Pop open the champagne and ignite the fireworks! The staff of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art deserves to celebrate. Their $305 million expansion and renovation project, designed by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta, is a triumph. They have completed a building that can compete on the world stage, bolstered the museum’s finances with a $610 million capital campaign, and added more than 3,000 works to its collection. Its opening on May 14 will mark the start of a new art era for the City by the Bay.
Let’s not get carried away, though: when the celebrations are over, some tough work will have to begin, because even as the building delights, its initial hang is uneven and, in places, awkward. There are resplendent, gilded shows of forces, masterpieces to make you swoon, but there are also missed opportunities, oversights, and disappointments. It may take some time to figure it all out.
First, though, the magnificent building. It is gigantic, with a total of 235,000 square feet of space—170,000 of that, over seven floors, is devoted to exhibitions. That is two and a half times the 70,000 that SFMOMA had before the renovation, and it is just about equal to the combined exhibition space of two New York big kahunas: the Museum of Modern Art (125,000) and the new Whitney Museum (50,000).
A museum space race is afoot across the United States. SFMOMA is now billing itself as the largest museum of contemporary art in the country. And they’re not wrong. In terms of gallery space, its only real rivals are MASS MOCA (200,000 square feet) and Dia:Beacon (240,000), but both of those are very different beasts, concerned with the long-term display of very large works rather than collecting. Soon, MoMA’s planned Diller Scofidio + Renfro–helmed expansion will add another 50,000, just barely edging out SFMOMA’s figure.
The new SFMOMA is not only huge; it is also grandly scaled. This is architecture that can elegantly handle the massive crowds that will no doubt materialize, not least because locals have been without their museum for nearly three years as construction took place. There are roomy lobbies and wide hallways, and ample space around and between pieces. But thankfully—blessedly—this is also architecture that stays almost entirely out of the way of the art. Galleries are varied, sensibly sized and rectilinear. The lighting is superb. There are warm, blond wood floors, and staircases that are positioned wisely, narrowing slightly as they ascend the gently curved building. Walking up and down them, one curses MoMA’s mall-like crisscrossing escalators. With this structure, Snøhetta joins the ranks of the world’s top museum designers.
And the art? The initial hang of SFMOMA’s holdings is a shock-and-awe performance—exhilarating in its run of big names, and occasionally baffling in the way it has been spread about. Patrons provide the unifying curatorial theme, with many sections displaying the collection of Gap founders Doris and Donald Fisher, and others highlighting works donated or promised to the museum by more than 200 collectors as part of a Campaign for Art.
About a third of the 1,100-work Fisher Collection, heavy with American and German postwar art, is on view. After mulling the option of establishing a private museum, the couple decided in 2009, before Donald died, to place their collection on loan to SFMOMA for 100 years. They have also given a substantial, undisclosed sum for the construction of the museum. It is an intensely (almost hilariously) blue-chip selection of work—big money, male, and white, in other words.
The Fishers collected quite a few artists throughout their career, amassing deep holdings, and at SFMOMA many pivotal figures get a room (or two or three) to themselves. There are glorious rooms, one flowing into the next, of Ellsworth Kellys, two for Andy Warhol (one of early paintings, including a primo 1963 Triple Elvis [Ferus Type] and another of late portraits, with two classic “fright wig” self-portraits), two for Chuck Close (one would have been more than enough), two for Anselm Kiefer, two for Gerhard Richter (one of abstractions, the other of photo-realistic works), and one each for Carl Andre, Frank Stella (later work, looking wonderfully out of place after galleries of Minimalism), mid-to-late Philip Guston, a key Bruce Nauman flashing neon, Brice Marden, Alexander Calder, Andreas Gursky, Dan Flavin, Sigmar Polke, Agnes Martin, and more.
If you think you are spotting a trend here, you are correct: the only woman getting a room of her own in the Fisher section, which ranges across large parts of four floors, is Martin. The Martin room is beautiful, a quietly stunning chapel of a gallery, with seven flat walls angled in almost a complete circle, each one holding a single masterpiece, covering decades of her work. But the overall male-centric display is a shame. The Fisher loan is undeniably generous, providing SFMOMA with the caliber of art that is well beyond the reach of even the most well-funded institutions these days (the figure of $1 billion has been bandied about as to its worth), but shown on its own it becomes a portrait of the tastes of two collectors, and the upper-echelon of the art market, rather than an exhibition that meaningfully engages history or makes nuanced connections.
