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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

SFMOMA Fisher Collection

Fisher Collection
A First Visit

Alexander Calder: Eighteen Numbered Black, 1953

The Fisher Museum at the Presidio might be under construction now if it weren’t for a few strategic miscalculations (see http://designfaith.blogspot.com/2009/03/camp-notes.html). The Fisher family should have moved the proposed building closer to Chrissy Field and off the “sacred” parade ground, and they should have built up public goodwill by sharing their collection earlier. Except for some political and cultural elites (and schoolchildren), few people saw the collection until it went on display at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art at the end of June. At the end of the day, it’s better that the collection went with SFMOMA instead of being housed in a separate museum of its own. If the Fishers had collected avant-garde or emerging artists like the Rubell family in Miami, the independent route might have made sense. But the Fisher collection appears to be a blue chip group that helps a large museum like SFMOMA interpret the story of art in the latter half of the 20th century.

Gerhard Richter: Seascape, 1998

The large show “From Calder to Warhol” went up within ten months of the announcement of the donation and well in advance of the addition planned just south of the existing SFMOMA next to the W Hotel. This allows plenty of time to build goodwill as well as political and financial support for the addition. SFMOMA is currently considering four architecture firms to design the addition: Snøhetta; Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Foster + Partners; and Adjaye Associates. The architectural sweepstakes just got hotter now that the Berkeley Art Museum has given the commission for its new museum building to Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Hopefully, SFMOMA will get something better than what Mario Botta left behind in the first building. It would be exciting if the commission went to David Adjaye, but he doesn’t have a big track record. I also favor Snøhetta, a daring firm that grew out of the Alexandria Library competition. You can see a video of the architects here: http://www.sfmoma.org/pages/expansion.

Cy Twombly: Leda and the Swan, 1962

I stopped by the exhibit on the members’ preview day to get oriented. It’s up until September 19, so there is plenty of opportunity for repeat visits. And you will need them.

Wandering through the fourth and fifth floors, I kept thinking, what motivates wealthy collectors? Dominique de Menil, heir to the Schlumberger oil drilling fortune, seemed to be interested in the link between the creative force and the spiritual. Her own passion resulted in the Rothko Chapel and a great museum, the Menil Collection (which also established architect Renzo Piano in this country). Her offspring followed their interests and created another great museum, DIA: Beacon, and several important conceptual art sites such as Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico, Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in Utah. They also provided the seed money for Donald Judd’s ambitions in Marfa, Texas.

Chuck Close: Big Self Portrait, 2000-01

Locally, builder Steve Oliver has used his wealth and contracting expertise to build very site-specific pieces on a Sonoma ranch that will eventually be in a public trust. He has said that he didn’t want to collect valuable objects, but rather to collect experiences.

Don and Doris Fisher appeared to have stuck to a more traditional path. They say they bought what interested them. The public information says they had no paid advisors, but in a videotape interview, Fisher says they were advised by Peggy Walker (Doris Fisher’s best friend) and John Caldwell (no relation to me), former curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA. They seemed to like the bold and the bright. Although they say that they found their own artists, these works show they didn’t venture far off the well-trod wealthy collector path. The title of the show, “Calder to Warhol,” suggests as much. I am not sure what the exhibition title really means, beyond branding. Recent video works by William Kentridge and Shirin Neshat suggest a little late experimentation. It may take several years and exhibitions to understand what motivated the Fishers.

Andy Warhol: Nine Multicolored Marilyns [Reversal Series], 1976-1986

On the fourth floor, several large pieces by Frank Stella greet you, and as the rooms unfold, there are equally bright Brice Mardens and a beautiful large triptych by Joan Mitchell. The strength of the collection appears to be that the Fishers collected in depth when they found an artist they liked. (It is hard to know, because only 160 of 1,100 pieces are on display.)

On this first trip, I focused on three artists that continue to interest me. Philip Guston has two early works (one hung apart from the rest): one key transitional painting and several from his later period. For someone who is still trying to understand his shift from shimmering abstract to gloomy cartoonish representational work, this group is helpful. I was enthralled by the room full of Agnes Martin’s canvases. Here you can see one painting from each decade. Her discipline and the fluttering beauty of apparent repetitive simplicity is, as Doris Fisher states, deeply moving. What strikes me is how different they are from most of the collection on view, which tend to be overwhelming in scale and color. Another strong meditative artist is Richard Serra. He isn’t for everybody, but once you study him you see the genius. Four smaller pieces, all self-supporting, are arresting.

Philip Guston: Sleeping, 1977

The Fishers went in for the contemporary Germans in a big way, with several Anselm Kiefers, and of course, Gerhard Richter, who is the chameleon/shaman of the modern age. His message, if there is one, seems to be dexterous virtuosity. The recently deceased Sigmar Polke remains confounding, but I look forward to looking again. I am not sure that Georg Baselitz is standing the test of time. There is a lot of Warhol here, but overexposure doesn’t make him more interesting. The same is true for the three-dimensional Stellas. It’s the early work that broke new ground. For the Chuck Close fans, there are two large rooms. Surprisingly, there are just two of Martin Puryear’s fine pieces. I wonder if there are more in the warehouse. His mix of form and craft continue to delight. The Puryear retrospective last year was one of my favorite shows since the museum moved into the Botta building.

