clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

An art lover's pilgrimage

Array of exhibits awaits you at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

SAN FRANCISCO — If you're traveling to the city in the near future, take time to visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The SFMOMA boasts some of the best modern art in the Western United States, and the building's novel architecture makes the experience even more enjoyable.

I recently spent a day perusing the exhibits there. The ones I liked the most are "A Passion for Paul Klee: The Djerassi Collection at the SFMOMA," "Richter 858," "Treasures of Modern Art: The Legacy of Phyllis Wattis at the SFMOMA," and the museum's ongoing exhibit, "Matisse and Beyond: A Century of Modernism."

Here's a rundown:

"A Passion for Paul Klee," which runs through June 8, is the largest collection of work by Klee in the Western United States. It features 140 works that span his lifetime, from his years as a high school student until his death in 1940.

The exhibit includes etchings, lithographs, drawings and watercolors, demonstrating the artist's sense of design, technical prowess and vivid imagination. From portraits to abstractions, from landscapes to figurative, all the works evince Klee's genius.

The show, on the fourth floor, is chronological, beginning with his early etchings from 1901-05. They are small (averaging 6 by 9 inches) and express the artist's personal, social and political leanings. Klee himself referred to these early works as his "sour" prints because of the predominant cynicism of their subject matter.

Some of the more compelling pieces in this segment are "Virgin in a Tree (Invention 3)," "Two Men Meet, Each Supposing the Other to Be of Higher Rank (Invention 6)" and "The Hero with the Wing." These etchings distort and disfigure the human shape in such a way that you may wonder whether you are supposed to cringe or laugh.

The ensuing phases of Klee's career put him more in line with the art movements of 20th century European art. A trip to Tunisia in 1914 inspired Klee to use color and marked the beginning of his fully mature style.

Some of my favorite drawings and prints included in the exhibit: "Fata Morgana on the Sea" (watercolor and ink on paper, 1918), "The Sublime Aspect" (color lithograph, 1923), "Mazzaro" (gouache and watercolor, 1924 and "Horse and Man" (ink transfer drawing with watercolor and gouache, 1925).

The latest work in the exhibition, an untitled composition from 1940, features a landscape fashioned from rows of vividly colored rectangles on one side and an abstracted, wide-eyed angle on the other.

"RICHTER 858" runs through April 1 and will have you examining every nuance of the eight abstracts — on aluminum plates — and the accompanying book. (Don't confuse this exhibit with the national touring exhibit, "Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting," at the Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C., through May 11.)

Displayed on the second floor, the paintings are intensely colored and formally complex, encouraging viewers to ask, "How did he get those colors to do what they do?" The first of Richter's abstracts, completed in the summer of 1999, were made after he recovered from a serious illness.

On a table, next to the eight paintings, is a copy of "RICHTER 858." Besides Richter's abstract paintings, the book includes text by 13 American poets, a musical score by composer Bill Frisell and essays by noted critics. You'll also find thoughts by Richter on painting, process and abstraction over a 40-year period. (The hardback book can be purchased for $125 in the SFMOMA's museum store.)

"Treasures of Modern Art: The Legacy of Phyllis Wattis at SFMOMA," which runs through June 24, features the most important of the 80 works of art acquired by Wattis and gifted to the museum between 1995 and 2002.

Works by Robert Rauschenberg, Piet Mondrian, Rene Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and others give you a genuine taste of some of the best in modern art.

Duchamp's "Fountain," (urinal, 1964), part of a series that was one of the 20th century's most controversial works of art, is a cornerstone of SFMOMA's permanent collection. The urinal — lying flat on its back and signed "RMUTT" — is one of Duchamp's infamous ready-mades; it produces derisive laughter and scorn from viewers even today.

Another excellent piece in this exhibit is Magritte's "Personal Values" (oil on canvas, 1952), the famous painting with the cloud-filled sky, the goblet, the boxlike interior space with a crack in the ceiling. The work continues to inspire "ooohs" and "aaaahs" from museum visitors.

Anselm Kiefer's "The Sixth Trumpet" (emulsion, acrylic, shellac and sunflower seeds, 1996) is a vast landscape receding to rolling hills. It must be 18-by-18 feet. The added sunflower seeds give it a unique texture it could not otherwise obtain.

Another interesting piece of art — and also controversial — is Yves Klein's "Untitled (ANT 154)" (pigment and synthetic resin on paper laid on canvas, 1961). This is the painting Klein created by applying blue paint to naked women and then dragging them across a large sheet of paper. You'll try your hardest to decipher any recognizable forms and will probably shake your head when you finally do.

This exhibit is on the fifth floor of the museum.

"Matisse and Beyond: A Century of Modernism," ongoing, is a rotating exhibition of the museum's extensive collection of modern art including Fauvism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Mexican Modernism, Bay Area Figurative and Funk.

Some of the outstanding works are Diego Rivera's 1941 "Symbolic Landscape," "Georgia O'Keeffe's 1944 "Black Place I," Joseph Stella's 1936 "Bridge," Robert Motherwell's 1948 "Untitled (Figuration)," Jasper John's 1962 "Fools House," and Jeff Koons' 1988 porcelain sculpture, "Michael Jackson and Bubbles," a kitschy piece that shows the rock icon with his chum, a monkey.

There are other exhibits at the SFMOMA, each with its own appeal.

To experience the exhibitions, you might try the following: Begin on the second floor, taking in "RICHTER 858" and "Matisse and Beyond." Next, move to the fourth floor for "A Passion for Paul Klee." Then go back to the museum's first floor and have lunch in the Cafe Museuo. The food is wonderful — look for the Grilled Chicken Pannini with fresh basil and onion jam — and not too pricey. While eating, consider and talk with others about what you've seen.

After your meal, climb the stairs, or take the elevator, to the fifth floor and savor "Treasures of Modern Art." It all makes for an enlightening and stimulating day.

The details

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third Street (a short walk from Union Square), is open daily (except Wednesdays) 11 am.-6 p.m.; open Thursdays until 9 p.m.; summer hours (Memorial Day to Labor Day) 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; closed Wednesdays and holidays.

Admission prices: Adults $10; seniors $7; students $6.

For more information call 415-357-4000 or visit