Friday, April 18, 2014

The Illusion of a Future

“The future comes apace; what shall defend the interim?”

A New Museum

The postmodern future arrived in San Francisco in 1995, the year the City’s modern and postmodern art was removed from a French Renaissance building with eight Doric columns, tossed into a U-Haul, trucked South of Market, and installed in the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. This was architect Mario Botta’s SFMOMA: dramatically horizontal, a masterpiece of modernist marquetry, a temple of light and air wrapped in red, black, and white surface panels glittering in the California sun like rooftop tiles on village houses surrounded by sea.

Topped with a turret resembling a wide eye that gazes up at the sky and daydreams but doesn’t look down, doesn’t do surveillance, not for any amount of money, this Temple of Modern Art, when it was open to the public, proclaimed that what was culturally contemporary and provocative deserved a kindred shelter: a singularly lovely jewelry box for rare gems, an awe-inspiring treasure house for sacred treasures.  Dressed to impress, never intending to be daunting, the new museum guilelessly offered itself to a maverick town. 

A Maverick Town

City begins with gambling, drinking, prostitution on the Barbary Coast. City implodes with earthquake and fire.  City rebuilds from the ashes, more beautiful, more solid than ever. City of the Western Gate, perched on the rim of the world. 

City elegant. City temperate. City tolerant.  Financed by Mama’s Bank Account.  Capitalized by Go-Daddies. City of ladies. City of tramps. City of nostalgia. Celebrated City.  Storied City. A town where you left your heart; a town you must squint at to see in your mind’s eye.

Haven for beatniks and hippies, gay men and trannies, immigrants, mixed race marriages, unbelievers and non-believers, lovers, illegals, Irishmen, Chinese Americans,  Italian Americans, Japanese Americans, Tibetan monks, physicists, romantics, astrologers, detectives, florists, divas, longshoremen, lawyers, single women, Marines, judges, Chicanas, Russian émigrés, South Asian fishermen, carpenters, old money, new money, no money, ballet dancers, homeless, philanthropists, poets, pirates, mounted police, actors, chauffeurs and buskers.

The new SFMOMA offered itself to a maverick town. It seemed a good match.

Diversity Breeds Insecurity

The new SFMOMA and San Francisco: it seemed a good match, until the moment when, at the sight of the building that would be utopia, diversity bred insecurity. For at first the new museum––when it opened with more white spaces on its perfect walls than pictures, and ghostly three-dimensional absences in its forecourts instead of sculptures––was like an Epic without a Hero.  The museum, built by a European architect, at first dwarfed San Francisco’s modest art collections within––especially the collection of Modern Art from Europe.

These were, after all, latter-day West Coast collections, devoid of great works, comprised instead of hard won exemplars of every art historical category in the modern era, a smorgasbord of gourmet leftovers for the latecomers to the soirée.

A Contemporary Museum

Today, the new museum still defines itself by its contemporary architecture. It is an architecture so outspoken that, when the museum first opened in January of 1995 at its new location on Third Street––not only did it look wildly out of place in relation to the surrounding skyscrapers, and anomalous in relation to the nearby Saint Patrick Church, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Moscone Center, host to conventions of comic book readers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs; not only did it look wildly out of place, but its definitive appearance in the winter sunshine raised uncomfortable questions about San Franciscans and their patrons. Were they ignorant? Pretentious? Were they too nouveau riche to have had the time and expertise to acquire fine art? And finally, desperately, had they enough art, even mediocre art, to fill a building that would have been more at home in a city of banks and industry?

Before All That

Before all that, before San Francisco’s intellectuals and art patrons had an identity crisis and tormented themselves with these questions, while most San Franciscans refused to think about such things, and went to the baseball game instead –

Before all that, there was modern art in a French Renaissance building planned, in 1918, to be dedicated to the Veterans of World War I. Finally built  in 1935 as part of a larger complex, the War Memorial Building had a fraternal twin: a European-style opera house with Doric columns, arched windows, and  two carriage entrances.

Modern German Painting in a French Renaissance Museum

So it was that when German Expressionism came to the Bay Area, the people of San Francisco were awe-struck. Grateful. Smitten.

In the days that followed, I often visited the old museum.  Soon I found myself giving tours of shows featuring humongous abstract paintings by Gerhard Richter, mysteriously female textile art in tactile, color-steeped iterations, or works like the ceramic sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet monkey by the commercially successful Pop artist Jeff Koons.

It all started with Expressionism.

It was German painting that first drew me to the old San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Since its founding in 1935, the museum had mounted some first-rate exhibitions in its sixty years of residency in the Veterans’ War Memorial building. There its proximity to other educational-cultural institutions such as the San Francisco Opera, Davies Symphony Hall and the San Francisco Public Library defined SFMOMA’s mission as mainstream modernist: at one and the same time high brow, provocative, urbane and middle class.

The West Coast museum might never possess a great painting by Picasso or Klee; its permanent collection might consist of art historical exemplars rather than great works of art. But in the seventies and eighties, SFMOMA would score some blockbuster shows, and curate some intriguing niche exhibitions. They would be, for the most part, exhibitions of paintings. Of course the museum would foreground painting, because that is what modern art essentially was.

