Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 18, 2017
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) Reopening 2016.
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Roberts Family Gallery featuring Richard Serra’s Sequence (2006) at SFMOMA. Photo: © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA.

The third incarnation of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) opened to great fanfare in May 2016. The new building more than doubles SFMOMA’s galleries, increases by over ten times the educational facilities, and multiples by four the spaces devoted to cinema and performance. Despite the expanded potential, reactions were mixed. Much of the criticism focused on the architecture, notably the rippling facade of fiberglass-reinforced polymer panels. The sheathing incorporates white sand from the dunes of Monterey Bay that plays with the light atmospherically. Critics have described the facade diversely as “a giant iceberg” (Los Angeles Times), “a gigantic meringue” made from “carved polystyrene” (The Guardian), and “an inflatable bulging out of the solid brick original structure” (San Francisco Chronicle).1 Roberta Smith, in the New York Times, struck one of the few unambiguously positive notes, writing, “It reminds us that the horizontal and vertical grids of the city can be disrupted without being destroyed.”2

Reportage inevitably included at least one photograph of the unconventional facade taken from the top floor of an adjacent skyscraper. Only from such a vantage point can the shimmering new face of SFMOMA be seen in its entirety. Few will experience this integral view. The extension, wedged like a puzzle piece into space eked out of the downtown landscape, reveals itself more typically in glimpses caught between buildings, from blocks away, or in slices revealed only from the museum’s balconies. This fleeting, fragmentary visual experience lends a mirage-like quality to the sculpted facade. Its mysterious forms seem to shift like water, to disappear and reappear like fog, which was the stated intention of the structure’s architects, the Norwegian firm Snøhetta.

One the project’s most thorny architectural challenges concerned the integration of the original Mario Botta building into the redesign. The postmodern structure by Botta, built in 1995, was the museum’s second home. When SFMOMA opened in 1935, it leased its first location in the War Memorial Veterans Building, Civic Center. The Botta building—erected in a neighborhood then undergoing redevelopment—made SFMOMA a key player in the area’s gentrification and a cornerstone of the South of Market (SoMa) arts district. Acknowledging this history in its hybrid, composite form, Snøhetta left intact the facade of Botta’s red brick fortress, with its central oculus wrapped in bands of black and white stone. The extension, set back, juts out above the original building like a colossal crystal formation. The awkwardness of this Snøhetta-Botta “marriage of convenience”—as John King described the union in the San Francisco Chronicle—is near universally acknowledged.3

From inside the original Third Street lobby, Snøhetta’s addition looks like an invasion. The Botta building has been hollowed out. The massive granite staircase once rising out of the central atrium is gone—replaced by a switchback stairway crafted of blond wood. The effect, in the words of the the Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright, is that of “an IKEA flat-pack” erected in a temple. If the negotiation between old and new is sometimes fraught, it arguably contributes to the building’s dynamism. Botta’s original ground-floor lobby has been upstaged by the new ticketing and reception area now located one floor up. The grand second-floor foyer can be accessed from the Third Street lobby or an alternative gateway around the corner on Howard Street. The Howard Street entrance, if less apparent, has more curb appeal: Richard Serra’s monumental sculpture Sequence (2006), visible through the glass walls of a street level gallery, stops passersby in their tracks. Serra’s interlacing spirals of rusty steel rise to a height of thirteen feet and weigh two hundred tons. Delivered to the museum on a whole fleet of flatbed trucks, the piece required installation before the museum’s glass walls could be closed in around it.

Thirty-five stained concrete stairs lead up to the new Snøhetta entryway from Howard Street. The climb rewards visitors with aerial views of Serra’s sculpture. Inside the Snøhetta extension, a massive Roman staircase fashioned of maple connects the new reception area to the sidewalk-level gallery. The monumental steps provide stadium seating for those inclined to contemplate Serra’s work from various elevations and angles. Sequence is one of several artworks accessible to viewers at no charge; no ticket is required for viewing installations on the first and second floors, which also include a Sol LeWitt mural and an Alexander Calder mobile.

Such artistic and architectural gestures of integration with San Francisco announce an institutional rededication to openness; the words “permeability” and “accessibility” recur in the institutional literature and on SFMOMA’s blog, Open Space, which provides a platform for an exceptionally diverse array of critical voices. During the three years the museum was closed to the public, curators reached out to neighboring institutions, cementing new institutional relationships and opening conversations with new publics. Snøhetta’s interior architecture spatializes themes of openness and outreach. No less than five terraces open the upper floors to various cityscapes, while providing optimal environments for sculptural works.

One of the most visited of these terraces can be accessed through the Calder “motion lab.” Outside an airy gallery devoted to Calder’s kinetic works, a trendy “living wall” provides the museum’s most widely sought backdrop for selfies. This does not diminish the horticultural achievement of the 4,399-square-foot felt surface composed of recycled water bottles, which is home to twenty-one mostly Californian plant species. Rainwater and condensation from the museum’s climate control system provide irrigation. The living wall lends impetus to an urban greening movement to which Bay Area artists and activists have significantly contributed.

In addition to the balconies and terraces, the building offers visitors many opportunities to convene, discuss, and reflect. There are two restaurants and a café. Wide hallways and spacious landings between floors invite visitors to mingle. Interactive galleries make lingering a learning experience. The Koret Education Center, a pedagogical project space responsive to the recent educational turn in art, is much larger than the old one. The Phyllis Wattis Theater, too, has been radically upgraded, and, with the newly reopened Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Films Archives across the bay, raises the prevailing standard for film presentation. The introduction of a totally new multipurpose performance space, the “White Box,” expands the museum’s commitment to live and time-based art.

