SFMOMA: Modern art and the making of a Museum

...Soumya Sitaraman.

Originally Published in SPAN

Its September. A drizzle bursts down on unsuspecting tourists. A black metal sculpture mute, and drenched, sits alone on the garden terraces of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. People scuttle by heading across the street where banners wave down tourists like beacons of shelter. The seeming endless tranquility of the landscaped garden with its sculptures, waterfalls and graceful willows suddenly transforms into a crush of damp humanity.

They fill the tables outside the Caffé Museo, sipping latte’s with their croissants. Some read books, others chat, network and still others watch the world without really seeing it. A long line scuffles slowly forward for tickets. Members are spared the wait. There is palpable excitement in the air as we push through the four inch steel and glass doors into the gray entryway. The City has been buzzing with the news of this new exhibition, everyone claims a "must see": The Alexander Calder Retrospective, "Alexander Calder:1898 - 1976"

Once upon a time, the collections and exhibitions of the SFMOMA, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, were swallowed into near oblivion in a large gray building across from the glistening dome of the City Hall of San Francisco. This War Memorial Veterans Building was most unsuitable for any exhibition of Modern Art. In an effort to uplift the South Of Market area and placate those screaming for a new home for the MOMA, the City of San Francisco trusted $62 million to the mind of architect Mario Botta. Botta envisioned and constructed a work of Modern Art, designed to house Modern Art. To Botta, "the museum’s role in today’s city is analogous to that of a cathedral of yesterday". A structure that transcends its physical functional delimitation, "dedicated to witnessing and searching for a new religiosity."

Built in the Modernist tradition with powerful influences from Louis I. Khan, designer of the Kimball Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, his own teacher in Venice, Carlo Scarpa, a great admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the modernist Le Corbusier, the building the SFMOMA is a cathedral to modern art. The analogy is true from the sheer physical magnificence of the atrium to the intimate detailing that makes a cathedral spiritually inspiring. What’s more, its beautifully lit niches enshrine modern art. The building is in itself a major attraction. The art inside makes an art lovers visit significantly more meaningful, much like the experience of a pilgrim within a grand temple. While the aura of the building is imposing, the objective, making the display, dialogue and education on modern art accessible to the public, is maintained.

Entering through the heavy stainless steel doors, one is immediately propelled into a dark gray and black entryway. There is a lot of gray inside the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Gray is what gray is made to be. The dullness of the previous location is no where present thanks to the masterful eye of Architect Mario Botta. Here gray is alive, electrifying. It is a dramatic complement to black granite and pristine white walls simultaneously. The play of contrast and compliment is evident everywhere. The walls of the relatively low entryway, linear bands of mottled granite alternating rough gray and glistening black, acknowledge museum supporters and contributors. On the highly polished floor, a black slash parts the gray and black stripes right in the middle, dividing the a colossal atrium in two halves. The stripes encircle four pillars that rise to the base of an enormous internal cylindrical aperture: an iridescent skylight 135 feet above, .and lead the way to a narrow central stairway that branches outward at each level only to re-converge at white gypsum board balconies that overhang the atrium.

The pristine walls of the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. atrium, named after major contributors from historically one of San Francisco’s most influential and significant families who founded and still control a major share of the famous Levi Strauss and Co., reflect and compound the glow of natural light from an enormous skylight 135 feet above. The bookstore, coat check and café form the peripheral structures at this level, seen only through their doors.

In addition to the first floor or lobby boasts a 280 seat Phillis Wattis theater that accommodates all manner of presentation: performance, visual media (film, slide) interactive seminars and symposia and lectures. There are two large studio spaces for workshops, a photography and graphics arts study area for guest specialists, and a classroom seating a 100. A library with over 65,000 books and documents is accessible to the public by appointment. The Charles and Helen Schwab Room, named after the Investment Banker and major donor, Charles Schwab, is available for private receptions, meetings, and sit down dinners may be used in conjunction with the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Atrium . The walls, lined with Nordic Birch create an elegant contrast to the ebony stained maple floor. Adjustable lighting designed to look like stars in a night sky creates a unique atmosphere.

Pools of light highlight the seamless semicircular wooden ticket desks that skirt two of the pillars. The strips of pale Nordic Birch seem lighter against the even dark gaps in-between, creating a linear pattern. The counter is soft, pale and gracefully curved, adding the perfect complement to the strident floor.

Botta’s choice of the pale golden brown Nordic Birch for furnishings, wall and ceiling paneling throughout the museum’s interior provides balance, calm and color: a necessary relief from the high contrast of white walls and dark granite stripes. The lengths of birch are set evenly apart. Botta masterfully retains consistency in theme, using negative space (seen as black spaces between the bands of golden birch) in the furnishings and the ceiling, to effectively enhance linear abstraction.

The first of the 50,000 sq. ft of gallery space, begins at the second floor with the current exhibit, "Matisse and Beyond: A Century of Modernism Painting and Sculpture from the Permanent Collection." In Matisse’s "Femme au Chapeau" (Woman with the Hat, 1905), bequeathed to the museum from the Elise S. Haas Collection, Madame Matisse, rendered lovingly with delicate intimacy in the best fauvist tradition, gazes back challenging the viewer to question the green on her face. From there, interconnected portals, enfilade, create separate, yet continuous gallery space. The 210 foot lengths are filled with even, soft lighting from a strip skylight above.

