San Francisco Musem of Modern Art

Snøhetta To Design Museum Around Gap Founder’s Bequest

The late Donald Fisher, founder of the Gap, amassed a major collection of contemporary art. He lent some of it to exhibitions (an excellent Martin Puryear show, for instance ), but mainly it stayed at Gap headquarters (below), or in a vast private warehouse. As Fisher neared 80, he began to look around for a home for his art. His plan was to build a new museum for it, in San Francisco: this suited the city in a way, since our museums are already scattered, but it was odd that Fisher, a contemporary art magnet and member of the board of trustees, wouldnt think first of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

He chose a site in the Presidio, overlooking the old parade ground and the Golden Gate; in 2007, he commissioned a suitably imposing and modern design; but when he submitted the plans, they were rejected by the notoriously conservative Presidio Trust. (The Presidio is a national park, run under a for-profit regime; the Trust is determined to maintain its character as an army base circa 1900, with wooden barracks and houses of a certain Southern vernacular. The Walt Disney Family Museum satisfied the Trust by choosing one of the soundest of the old buildings and renovating it very cautiously, upgrading the structure but leaving many details intact.)

Donald Fisher at The Gap headquarters

Donald Fisher at The Gap headquarters

Fisher modified the design, but in the summer of 2009, after an unsuccessful environmental review, he gave up, hinting he might look elsewhere. Then, on September 25 last year, it was announced that Fisher had decided to give his art to SFMOMA after all; and on September 28th, he died. (Im sure theres much more to this melodrama, and I suspect the reporters of the San Francisco Chronicle could make a revealing book of it.) The museum had already announced plans to expand, and by six months after the bequest, it had raised $250 million dollars. (It didnt hurt that Charles Schwab is the chairman of the board.) With the help of Mayor Gavin Newsom, the museum struck a deal to take over the site of an adjoining fire station; and it chose an architect, the Norwegian firm Snøhetta.

(Im fond of the current building, by Mario Botta; the galleries are somewhat awkward, but the exterior and entrance are catchy and well-crafted, with distinctively detailed stripes of brick and stone. For whatever reason, Botta was not invited to the design competition.)

SFMOMA, then, is about to become a new museum, its size more than doubled and its collection greatly strengthened. As a foretaste, it has mounted two large exhibitions this summer: one of the Fisher bequest, and one of the museums own permanent collection, arranged as a retrospective of the museums history (and a celebration of its 75th anniversary).

Andy Warhol, Triple Elvis, 1963

Andy Warhol, Triple Elvis, 1963

The Fisher show is overwhelming – the scale of it, including many big pieces (Andy Warhol, Triple Elvis, 1963, above), makes the need for the extension obvious. The title is “From Calder to Warhol”, but the weight of the collection is on the later end of that range, in post-1950s American art. Like an art-history survey on the walls, it brings you one major artist of the period after another, often in a room of his or her own: Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, Agnes Martin, Georg Baselitz, Philip Guston, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Ellsworth Kelly, and more, ending of course with Warhol. Some of these rooms represent the artists better than others – Martin, for example, is unsurprisingly consistent, while most of the Richters dont strike me as his best. The slideshow of big names becomes downright oppressive when you reach Chuck Close, some ten big paintings (Agnes [Martin], below) staring at you in two small rooms. (That his portraits are mainly of artists adds to the claustrophobia – but also makes you wonder why Kiki Smith or Lorna Simpson rate as subjects, not as artists in their own right in the collection.)

"Agnes" by Chuck Close

Chuck Close, "Agnes", 1998; oil on canvas; 102 x 84 inches; The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at SFMOMA; ©Chuck Close, courtesy PaceWildenstein, NY; photo: Ellen Page Wilson

Its a relief to come across pictures that are not part of such a block; theres a room near the end, for example, with a well-chosen portrait and landscape by Wayne Thiebaud, and a sweet/tart double portrait by David Hockney. Here, you can feel a personal taste at work. And the same can be said for the Calder gallery, which is an outlier from the contemporary focus of the collection, and makes a better case for the artist than most museums Ive seen. The Surrealist in Calder shows through in each of these pieces, through outright jokes or inventive detail – even in the mobiles that most resemble the Platonic or average Calder, the forms hanging at the end of the rods go beyond the generic Calder blob. Theres a great wire fishbowl (kin to the famous circus). Perhaps Calder was Fishers guilty pleasure, a relief from the severities of contemporary art.

The museums own retrospective is a contrast in every way. It begins earlier, with regional art, including photography, of the 1920s, and a small but well-chosen room of European modernists. (Several Matisse; a sweet Brancusi; but my favorite here might be a great late Magritte.) Next to that, a room with a rotating selection from Carl Djerassis collection of Paul Klee graphics; on the day I was there, it was mainly lithographs, some ephemeral but all full of his restless invention. And so it goes: some rooms are thematic (conceptual art, with Nauman and Eleanor Antin but also our own David Ireland), some delve deeper into single artists (Jay DeFeo or Eva Hesse), some into schools (the evanescent Mission School, based in street art). Some just scratch the surface of their domains (design, for instance, though the Olivetti posters are perfect); some, as with photography, just scratch the surface of the collection.

The single most eccentric detail of the collection is a wall of art by schoolchildren in (what was then) Rhodesia – an enthusiasm of the director, Grace McCann Morley, collected in 1957. The pictures are lively and unpretentious, and its endearing that the museum has held on to them.

The pieces from the retrospective that stood out in my memory this time were Jackson Pollocks Guardians of the Secret, of 1943, in which a mature Pollock of a later period appears to float, by anachronism, within a lively semi-representational framing band; and Felix Gonzalez Torress Untitled (Golden), ridiculous and lovely, a seemingly simple curtain of cheap gold beads swept across one wide opening of the gallery. With a collection that works in so many different ways, Im sure something else would get me the next time.

The Fisher collection will be a major draw, with so many headline artists and strong pieces. An architect involved with the Presidio project told me he thought it was better than the museums collection, and I know what he meant. But the parallel exhibition shows that SFMOMA is starting from a great base already – and indeed that the works in the new collection will appear in clearer context, and to greater advantage, as part of the broader collection, built up over a longer time, with greater care and love, and a more expansive vision of what art can be.

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