The Informers

Article excerpt

SAN FRANCISCO HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE WEST COAST'S CITY OF CULTURE, LOS ANGELES ITS CAPITAL OF ENTERTAINMENT. THEN, ABOUT A DECADE AGO, A GAUNTLET WAS DROPPED WHEN THE FABLED "CULTURAL WASTELAND," LOS ANGELES, MOBILIZED TO CREATE THE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART (MoCA). THE SAN FRANCISCO MUSEUM OF MODERN ART HAS BEEN TRYING TO PUT ITSELF BACK ON THE MAP EVER SINCE.

LAST SPRING, SFMoMA CAUSED SOME COMMOTION WHEN IT PERSUASIVELY PETITIONED THE ANDY WARHOL FOUNDATION FOR THE VISUAL ARTS FOR THE CHOICEST WARHOL PAINTING THE FOUNDATION HAD TO OFFER, MUCH OF CONTEMPORARY ART DOESN'T RESPECT THE TRADITIONAL CATEGORIES OR HIERARCHIES BY MEDIA. WE'RE A SMALL ENOUGH INSTITUTION THAT WE HAVE THE FLEXIBILITY TO LOOK AT THIS WORK, YET WE'RE LARGE ENOUGH THAT WE CAN BE VERY AMBITIOUS.

ALLAN SCHWARTZMAN TALKS WITH SFMoMA CURATORS GARY GARRELS, SANDRA PHILLIPS, ROBERT RILEY, AND JOHN WEBER

NATIONAL VELVET OF 1963, EVEN BEATING OUT THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART OF NEW YORK, WHERE IT WAS ASSUMED THE PAINTING WOULD GO, ESPECIALLY SINCE AGNES GUND, MoMA'S CHAIRPERSON, WAS ALSO AT THE TIME A TRUSTEE OF THE WARHOL FOUNDATION.

MORE IMPRESSIVE IS SFMOMA'S NEW 225,000-SQUARE-FOOT FACILITY, DESIGNED BY THE SWISS ARCHITECT MARIO BOTTA AND FINANCED BY $62 MILLION IN DONATIONS--NEARLY FOUR TIMES THE KICKOFF FUNDS RAISED BY MoCA. THE BUILDING IS DOMINATED BY A GRAND MARBLED LOBBY, STRIPED LIKE THE BUILDINGS OF SIENA, A SPACE DESIGNED TO FEEL BUSY EVEN WHEN EMPTY. THE LOBBY IS DOMINATED BY A 135-FOOT-TALL SKYLIT DRUM, WHICH BRINGS NATURAL LIGHT INTO THE MIDDLE OF THE BUILDING AND SUGGESTS A HOST OF RELIGIOUS ASSOCIATIONS, FROM THE DOME OF ST. PETER'S TO A KAABA. THREE FLOORS OF CLASSICALLY PROPORTIONED IF SOMEWHAT CHARACTERLESS GALLERIES REVOLVE AROUND THIS HUB.

WHILE ART AND ARCHITECTURE ARE NOT QUITE BLISSFULLY MARRIED HERE, THE HOSTILITY BETWEEN THE TWO THAT HAS DOMINATED RECENT MUSEUM DESIGN--MOST EVIDENTLY AT PETER EISENMAN'S WEXNER CENTER IN COLUMBUS, OHIO--HAS BEEN REPLACED BY A TEMPORARY TRUCE. IN THE SFMoMA GALLERIES THE ARCHITECTURE IS UNOBTRUSIVE, SEVERING EXHIBITION SPACE FROM PUBLIC SPACE, AND IN SO DOING CONVEYS THE STRUGGLE OF THE AMERICAN MUSEUM TODAY BETWEEN SOCIAL SPACE AND A REFUGE FOR PRIVATE CONTEMPLATION, BETWEEN POPULARITY AND SCHOLARSHIP.

WHILE SFMoMA CAN NOW CLAIM THE SECOND-LARGEST MUSEUM BUILDING DEVOTED TO 20TH-CENTURY ART IN THIS COUNTRY, WHICH IT DOES, THE PERMANENT COLLECTION IS SPOTTY. IT HAS SOME FINE MATISSES, AN IMPORTANT EARLY JACKSON POLLOCK, AND MANY POSTWAR NORTHERN CALIFORNIA GEMS, BUT THIS IS NOT A MAJOR COLLECTION OF MODERN ART. SO THE MUSEUM'S POSITION, BOTH NATIONALLY AND INTERNATIONALLY, WILL BE HINGED TO FUTURE PROGRAMS AND ACQUISITIONS. WHEN THE MUSEUM OPENS NEXT MONTH, ALONGSIDE AN EXHIBITION OF WORKS FROM THE PERMANENT COLLECTION, "FROM MATISSE TO DIEBENKORN," IT WILL PRESENT A MAJOR EXHIBITION, "PUBLIC INFORMATION: DESIRE, DISASTER, DOCUMENT," WHICH USES PAINTINGS, PHOTOGRAPHS, VIDEOTAPES, AND OTHER ARTWORKS TO EXAMINE HOW THE PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGE, AND ITS AURA OF "TRUTH," HAVE SHAPED OUR PERCEPTION OF BOTH ART AND THE WORLD AROUND US.

INCLUDED IN "PUBLIC INFORMATION" WILL BE ROBERT FRANK'S PHOTOGRAPHIC SERIES "THE AMERICANS," ANDY WARHOL'S "DEATH AND DISASTER" WORKS, A NUMBER OF GERHARD RICHTER PAINTINGS, SOME OF EDWARD RUSCHA'S ARTIST'S BOOKS, PAINTINGS AND A VIDEOTAPE BY JOHN BALDESSARI, A PAVILION AND OTHER WORKS BY DAN GRAHAM, SEVERAL PHOTOWORKS AND VIDEOTAPES BY MARTHA ROSLER, VIDEOTAPES AND PHOTOCOLLAGES BY LARRY CLARK, JEFF WALL'S PHOTOTRANSPARENCIES, SLIDE CYCLES BY JAMES COLEMAN AND NAN GOLDIN, FILM AND VIDEO INSTALLATIONS BY CHANTAL AKERMAN AND STAN DOUGLAS, AN INSTALLATION BY CADY NOLAND, AND SEVERAL STACK PIECES BY FELIX GONZALEZ-TORRES.

AS THE MUSEUM WAS BEING PREPARED FOR THE REOPENING, I INTERVIEWED THE FOUR CURATORS WHO HAVE ORGANIZED THIS INAUGURAL EXHIBITION: GARY GARRELS, SANDRA PHILLIPS, ROBERT RILEY, AND JOHN WEBER.

ALLAN SCHWARTZMAN: Why does this exhibition begin with Robert Frank and end with Felix Gonzalez-Torres? …