So there was a joyously mind-blowing show of paintings by Vassily Kandinsky: wild fantasia of line and color. There was an exhibition of fine, rarely seen paintings by Gabriella Munter: small, skillful, realistic. The two artists had been lovers, and she had supported him financially.

A German Baron

There were the paintings from the collection of the Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, a large man, tall in a dark, crisply tailored suit, a formal, somewhat chilly man, without frowns but also without smiles, an aristocratic goodwill ambassador who met with the museum docents for a walk-through of his paintings. The baron was descended, apparently, from a family of German industrialists, makers of steel. (And what had their steel been used to make? And what had they done during the war? And had they purchased any art on the black market? We didn’t ask.)

Before Expressionism and later on, there were smaller, less ambitious shows of Bay Area Figurative art: cityscapes by Wayne Thiebaud, human figures ironically posed by Joan Brown, solitary figures in fields of color by Richard Diebenkorn, hyper-realist scenes of suburbia by Robert Bechtle, and figures in vague, ambiguously delineated spaces by Nathan Oliveira.

A German Intuition

But most wonderful of all, was the major show of German Expressionist painting called “A German Intuition.” The German intuition expressed itself in wild colors and spontaneous lines (but also in black circumscribing outlines). The naïveté and energy of the Expressionist vision were astounding. It was as edgy as anything that ever purported to be edgy. Inspired, I became an SFMOMA docent, just to get closer to this art. We learned about Jugendstil and the Blue Rider. We learned about Weimar. We watched Cabaret again.

 Was Wollen Die Deutschen?

The legacy of Germany––the potential for German greatness and the immanent German disaster––was everywhere in the narrative of Expressionism. Before World War I and subsequently, Expressionist films entertained an isolated Germany. The culture of Weimar had been vital but damned. Forty years on, the audience for the Expressionist show in the San Francisco Bay Area was predominantly American and to a meaningful degree, Jewish. Among the friends and colleagues who saw the show, and saw it again, among the museum docents and administrators, were many American Jews of German descent.  The docents’ art history course was taught by the daughter of holocaust survivor Bruno Bettleheim. There was an uptick of interest in German culture. Hoping to better understand the Germans, people started learning the language again. They attended lectures at the Goethe Institute.

In the 1970s when I set about learning German as a “critical language,” that is, when I learned the basics of the language in order to be able to read, not German literature, but scholarly articles in German as part of the study of Comparative Literature, my first year book of readings in German was entitled, Was Wollen Die Deutschen? (What Do the Germans Want?) Just as Freud had asked, presumably in exasperation, “What does a woman want?” so the Americans seemed to hope to probe the obscure character of the Germans.

Did the show on Expressionism mix politics with art? Perhaps. But in the end it was mostly about the painting. Modernist, figurative, thematic, Expressionism might still inspire, but just as the movement’s demise was reflected by the sickly faces in the paintings of late Expressionist Emil Nolde, so Expressionism’s clôture, its inability to influence 20th century art after World War II, was evident in the discrepancy between the Expressionist vision and American art of the 1960s-1980s.

A New Hub

Yes, American art. In the 1960s, the hub of the art world in the West had shifted from Europe to America. Figurative art had been displaced by abstract painting, which in its turn was championed by New York art critic Clement Greenberg: New York was the center of the abstract art movement. Abstract art was still modernist – that is to say authorial, idealized, romantic, heroic. By the early 1970s, modernism was just beginning to come under attack by the new skeptical movement, postmodernism. By the 1980s, an even more remarkable development was beginning to take place. The hub of the artistic universe was still New York, but increasingly, West Coast artists, many of them painters, sculptors and ceramicists from the Bay Area figurative school, were gaining recognition, not only in Northern California, but nationally.

New York began to look at California art.  There was David Hockney after all; a British transplant to Southern California, his paintings of swimming pools were becoming iconic. In addition he had used his talents to design painterly sets for operas: Colette’s story set to music by Ravel: L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale, Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Who could ignore him now?

As Americans slogged through the eighties, painting began to give way as the dominant medium of modern/ postmodern art. Design was art, we were told. Photography was as worthy as painting, and more unexplored.  Sculpture inhabited the whole universe with its dimensionality. Ceramic sculpture by California artists Robert Arneson and David Gilhooly, once considered eccentric and quirky, was becoming accepted; indeed, a ceramic sculptor might even be commissioned to create a monument, as in the case of Arneson’s bust of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, assassinated in 1978 along with gay city supervisor Harvey Milk.

Diversity Breeds Maturity

More and more, we heard the words "postmodernism,"multiculturalism," and "diversity. " Our society was fast diversifying, and so was our culture. The new SFMOMA never did cover its walls with great oil paintings. Not from Germany, not from Russia, not from France. Those paintings belonged to the past, to Europe. They had already been purchased in the great European capitals, in New York. But the new San Francisco museum did come into its own. The new museum did fill up with art and with museum goers. San Franciscans went in droves to the baseball game and they went in droves to the museum. What they saw there were paintings on an equal footing with photography, sculpture, video, design, architecture, film.

Somewhere along the way, the identity crisis resolved itself. Never quite at home with the high art claims of modernism, San Francisco was at home with the postmodern democracy of an art that reflected its character. City elegant. City temperate. City tolerant.

A quintessentially diverse city, San Francisco had become sure of itself, had grown into a mature society.


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