Sam Francis: Untitled, 1949

This first trip was about finding old friends that I want to sit with. However, there is a larger narrative: with the Fishers having slightly less control over the collection than if they had built their own, there will a greater chance of independent curatorial influence and critical assessment. As Kenneth Baker points out in his review in the San Francisco Chronicle, curator Gary Garrels has arranged these selections carefully. A wood sculpture by Mark di Suvero in the same room as a huge Lee Krasner canvas makes for an interesting juxtaposition: the two pieces have no apparent connection in terms of lineage, just a visual connection. I look forward to more of these unusual conversations in the future. I would just advise going to see the collection during the week, when the museum is quieter.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Nothing Too Precious

Nothing Too Precious
The Nakashima Studio in New Hope, PA

Crossing the Delaware

Most folks disdain New Jersey, but I love the area around Princeton that bathes you in varied green light—just before the summer heat sticks. We crossed the Delaware (and the state line) where Washington did and drove up along the river towards New Hope, Pennsylvania. This strange town mixes up choppers, queers, and candle shops. Turn left on Aquetong Road, and up the hill there is a little sign that says, “Nakashima, Open Saturdays Only, 1:00 to 4:30.” This is where woodworker/furniture maker/architect George Nakashima lived and worked from the mid-1940s until his death in 1990.

Sign at Nakashima Studio

As soon as we turned in the drive, I felt at home. Besides the sound of leaves and the changing light, there is something in the air. I was reminded of the Tassajara Zen Center in the mountains behind Big Sur. Maybe it is Japanese culture filtered through a western sieve with a mix of other spiritual teas. A seriousness that is not leaden.

The view when you park.

The view from the porch of the showroom building.

Thankfully, there were not many people, as it was just three quarters of an hour before closing. On non-tour days, visitors can explore four buildings: the showroom, the finishing building, the chair department, and the Conoid Studio.

The Showroom

In the showroom, Nakashima's daughter-in-law Soomi is voluble but gauges her response by your attentiveness. Although I am interested in the furniture, I am more interested in the space, what it feels like. She tells you as much about Nakashima as you want to know. The furniture and the space between the pieces tell you the rest. Although the furniture is displayed beautifully, it is also casual. This is not a museum. Everything has a job to do. Nakashima expected his furniture to get scratched or dented. Nothing was too precious.

Finishing Room

Nakashima combined European modernism, a Japanese aesthetic, a shaker sensibility, and again, something I can’t put my finger on. This is true in his buildings as well as his furniture.

Between the Chair Department and the Conoid Studio

The Conoid Studio

The Nakashima brand seems based on the simple photograph of him as a Japanese woodworker crafting alone in the Pennsylvania woods. But this is far from the truth. He was born in Seattle and received his B. Arch from the University of Washington in Seattle and his M. Arch from MIT. He went to work for the Czech architect Antonin Raymond in Japan, where Raymond had gone to work on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel and stayed to set up his own practice. Both left Japan before the war, and Nakashima ended up in an internment camp.

Raymond was able to sponsor him so he could leave and move to New Hope. And there he began to make furniture. He had a large team of skilled craftsmen helping. There is an entrepreneurial side of this tale that is also typically American. Americans love stories about foreigners overcoming obstacles, even if the foreigners aren’t really so foreign at all. But the piece of the story that eludes the casual visitor can probably be found, at least partially, in Nakashima’s own story as a seeker who happened to be an architect, not a furniture designer and maker.

Dormitory for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram

A key part of Nakashima’s story takes place in 1937, when he went from Japan to Pondicherry, India, as Raymond’s project architect to supervise the construction of a dormitory for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Golconde, as the building was known, was one of the first reinforced concrete structures in India and would become an important structure in the history of modernism in India. Given the ashram’s ideas and the scarcity of materials, it is not a typical project. What probably changed Nakashima’s path is his interest in Sri Aurobindo’s faith. In her fine biography of her father, Mira Nakashima (named for Mother Mira, Aurbindo’s disciple) writes, “Sri Aurobindo and Mother Mira taught that beauty is the expression of design truth, that freedom fosters creativity, and that focus develops discipline. They also taught that spiritual purity manifests itself in art, an expression of the divine and of the multi-faceted, ultimate truth.” She goes on to write, “Work for him was a spiritual calling, a linking of his strength to a transcendent force, a surrender to the divine, a form of prayer.” Standing quietly overlooking the landscape of the Nakashima Studio, you can almost feel that. I’ve been looking for that sort of clarity with these explorations.

You may be interested in the following websites:


And the following books:

Nature Form and Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima by Mira Nakashima. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003.

Golconde: The Introduction of Modernism in India by Pankaj vir Gupta, Christine Mueller, and Cyrus Samii. New Delhi: Urban Crayon, 2010.