Thankfully, the terms of the Fisher loan state that a monographic display of the collection must be organized only once a decade. The rest of the time, Fisher works can be augmented by pieces from the rest of the SFMOMA collection and a richer tale of postwar art can be told. (The loan agreement states that Fisher-designated galleries must always contain at least 75 percent Fisher works.) To just scratch the surface of possibilities: the Fishers bought very strong Joan Mitchells, which could be united with another in the collection for a very solid room of her art; ditto for Lee Krasner, and the museum’s Eva Hesses could join the party in the 1960s.
And even in the relative monoculture that is the Fisher Collection, there are a few canny curatorial moments, like the pairing of Robert Therrien and Martin Puryear, the former’s red, jagged shaped canvas Untitled (Bent Cone), 1989, rhyming perfectly with the latter’s smooth, curving 1990 untitled sculpture, both riffing on Phrygian caps. (That match was also made in SFMOMA’s 2010 exhibition of the Fisher collection.) And just off the Kelly rooms, there is a gallery showing Days on Blue (1974–77), a delicate and ice-cold sculpture made with propped planes of steel and glass by Christopher Wilmarth, who is less than a household name.
Déjà vu strikes in the nearby galleries of works coming to the museum through its Campaign for Art—more Kiefer, more Polke, more Richter, and the like, plus little groups of Bay Area figuration (Joan Brown, Wayne Thiebaud, and David Park among them, but not nearly enough), of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and of Abstract Expressionism. (Again, it is going to be a breath of fresh air when that work can be hung with the Fisher material.)
In another tiny room sit works by European greats, like Picasso, Bacon, and Léger, though prewar modernism is not a strength at SFMOMA, and judging by the prices being recorded in the field and absent a kind donor, it may never be.
There are a few showstopping moments in these Campaign for Art rooms. Two galleries of prime 1960s Richard Serra prop pieces provide one. (Though it would be great if the wire stanchions were a touch more discrete.) Ed Ruscha’s modestly sized red painting Evil (1973) provides another—its title is spelled out in sharp, angled block letters painted by the artist with his blood.
It is on the seventh floor, focused on recent art acquired through the Campaign for Art, that things turn disastrous. One arrives to the sight of Richard Prince’s infamous Spiritual America rephotograph of a young, nude Brooke Shields, Martin Kippenberger’s crucified wooden frog, a Jeff Koons equilibrium tank, a Cady Noland cutout sculpture, and a Christopher Wool abstraction, among others. This is a grouping that could be found anywhere in the world—the house of a wealthy collector without any real defining taste (beyond an interest in investment-grade art), an auction house, or an art fair, but it is here in SFMOMA, in the opening show, apparently representing the best the museum has to offer.
It gets bleaker. The great Charles Ray’s admittedly impressive 2012 solid-steel sculpture, tranquil and disturbing, of a woman asleep on a bench (an affecting sight in a city in the midst of a housing and homelessness crisis), leads into what would seem to be a very obvious configuration of art concerned with identity, made by minorities, with Glenn Ligon (his stately neon sign glowing “America”), Mark Bradford, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, David Hammons (a basketball drawing propped on bricks), Nicole Miller, Brad Kahlhamer, and Ai Weiwei, among others.
That leads into a lackluster room of market-favored, process-leaning abstract painters like Tomma Abts, Raoul De Keyser, Garth Weiser, Mark Grotjahn, and Sergej Jensen, and the great sculptors Ron Nagle and Vincent Fecteau, all crammed together. Grotjahn pops up again a few steps away in a slightly more intriguing context, a duel with Bradford, each of them grabbing two walls. Later on we are shown minor pieces by Doug Aitken, Rachel Harrison, and Dana Schutz.
Again and again throughout the museum, I kept waiting for the funk and weirdness to show up. Even casual art fans—the types that go to a few museums a year and maybe take in the odd art fair—will be well-acquainted with most of the work on the seventh floor. So why show it all again in such a bland way?