The paintings remove you into other worlds. The joy and passion of Matisse, his command over line and form in his odalisque drawings are amazing. Simple lines speak volumes on weight, texture, and mood. By contrast, one feels the sheer violence of Willem de Kooning befalling the canvas. A room full of Paul Klee’s continually curious renderings in the exhibit "Romantic reflections" explodes to the expansiveness of the abstract expressionists: Franz Kline, Clifford Styll, and Mark Rothko. Juxtaposed, in humorous contrast are Liechtenstein’s prints of magnified cartoons. The stretch, reach and withdrawal of the artist is felt in the movement of the grand stroke, and the deliberate drip.

In the protected environment of level three where the 12’ ceilings allow no natural light, precious photographs, and other works on paper are displayed. Based on artificial lighting, the SFMOMA gallery layout is diametric to the new J. Paul Getty Museum with its architectural emphasis on natural light. There, paintings lit by diffused natural light from skylights, occupy the uppermost galleries. Photo sensitive materials like documents, drawings and photographs, logically displayed in the lower levels are hidden from damaging exposure.

The Calder exhibit is in the fourth and fifth floors. The 18’ high rooms are ideal for his hanging sculptures. Suspended in perfect balance to eye level, these moving sculptures, first described as "mobiles" by Marcel Duchamp in 1931 challenged the notion of sculpture as opaque, stable art. One of Calder’s most moving piece is the exquisite "Aztec Josephine Baker" 1929. The wire lady in question is truly astounding as she turns away. The gentle swivel of the fishing line that suspends her in a lit alcove reveals a mastery of wirework. The curve of her belly, the shape of her arms and legs, the interaction of the wire form with its double shadow is profoundly more enchanting than a mere frontal view. The genius of his manipulation of a simple medium like wire is tangibly apparent. Equally fascinating are his wire portraits of Joan Miro’, Calvin Coolidge and Fernand Le’ger. The sculptures mesmerize the viewer as they turn. The unexpected perspective is revealed; a new contour, the discovery of the process of creation as wire loops around wire in fascinating depth.

At this floor, the stairwell breaks free of the center and curves along the exterior of the cylindrical funnel of the skylight. Huge quartered circular windows cut into the curved inner wall of the stairwell look down into the central piazza from opposite ends. Also visible, a profusion of seemingly ornamental circular apertures that rise along the cylinder to the upper lip of the skylight. While they the complement windows visually, they serve as essential smoke vents. All along the exterior walls, vertical slits of light framed by horizontal bars of black grille reveal aerial glimpses of the city buzzing outside.

The two arms of the stairway meet at a metal bridge. A beautiful Calder mobile moves gently above. At 75 feet, a metal bridge provides an interesting overview of the piazza. Placed 60 feet beneath the enormous, ribbed skylight, it reveals a the sense of space beneath where, with this elevated perspective, the atrium as the heart center of the building is obvious. Galleries encircle like protective ribs from either side of the stairwell. The highest gallery, on the fifth floor, boasts an even balance of natural and artificial light from the coffered vaults on the ceiling 23’ above. Here, the space is fully exploited for Calder’s mobile sculptures. Evocative of the natural world, these primarily metal creations take on the delicacy of a feather in the wind. The bold colors linked by black wire are reminiscent of Piet Mondrian’s paintings. I could understand the difficulty in choosing among the pieces for this retrospective. Each is exquisite in its own way. As an artist however, I would have liked to have the space to really experience fewer mobile sculptures. I would have loved to see them perform their ethereal dance and get carried away with his vision, as the objective of his sculptures was motion and the appreciation of it relies on physical interaction with the viewer.

Botta’s largest project in the United States, the SFMOMA has 225,000 sq. feet of which 50,000 sq. ft is gallery space with another 25,000 available for expansion. Behind the public areas are the "restricted access" internals of any museum: Art Storage areas, receiving docks, and mechanical rooms that house state of the art equipment for temperature and humidity control essential for the preservation of the collections in storage and display. The curatorial and administrative sections lie tucked behind closed doors on the higher levels.

These offices have separate access from Minna Street to the right of this splendid museum. Walking around, one notices the detailed brick facade. Botta has played with bricks much like a jacquard weave in fabric, once again bringing stone to life. Bricks set on end, at angles, vertical and horizontal create simple geometric patterns that belie exquisite masonry. The repetition of design creates a cohesive relief and texture to the surface. The earthy red, warm and inviting compared to the surrounding white window glass skyscrapers.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art sits powerfully different in contour and colors from its environ. Massive horizontal tiers of windowless red brick, are stacked symmetrically in defined rectangular blocks around a dramatically phallic, up-slanted skylight. Draped in black and white granite, the striped skylight forms the center of focus as it rises above the brick. Atop, in a radial pattern, the alternating bands of granite girdle the aperture. Within, the steel veins branch off on either side of a strong midrib. The glass, thus supported reflects the passing moods of the heavens. As darkness falls, the lit skylight transforms into a beacon of culture.

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