge Lichtenstein painting greets you on the fifth floor. The colors and shapes are reminiscent of Calder but reference the ‘halftone’ technique utilized by newspapers. Oldenburg has two large sculptures. One of a birdhouse and an inverted necktie that’s come to life posed strikingly like a snake from a button shirt collar. Absolutely whimsical and delightful. At the age of 27 he moved to New York City and become one of the premier avant-garde artists. He states that you could not go anywhere in New York City without having the feel of the stage and Broadway on you and his work reflected that flare for life. The ‘Pop Art’ists liked using everyday objects as their source for inspiration. Cups, cans, famous faces are some of their most employed vocabulary. A tire wheel, a radio, a cup become a spring board for their creativity in engaging conversation and adjacent to Oldenburg’s sculptures stands a cut away abstracted cup of something warm. I’m not entirely sure why the Lichtenstein sculpture contains something warm in it with it’s simple black, yellow, blue and gray palette but it’s so lovely steam seems to rise from its lid. With very simple implications Roy tells you that this is not only a cup, but it has something in it. Sublime.

Other ‘Pop’ art fills the fifth floor. Around the wall holding the huge painting that greets you hang paintings of a different and almost horrific mood. Colors bordering to bloody and fleshy molded to replicate something similar but yet still quite abstract changes the pace to this modernism. It’s modernism of the everyday object but stripped of the joy, infused with watchfulness, at least that what they seem to me. Philip Guston is an abstract expressionist that paints shoes, clocks and paintbrushes, though that’s to say it simply. They aren’t just brushes that look like mannequin legs in a bundle, they are a mass of moody red baguettes. They are something quite alien and sensitive. The absence of highlights, bright lights, the use ofmottled pinks with gray pale blues and jarring black lines reminds me of nerves exposed to the air. Shocking and uncomfortable. I was so taken aback from the whimsical and innocence of Lichtenstein and Oldenburg that I asked another patron what they thought of the pieces. He stated that he liked them. There is no other place I could imagine a Guston hanging than in a museum. A living room? Definitely not. A foyer? Possibly. Surreal without the flare but grounded in such sensitive moodiness. I wasn’t sure if the artist needed a hug or if I needed one.

The MOMA continued onto Warhol and Chuck close. The segway was strategic and smart. Warhol has a kind of mood to them less whimsical than Lichtenstein that related to Guston. A deep questioning of identity. A probing of what it means to conceal and reveal all in one brush stroke. Some of the MOMA’s Warhol’s were whimsical but the faces and the repetition made them less so. They had a kind of palette such as Calder, the yellows, the primaries, the gray, the silver but the halftone styled portraits repeated read like a sort of eulogy. An homage to the individual being portrayed. And they were meticulously made. Layers of silk screen calculated in their placement. If you’ve ever done any silk screening then you know how eschew an image can become without the precise measurements of composition. And these small adjustments on a face can take a portrait from Angelina to Tabar. They had what Harold Speed would call a ‘taste’ to them. Though he utilizes the same sort of ‘half-tone’ technique Lichtenstein uses, Warhol refines the process. Like a Seurat but on steroids tempered with the colors of the ‘Pop’ular primary colors. A refined vision of a grainy television or newspaper portrait that complemented Chuck Close’s psychedelic tiles of brilliant color.

Chuck Close is a giant. Chuck Close is the embodiment of the human spirit par excellance. He was born Charles Thomas Close on July 5th, 1940 and suffered from a neuromuscular condition and dyslexia. ‘The Event’ that severely paralyzed Close was on December 7, 1988 and like all major life events they, to me, seem to have powerfully impacted his work. The brilliance of Close’s portraits that hang in the SFMOMA come from the color he masterfully uses. His earlier works were strict photorealistic images that have evolved to an almost psychedelic portrayal of his subject. From afar the image is quite clear with the painting sustaining it’s own radiance absent of the spot lighting. As you come closer the face fades away as the paintings loom over your head. Instead you are left with splotches of color layered one on top of the other. They are so intricately placed that the partsbecome elevated alone by the whole. A kind of 2-dimensional temple to the subject being translated. The tiles reminded me of Kandinsky’s color studies, a celebration of light and freedom of color through limits.

It is to no discredit of the other artists which the SF MOMA houses that the experience ends. I admit my patronage of fluorescent lighting untransformed but Flavin’s lighting sculpture was such a hit among the other attendees I took a picture with it as they did. The excitement caused from the artificial Flavin rainbow was palpable and contagious. Dashing past the minimalist always referencing math and geometry the SFMOMA closed forcing me back out past the lofty atrium, past the glass doors, face-to-face with the four lane highway right in front of it. I wanted so much to inhale the Matisse peaking past the guard on the first floor entrance.

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