C California Style

SFMOMA Senior Curator of Photography SANDRA PHILLIPS in front of Dennis Adams’ screen prints of Patricia Hearst: A Thru Z, 1979.
Andrew W. Mellon Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture SARAH ROBERTS stands next to a panel of Blue Red, 1966, by Ellsworth Kelly.
Golden Gate Bridge Fiftieth Anniversary, 1987, by Michael Jang, a gift from the Woodrow Jang family as part of the Campaign for Art.
No title (bent cone), by Robert Therrien, 1989 (© Robert Therrien, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery).
Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture CAITLIN HASKELL with Untitled by Alexander Calder, 1940. “This is going back to when Calder was making sculpture that was not separate from life. It was intended to be part of a domestic display,” she says.
Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture GARY GARRELS poses with Gaza, 1956, by Ellsworth Kelly. “To me it’s an exuberant painting. I just feel an incredible sense of delight when I look at it.”

Mind Over Matter

by C California Style

After seven years of plotting, planning and building, the new SFMOMA is finally here, and it’s everything it’s chalked up to be and more. Here, some of the institution’s top curators reflect on their herculean task.

A few weeks before the May opening of the new Snøhetta-designed San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the building is abuzz. Major donors are being shuttled in and out of the makeshift lobby on the way to exclusive VIP tours; the sound system alternately squeaks and squawks as the staff prepares for their first all-hands meeting in the new edifice; and on the third floor, dust and noise foment as construction workers complete a Sightglass Coffee bar in the middle of the Pritzker Center for Photography. Some of the art is already installed: Ellsworth Kelly’s Cité is bright and beautiful, while the bendy piece Throwback by Tony Smith sits gently in a staging area in the Alexander Calder Motion Lab, looking like a bandaged Tinkertoy. 

The new SFMOMA is the realization of a plot of an epic magnitude. As an arts journalist, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen something quite so ambitious and extensive. There’s the reworked Mario Botta building—fused with a new 10-story, 235,000-square-foot expansion of the museum, with a textured eastern facade of fiberglass-reinforced polymer; the celebration of a solidified collaboration with Doris and Donald Fisher and their collection; the culmination of a Campaign for Art that gathered 3,000 new works from more than 230 donors; free admission in perpetuity for anyone 18 and younger; new commissions; sculpture; and even a restaurant from mastermind exploratory chef Corey Lee, the man behind the Michelin-starred Benu.

The culmination of these various threads meant an organizational challenge of an unheard-of proportions for curators. “We’ve been working with paper models for over three years,” says Gary Garrels, Elise S. Haas senior curator of painting and sculpture, cheerfully and a little ruefully. “I would wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘Oh, God, that is not going to work!’ And then get up in the morning and rearrange all over again.”

Garrels’ role has been one of maestro, bringing together a small orchestra of curators to not only plan where 260 works from the Fisher collection would go, but also invent from the ground up how to exhibit work in the building. They’ve had to ask questions about light, color, foot traffic, where people will stand, how much shadow and how much space each piece should have. It’s particularly difficult when you are working only with a theoretical model. “The difference is like reading a book or actually being in a museum—where you have a physical encounter with the art,” says Garrels.

First on the agenda was displaying the Fisher collection. Per the new agreement with the museum, one rarely seen in U.S. institutions, the collection is now considered public and in the careful hands of SFMOMA for the next 100 years. This year, the museum will showcase Fisher works separately, then in coming years plans to exploit the natural fission between the collection and the museum’s permanent works. Garrels notes that Don Fisher was the chair of the Acquisitions Committee for many years, so the interests of both entities dovetail nicely while providing the opportunity for interesting interpretations: “It’s a collection that’s very celebratory and large, but open-ended in terms of the range of experiences that the work provides.” For example, the Warhol holdings center around the fleeting nature of fame and celebrity rather than a hit parade of major classics.

For three of the Fisher floors, each the size of a football field, Garrels looked at several of the strengths of the family’s collection: American Abstraction, Pop, Minimal and Figurative Art, and German Art after 1960. Along the way, the challenges of curating for a brand-new building kept cropping up.

“Once we were actually in the building we had to look very carefully at sightlines,” explains Sarah Roberts, Andrew W. Mellon Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture, who focused on the American Abstraction and Pop Art floors. “Two paintings may look fantastic together, but when you start looking at what’s in the next gallery and what’s off to that side, it doesn’t quite work.” Architecture and sunlight informed decisions as well. A delicate L-shaped Ellsworth Kelly floor painting was tucked in a low-traffic corner on a side that worked with partitions. Based on a pair of cards, “this painting impacts the architecture as much as the architecture impacts it,” Roberts explains.

