San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s newest patron wears a fuzzy pink onesie.
The baby girl is strapped face forward, arms and legs dangling, into a supportive carrier on her father’s chest. Dad holds a bottle up to his daughter’s mouth while he, they that is, move in unison around a gallery displaying Ellsworth Kelly’s bold, energetically-hued works. As he proceeds forward and swivels, so does she. When he stops to consider a piece more closely, she does the same. Her gaze is especially arresting, and what initially grabs my attention. Wide-eyed, intent and focused, it’s as if she’s trying to absorb and memorize the vibrant colors and large-scale shapes created by the Abstract Expressionist artist for some future quiz.
Making my way through the crowd in this newly transformed and expanded museum, recently reopened after a three-year closure, it strikes me she might well be the youngest visitor today.
If so, that would be especially fitting, for SFMOMA underwent an extensive metamorphosis with a goal to mean more to more people, offering new opportunities to experience modern and contemporary art within this cultural and community icon.
Founded in 1935 as one of the first museums of modern and contemporary art west of the Mississippi River, SFMOMA was ahead of its time, a guide tells me. The museum occupied one floor, then two, in the War Memorial Building near Civic Center Plaza, which is several blocks away from this site on 3rd Street. Continued growth led leadership to conclude they needed a dedicated building. In 1995, they opened a new facility in the South of Market district – a bold move because the neighborhood back then was more industrial. Architect Mario Botta had designed a 225,000-square-foot building that reflected the neighborhood. Constructed in muscular brick, it sent a subliminal message that the museum could keep its art safe. Once they moved in, she says, it was inevitable they’d outgrow that facility, too.
It’s hard to reconcile her description of earlier times with the surrounding scene I encountered during my walk from the Ferry Terminal to SFMOMA’s Howard Street entrance. A lively vibe resonates now with restaurants, bars, shops, high-rise office buildings, plazas, plenty of foot traffic, and even other art venues like the nearby Museum of the African Diaspora. Museum leadership and the architectural firm Snøhetta, the guide points out, realized a transformation was in order when they began to design and construct this new 10-story, 235,000-square-foot addition and renovate the original structure.
Did they ever deliver.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s building is itself a work of art. A rippling effect on the building’s white exterior drew inspiration from the maritime climate of San Francisco, with its undulating bay waters and bands of fog – so much so that sand from nearby Monterey Bay is incorporated into the façade material and sparkles in direct sunlight.
Inside, I’m immediately dwarfed by Richard Serra’s monumental sculpture Sequence, the first piece of art SFMOMA installed. Weighing a whopping 213 tons, it was craned into the building and the unfinished gallery’s exterior walls finished around it. I stroll within the curved, leaning, walls of steel of this maze-like, figure eight ellipses.
Imagine wandering through a piece of art. Could there be a more inviting metaphor to engage with SFMOMA’s 33,000-plus-piece collection?
In addition to a reappearance of SFMOMA’s cherished favorites from its permanent collection, the inaugural displays also feature holdings from The Fisher Collection, a 100-year partnership with the founders of San Francisco-based retailer Gap, which includes concentrations of works by the likes of Alexander Calder, Ellsworth Kelly, and Andy Warhol. During the multi-year Campaign for Art, directors and curators sought gifts of art from donors and private collections to boost existing strengths or fill in gaps. In a remarkable display of support, 240 donors provided 3,000 gifts. Donors weren’t just cleaning out granny’s attic, either, for Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, and Lee Krasner are some of the artists.
The galleries’ high-ceilinged white walls and light maple floors speak minimalism, and make the art shine. Air flows in, not from distracting floor grates, but through inch-long gaps where ceilings meet walls that I can barely discern. I first visited SFMOMA about five years ago, and it’s hard to remember what was while standing in what is, thanks to the seamless integration of old and new.
Interacting with art at SFMOMA
I head toward Mark Rothko’s No. 14, 1960, with its brilliant stacked rectangles of fiery red-orange and chilling indigo. In case of fire, this is the canvas I would rescue in my best impersonation of Dolley Madison saving George Washington’s full-length portrait before the British torched the White House during the War of 1812. I can’t miss finding it, because I’m using SFMOMA’s new breed of touring app. An unnamed, Siri-like voice teases via my headphones that she’s the “love child of people who know art and people who know technology.”
Both totally cool and a touch of “Big Brother is Watching You” from George Orwell’s “1984” (but in a good way), the free app employs cutting-edge mobile, location-aware technology. It (she?) projects my location on a gallery map on my phone screen. I’m the blue dot in the circle, wending my way along a thin red line to a pin marking my destination. When I stop to drink in the Rothko, my moving dot lingers in place, then picks up the pace again when I do. The app also using immersive storytelling, providing brief audio clips to help bring new life and perspectives to the art. A provocative cast of characters, among them high-wire walker Philippe Petit, San Francisco Giants players, and artists, offer wildly entertaining commentary, complete with background music and sound effects.
Before Marcel Duchamp’s controversial Fountain, a ceramic urinal presented on its back atop a pedestal, I listen to comedians Martin Starr and Kunail Nanjiani, co-stars on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” riff in a rapid-fire delivery. “Why is that thing art? Did he sculpt it or rip it off the wall?” At Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue, I learn, to the accompanying sound of rhythmically snapping fingers, how the artist added color to an earlier version to create a “little boogie-woogie.”
Although I’m indoors, the museum constantly reminds me I’m in San Francisco.
Terraces on several floors beckon me to exit the museum briefly to view massive sculptures with the city as backdrop. The terrace adjacent to the Alexander Calder Motion Lab contains the largest public living wall in the U.S. It’s also SFMOMA’s primo selfie spot. Measuring 29.4 feet tall and 150 feet wide, the 4,399-square-foot nature wall boasts 19,000 green plants comprised of 37 species. At this moment, the entire wall ruffles in the afternoon breeze. The effect is slightly hypnotic and soothing, giving me momentary respite from museum fatigue, a real physical condition caused by viewing too much art at once and a driver for the living wall’s creation.
Windows lining the long galleries on floors 4-6 not only let in light, but also views of the cityscape, where I glimpse a few swirls of fog in the distance. I huff and puff my way up the City Gallery Stairs, meant to reference the famous Filbert Street Steps alongside Telegraph Hill.
Observing art works up an appetite, so I stop in for a bite at SFMOMA’s ambitious In Situ, a truly global restaurant. Chef Corey Lee faithfully re-creates recipes of 80 renowned chefs from around the world. I know I’m seated at a communal table beneath a wood-slatted ceiling in the ultramodern dining room, but one bite of my exquisite warm tomato and basil tart, a dish created in 1981 by France’s Michel Guérard, magically transports me to a summery afternoon in Provence.
As if San Francisco Museum of Modern Art needed any more incentive to encourage current and future generations of museum goers, it now includes 45,000 square feet of art-filled free public spaces. The museum also offers free admission for all visitors 18 and younger…forever.
I’m betting pink-clad baby girl and her dad will enjoy that gift for years to come.
SFMOMA at night (feature photo): Snøhetta expansion of the new SFMOMA; photo: © Iwan Baan, courtesy SFMOMA.
SFMOMA: The new SFMOMA, view from Yerba Buena Gardens; photo: Jon McNeal, © Snøhetta.
Sequence sculpture: Roberts Family Gallery featuring Richard Serra’s Sequence(2006) at SFMOMA; photo: © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA.
New addition: Snøhetta expansion of the new SFMOMA, 2016; photo: © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA.