SFMoMA: Anderson Collection, Critical Review, January 2001

Over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, I had the pleasure of going to San Francisco, California to view the Anderson Collection at the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art. This collection was special because one couple, Mary and Harry Anderson, collected a large number of works from some of the most famous artists in Modern Art’s history.

As the collection was extremely large, I decided my game plan was best to start from the top floor and work my way downward. Floor 5 contained the Anderson’s Contemporary Art Collection, and that was as good a place to start as any (and some might say the BEST place to start).

As I entered the fifth floor, I was greeted by a medium sized sculpture by Joel Shapiro, Untitled, 1983-1984. Made from wood, it was a maze of directional lines. Some 2x4s were glued to bigger pieces so it was difficult to tell which piece belonged to what. The whole piece stood at a precarious 40º angle.  Among Shapiro’s piece on this floor were many impressive pieces, including work by Donald Sultan who uses latex & tar on masonite to create dark, saturated works and Susan Rothenberg who has a recurring Equine and Figurative theme in her abstracted pieces.

The fourth floor held the New York & California Schools of Modern Art. What I enjoyed about this most was the fact the museum had separated the two schools to give the viewers a chance to compare style and form. I noticed that the work on the New York side felt denser, heavier and darker, in both color and in subject.

Of the artists I was unfamiliar with at my arrival, I found Ad Reinhardt’s work most favorable. One piece in particular, on first assessment, was a giant black canvas. Upon further inspection, there was a subtle, yet very definite vertical band of a “lighter black” color resting at approximately 5/8 the way down the canvas. When I saw the band of color, I actually gasped because it shocked me that much. A man asked me if I saw anything on the seemingly black piece and I pointed it out to him, but he was unimpressed. Reinhardt had several other pieces there that worked with monochromatic color; his interest seemed to direct in very subtle shifts of color either by pattern or texture or defined colour.

There was a Pollock there, however I was nowhere near as impressed by it as I thought I would be. It is possible that my expectations were too high. I found the piece (I didn’t even bother to write the title) small, and only moderately interesting and that interest really only came from an historical perspective. Far more interesting were the de Koonings right next to his and part of me wonders if I only found interest in those from a story I heard from a classmate where a friend of hers actually licked a deKooning once.

The brochure said there was some Jasper Johns’ work there, but I didn’t see any. I do know of his permanent collection pieces on the second floor, but I’ve already seen those several times, as he’s been a longtime favorite artist of mine.

Work on the California side was, consequently, light in color, and often, subject. Overall, I felt that the Californians were a little more playful, introduced humour more often and a lot less serious about art and life in general. I fell absolutely in love with Wayne Theibaud’s work; being the first time I’d ever seen it in person. I noticed in one of his Candy Case paintings the scale had a grotesque personality, like it was growling or snarling at the viewer – I imagined it as being projected to a child. I found myself chuckling at it. I wanted to dip my finger into all of his paintings.

David Hockney had a couple of the Poolside series there, one in particular was 9 individual pieces of pulp paper with pigment. It had a large-scale mosaic feel to it, not unlike Chuck Close. It was neat.

Robert Irwin’s Untitled (disc) had a great spot in a medium-sized room just off path from the paintings. I only noticed it because of the dark band of colour that he put on the disc, otherwise I would have walked right past it, like I did the first time. Most remarkably, Irwin’s piece made a visual “noise” that nearly mesmerized me and held my attention for several minutes.

My favorite piece overall was a little sculpture by Tim Hawkinson called “The Fin Within.” This piece was a ceramic cast of a person’s legs, complete from the mid-thigh down and with footprints. The space between the feet was filled with clay and fanned out like a fin. The space between the legs was also fanned out a little and etched into the clay was a scaly-fish pattern. When looked at from the side you could see where the knees met and from the back, the thin wall of clay contoured the calves and ankles.

One seemingly minimalist work that really caught my attention was by Ed Ruscha. A very rich, deep blue canvas showcased a slight trail of light to meet a final point of a megatiny little star in the lower middle right section of the piece. I found the piece charming, almost whimsical as your eye is led around the color to the trail, and literally carried along the trail to meet the star.

The fourth floor also held the Anderson’s Frank Stella retrospective, where his French Curve series jutted from the walls, like monsters. Upon further inspection, one could see that he used many light materials for these seemingly heavy pieces, such as cardboard or aluminum. The pieces suggestively loomed, but if they fell on you, they’d probably just knock you out for a minute; probably no real damage.

The third floor housed all works on paper. This includes drawings, prints and photographs. This floor was the most exhausting of all the floors because the media tends to be so much smaller than of paintings or traditional sculpture, and therefore the walls can hold a lot more work.

There was a full photographic retrospective of the medium, so the photographs went from the mid 19th century to present day techniques. It was interesting, but really extensive in that it took up easily half the third floor. The drawings and paperworks on the other half of the floor were stunning in their own right. I visited this floor on the second day I was in San Francisco so that I could absorb the exhibit in full.

There was an artist, but I didn’t write down his name, that did these works on paper that were sculptural. One was called Squares on Spiral and it was a rectangular “canvas” that projected outward physically, and was painted with a spiraling set of rectangular shapes so the out went in and the in went out. It wasn’t so noticeable until you walked past it a little as to view the piece’s profile. There was a similar piece next to of an abstract landscape where the sky projected outward and was hidden by the application of paint.There was a piece by Harold Paris that used paper as a sculptural tool, making overlapping layers bring you inside the piece physically and mentally. The piece I saw looked like a window to a town that had been in a war, bombed and broken.

There was a video installation by Gary Hill. A pinpoint of light becomes larger until it is a recognizable angry (psychotic) woman who, once she reaches minimum distance from the viewer (her head took up the whole wall, approx 20’) she let out several nonsensical screams. Her eyes were frighteningly serious, though. After the first few banshee hollers, she pauses, and screams some more, exposing her fillings and tonsils. After the second round she stops. Her neck, and (assumingly) chest heave, a slight bit of water wells up in her eyes and the screen goes black. It only lasted about 2 minutes, most of which was spent as she walked towards the viewer.

Jonathan Borofsky had a piece that coincided with a timed light fixture that dimmed and illuminated every 20 seconds. As I walked towards the piece, I felt “funny”, then I noticed the lights dimming, and I made a giant ass of myself by looking around the ceiling, thinking the museum’s lighting was faulty! Another woman, who was hogging up the placard that explained what was going on told me it was part of the piece.  I probably would have liked it better in a more intimate setting, where the light could be better pronounced. Or in a place where there weren’t any other people so I could have enjoyed the discovery for myself. Or maybe I’m just sore from feeling dumb.

Also on the third floor was a small summary of Modern Sculpture. One of Henri Moore’s large abstracted female forms took up a sizable space on the third floor foyer. It reminded me of public art that kids could play on. It was so smooth and round it was something you wanted to wrap yourself around.

There was a lot of work at this exhibit, and I’m glad I was able to spend enough time in San Francisco to see the whole exhibit. One day in San Francisco is a heartbreaking experience, but four is a memory.