In contrast, the Whitney presented a remarkable model for a collection hang last year, when it inaugurated its new building in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District with “America Is Hard to See,” a ranging group show that set red-meat masterpieces, obscure side dishes, and little-known treats side by side. It still skewed white and male, but it assembled a broader look of 20th- and 21st-century art, one populated by fruitful detours and forgotten episodes. It was electric, and it invited you to return repeatedly, to become acquainted with other rare episodes. The SFMOMA display mostly invites you to genuflect before its greatness.
There are, at least, promising hints of more-inventive approaches down on the second floor, as in a juicy room on the human figure that leaps from hometowners Robert Bechtle and David Park to Romare Bearden and Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Elsewhere, the Bay Area shapeshifter Joan Brown, who transitioned in her too-short career from thick, brushy figurative paintings to tightly outlined Pop-inflected portraits, meets the mad collagist Jess. Another gallery champions, in high style, the underrated California conceptualists.
But here, too, the déjà vu sets in. An area with works given to the museum in the past by the Anderson family has Rauschenbergs and Johnses, Oldenburgs and Warhols, whom we have seen up above, in both the Fisher and Campaign for Art sections, and there is more Ab Ex, which would have looked rather nice with the paintings upstairs.
If one wanted to get indignant about this patron-focused approach, one might say that it exemplifies a core problem of the art scene at the moment, as collectors exercise outsize influence on institutions. But these scattered hangings can be fixed. A newly great museum collection is aching to be shown in its greatest form, and it will be, once the patrons’ wishes are shrugged off and works are hung alongside one another.
Enough grumbling. The new SFMOMA really is an embarrassment of riches. At one point, I happened upon a fellow writer from New York in a jewel-like exhibition of Paul Klee paintings and we marveled that, after each walking around for a few hours, briskly, we had yet to see the whole building. It just kept going! There was not another person in sight, and new surprises seemed to await around every corner. That is a wild feeling, one that I have only ever had inside the vast MASS MOCA.
Speaking of those riches, there are also significant, sprawling photography galleries. And there are cozy outdoor spaces where you can take in views of the city or tap on Snøhetta’s rippling fiberglass facade. And there are black-box spaces, which show video works by artists like William Kentridge and Shirin Neshat to very fine effect, a state-of-the-art “white-box” performance space, and, frankly, sexy bathrooms whose walls and floors are painted an ecstatic red.
Besides the thematic shows, the second floor is also home to a compact history of modern and contemporary art since 1900 titled “Open Ended.” Altogether, it is worth the new ticket price of $25, which is the going rate at MoMA, as well. Having said that, and acknowledging that this is probably a losing battle, I would beseech museums to chill out on the price hikes, which make it increasingly difficult for even well-off families to visit. Peg admission to the price of a matinee movie ticket or, better, make it suggested—maybe knock a floor or two off of expansions to create an endowment to subsidize fees.
Working our way down, this brings us, finally, to the first floor. In the entrance area of the old building, designed by Mario Botta and finished in 1995, Snøhetta has axed the grand staircase, replacing it with a much lower-key wood one, to move the masses up more smoothly into the museum’s new lobby.
Over on the first floor of the new building is Richard Serra’s looping Cor-Ten steel sculpture Sequence (2006). It stands 13 feet tall and weighs 200 tons, and it is so hulking that the expansion had to go up around it, after it had been installed. It looks set there for all time (though it will be removed in a few years), and has been extensively written about in the press. Visible from the street, it is now the defining symbol of the new SFMOMA—august, brand-name, big, and expensive.
However, if the museum is to become a lasting and vital member of the city’s diverse community, and not just its moneyed patrons, it needs to become the opposite of that Serra: nimble, quick-thinking, and open to change. I would propose as a role model Joan Brown’s punchy 1975 painting After the Alcatraz Swim #1, on view on the museum’s second floor. Perhaps fresh from a swim in the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay, a woman is standing next to a fireplace. A fire is burning, and she has one arm across the mantle, and the other on her hip, akimbo. She is staring upward—daydreaming, maybe. There’s no telling what she will get up to next.
A slide show of the newly renovated SFMOMA follows below.
ALL PHOTOS: ANDREW RUSSETH/ARTNEWS
Update, May 13: Clarified that the Serra will be rotated off view in a few years.