Fortunately, the Fisher family were ideal collaborators throughout the entire process. “At one point Doris Fisher said to me, ‘I think museums generally overhang their galleries,’ and I took that as a blessing…you know, to let a few things slip away,” says Garrels with a laugh.

On the fourth floor, in a cul-de-sac at the very end of the galleries, the two curators arranged for a special pièce de résistance, a tranquil permanent gallery for Southwestern painter Agnes Martin, and based on the same proportions of a gallery she helped design for the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico. The octagonal room features seven abstract paintings that surround the viewer, with the star being a blue-green canvas with tinges of gold in the center. The layered surfaces are illuminated by a splash of sun that creeps in from a nearby skylight. “It’s a room for meditation, a place to have an intimate relationship with the paintings,” says Garrels.

Meanwhile, on the third floor, Caitlin Haskell, assistant curator of painting and sculpture, wrestled with her own challenges for the Calder Motion Lab. Calder is a major focal point within the museum, not just confined to its own gallery, but also featured prominently in the first-floor atrium. It’s appropriate that the 20th-century tinkerer should be so visible—he has strong Northern California roots, having moved to S.F. and attended Lowell High School when his father became acting chief of sculpture at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in 1915.

To give the 11 sculptures in the Motion Lab their due, Haskell and the team scoured the globe for Calder exhibitions and debated everything from the height of the ceilings, now set at 11½ feet to allow for an immersive, “totally new way to experience Calder,” to the perfect rich matte hue of gray for the walls. The lab incorporates a light-filled indoor room, plus a striking outdoor space set against a living wall of over 1,900 plants. Stabiles such as Big Crinkly flop and tilt in the breeze against the textured green.

Haskell wanted to show Calder’s metamorphosis from simply drawing in space to his monumental stabiles, and also highlight pinnacle works throughout his career. She points out a wire sculpture of a fish in a bowl as one of his early moments to savor: “If you were to lift the wand, the fish would move, and it’s incredibly delightful,” she says. Other works include muscular 1950s mobiles such as Double Gong, which, depending on the wind—curators call it “air activation”—creates sounds from a series of mallets and gongs. Then there are the classics, such as Eighteen Numbered Black. “Calder’s contribution to the prewar art world is tremendous, and the contribution that he makes to the postwar era is also really significant. I think it’s pretty exciting we can show its impact and also be a homecoming of sorts,” says Haskell.

Beyond the Fishers’ extensive collection, other areas with strong ties to S.F. are deeply probed. In a city well known for its photography collectors—Bob Fisher, Trevor Traina, David Mahoney and Winn Ellis—the introduction of the John and Lisa Pritzker Center for Photography makes perfect sense (it’s also worth mentioning that one of the founders of SFMOMA was a close personal friend of Ansel Adams). The center makes SFMOMA the largest space in the U.S. permanently devoted to photography. And the collection is equally profound: Senior Curator of Photography Sandra Phillips can pluck her favorites from more than 17,800 works for the nearly 15,000-square-foot space.

For her opening exhibition, entitled “California and the West,” she selected photos that echo the state’s tradition of working the land to develop an industry “and how it affects the human spirit,” she says wryly. Drawing on early photographers, who were often former forty-niners who found panning for gold too difficult, she shows how early images sparked the conservation movement. Phillips gestures to a photo by Carleton Watkins, whose images of Yosemite were presented to the U.S. Congress and prompted Abraham Lincoln to federally preserve Yosemite Valley. Other pieces in the 200-photograph exhibition include many post-1906 earthquake images, which ushered in a local trend for glorifying nature and natural things. From there she traces the decades, pausing before heart-wrenching photos by Dorothea Lange, a series chronicling the Patty Hearst media circus, and on to contemporary favorites such as Larry Sultan. 

It’s already a mind-boggling cultural experience, but it’s hard not to ask the question, “What next?” Right now the museum is coy with the details, apart from an upcoming Bruce Conner and a Matisse/Diebenkorn show, but it should be an adventure to see how these curators begin to play with the Fisher collection juxtaposed with the museum’s own masterpieces in the coming years. Roberts’ own remarks while admiring Agnes Martin’s Night Sea (1963) seem apropos: “The more time I spend looking at it, the more it unfolds.” Under their watch, the museum should too. 

Photography by AUBRIE PICK.