And then there are the exhibition spaces, which include new galleries for media arts and more space dedicated to architecture and design. The museum’s painting and sculpture collection will show to its best advantage in galleries that give both the artworks and viewers room to breathe. The interior architecture is restrained. No baseboards, no molding, and no windows compete with the art for attention. Lighting bathes the space without calling attention to its mechanisms. Vaulting makes the extra-high ceilings acoustically as well as aesthetically pleasing. The open-endedness of the floor plan (each gallery has more than one entrance/exit; the partitions are reconfigurable) disrupts the monotony of traditional gallery itineraries. The architecture itself, one might claim, resists the construction of monotonous, linear art-historical narratives.

Paradoxically, given the tacit promises of disruption made by the building, the artworks exhibited in SFMOMA’s inaugural year are predominantly canonical. Three quarters of the pieces displayed are on one-hundred-year loan to the museum by Doris and Donald Fisher, founders of the Gap. The Fisher Collection, comprising 1,100 works of mid- and late twentieth-century art, increases the SFMOMA holdings exponentially. The terms of the agreement demand that SFMOMA show the Fisher Collection to its greatest possible advantage every ten years. The opening survey of Fisher Collection works is the first installment.

The Fishers collected big-ticket artists, mostly male, mostly white, all with blue-chip status in this market-driven art economy. “It’s Art History on Steroids,” announced a Guardian headline: “Welcome to winner-take-all art history.”4 Yet the Fishers purchased exquisite examples of these artists’ works and collected in exceptional depth: Carl Andre, Chuck Close, Dan Flavin, Philip Guston, Andreas Gursky, Anselm Kiefer, Brice Marden, Bruce Nauman, Gerhard Richter, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol. Seven exquisite paintings by Agnes Martin—the only woman with a room of her own—occupy an intimate octagon that visitors refer to as a chapel, an igloo, or a yurt.

Works acquired through the Campaign for Art, launched by the museum director, Neal Benezra, to fill the gaps in the Fisher Collection, were initially displayed on the seventh floor, as if to cap the inaugural display of Fisher Collection holdings. The unevenness and shallowness of the Campaign for Art presentation contrasted jarringly with the depth model so much in evidence below. This compensatory exhibition, a tribute to the regional collectors who have gifted over three thousand artworks, was by its very nature a hodgepodge. Most problematic was what one critic dubbed “an offensive minorities room,” grouping disparate works by David Hammons, Mark Bradford, Glenn Ligon, and Félix González-Torres, among other American artists of color.5

Given the strings attached to the Fisher Collection, and the imperatives of civility, how could these opening exhibitions—devised as tributes to donors rather than as art-historical interventions—have been better conceived? Time will tell what stories can be told and how the holdings can be differently expanded, displayed, and contextualized. Already we can sense the emergence of distinctive narratives. The visibility in the inaugural exhibitions of California artists (Ruth Asawa, Robert Bechtle, Joan Brown, Richard Diebenkorn, Jay DeFeo, Roy De Forest, Jess, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Lee Mullican, David Park, Charles Ray, Wayne Thiebaud, William T. Wiley, and more) may well heighten, in future shows, to reconfigure the institution’s profile. The inaugural photography exhibition, California and the West, organized by the outgoing senior curator Sandra Phillips, clearly pointed in this direction. Featuring some two hundred newly donated “landscape photographs” made between 1856 and 2014, this collection overview made the museum’s ongoing commitment to photography—and to California artists—plain.

Architectural environments, like art, have the power to change the way we see things. Even the new museum’s restrooms drive home this point. Each one is painted in bright enamel paint of a different color. For a few seconds after leaving a restroom, retinal retention tints the white museum walls. This is one of the most playful of the building’s many transformative gestures. Still, architecture and design alone cannot shatter the art-historical mold. In the wake of the opening exhibitions, SFMOMA has its work cut out.

Tirza True Latimer
Associate Professor and Chair, Visual and Critical Studies, California College of the Arts, San Francisco

1 Christopher Hawthorne, “SFMOMA’s Expansion Tries Mightily But Ultimately Rings a Bit Hollow,” Los Angeles Times (April 28, 2016), http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-sfmoma-expansion-review-architecture-20160428-column.html; Oliver Wainwright, “SFMOMA’s New Extension—A Giant Meringue with a Hint of IKEA,” The Guardian (April 29, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/apr/29/sf-moma-new-extension-gigantic-meringue-ikea; Charles Desmarais, “For SFMOMA, A Truly Grand Reopening,” San Francisco Chronicle (April 28, 2016), http://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Go-inside-the-new-San-Francisco-Museum-of-Modern-7379911.php.

2 Roberta Smith, “Review: SFMOMA’s Expansion Sets a New Standard for Museums,” New York Times (May 13, 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/14/arts/design/review-san-francisco-museum-of-modern-art-expansion.html?action=click&contentCollection=Travel&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article.

3 John King, “SFMOMA’s New Wing Is No Masterpiece, But It Has Real Joys,” San Francisco Chronicle (May 6, 2016), http://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/SFMOMA-s-new-wing-is-no-masterpiece-but-it-has-7395939.php.

4 Jason Farago, “SFMOMA Review: It’s Art History on Steroids, But Must Go beyond Big Names,” The Guardian (April 29, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/apr/29/sf-moma-review-warhol-fishers-collection-ellsworth-kelly.

5 Ibid.

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.