The Anniversary Show at SF MOMA celebrates 75 years of the institution's history by tracing the art and individuals that have made it what it is today. Throughout the coming year, the museum will present a series of exhibitions under the heading "75 Years of Looking Forward" illustrating the story of the artists, collectors, cultural mavericks, and San Francisco leaders who founded, built, and have animated the museum.
Above: The original building at 401 Van Ness where the museum was housed from 1935 to 1995. Below, Pollack's Guardians of the Spirit, bought for $500 by Grace Morley in 1945)
"The Anniversary Show" begins on the second-floor landing with an introductory selection titled San Francisco Views, 1935 to Now. Featuring some three dozen works of art, this presentation sets the stage for the exhibition with images of San Francisco created by a host of artists in a variety of media. Ranging from Gabriel Moulin's 1935 photograph "San Francisco" to a 1962 painting by James Weeks titled "Looking West" from "Spanish Fort—Baker Beach", to a 1998 drawing by Rigo 98 titled "Study for Looking at 1998 San Francisco from the Top of 1925", and a poster by Martin Venezky titled "San Francisco Prize Poster: Harvey Milk Plaza, 2000", this grouping of works reveals the many ways the city has inspired artists over the last three quarters of a century.
In an adjacent gallery, the exhibition explores the tremendous legacy of the museum's founding director (1935–1958), Grace McCann Morley, her efforts to build the modernist collection, and the fervor with which she pursued her conviction that art was an essential part of everyday life. This is a long overdue acknowledgment of the single most important figure in SF MOMA's history. It was her gumption and drive that enabled the museum to flourish in the middle of the Great Depression. Key acquisitions led by Morley are showcased, including works by Constantin Brancusi, Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Yves Tanguy, among others. Her typewritten notes and correspondence, displayed in the first two galleries, is an important addition to understanding the early days of the museum.
The exhibition then considers the dialogue between American modernist painters and photographers through the story of Ansel Adams, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Morley working together to bring about an important 1952 acquisition of photographs from the estate of Alfred Stieglitz. Photographs by Stieglitz, Charles Sheeler, and Paul Strand are juxtaposed with paintings by O'Keeffe, Helen Torr, and Arthur Dove to demonstrate both the shared and distinct artistic concerns of the circle of artists associated with Stieglitz.
The following gallery illustrates the little-known activities of the museum during World War II, when the museum offered a wealth of diverse programs in support of the community. Exhibitions protesting the war took place alongside screenings of educational films meant to prepare citizens for the possibility of air raids, and the museum provided special programs to find work for artists and offer respite for servicemen during this trying time. Morley was able to obtain a loan of Guernica which was shown at the museum during the war.
Jackson Pollock's "Guardians of the Secret" (1943) stands at the center of the next gallery, which considers Morley's exhibitions program and the lengths she went to in order to show the work of the most advanced and, in some cases, most unfamiliar artists she could find. In addition to the remarkable story of the 1945 Pollock show, the gallery will tell the story of a 1941 Alexander Calder exhibition that Morley discovered in late September and managed to install at the museum by November 4. More surprising is the selection of bright watercolors by Rhodesian schoolboys that Morley brought into the galleries as a benefit for a school she had visited in that country (now Zimbabwe) in 1956.
The next gallery chronicles the early history of the museum's engagement with architecture and design objects, an extension of Morley's impulse to sensitize the public to the presence of good design principles in commonly used objects and in the built environments of home and city. Underpinning much of the museum's programming in the early decades was Morley's conviction that art was an essential part of everyday life. Perhaps the highest profile expressions of this agenda were the museum's television programs 'Art in Your Life' and 'Discovery'—the first ever television programs devoted to art—clips of which can be viewed on a vintage television in this gallery.
David ParkThe museum's collegial relationship in the 1940s and 1950s with the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) provides the focus of the following gallery. Faculty and students—among them Charles Howard, Robert Howard, Adaline Kent, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Minor White—regularly exhibited their work at the museum and supported the museum's activities by bringing students to study works of art in exhibitions, teaching classes in the museum's education program, and designing posters and brochures. Both the museum and the school were founded under the auspices of the San Francisco Art Association, and the museum served as the venue for the association's annual exhibitions for three decades. In the 1950s participants included Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, and David Park, and Bay Area figurative painting surfaced within the context of these shows.
The next gallery celebrates a group of artists who deliberately disregarded traditional boundaries between media and whose work is central to SFMOMA's collection: Robert Rauschenberg (whose work SFMOMA acquired through the passion and generosity of the museum's great patron Phyllis Wattis) and two San Francisco Beat artists, Bruce Conner and Jay DeFeo. The following Anderson gallery highlights the museum's American Pop art collection, anchored by a major gift from local collectors Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson, a group of works that includes such favorites as Rouen Cathedral Set V (1969) by Roy Lichtenstein and Land's End (1963) by Jasper Johns.
Two important ongoing exhibition series, "New Work" (launched in 1987) and the "SECA Art Award" (begun in 1967), are the subject of the following galleries, underscoring the museum's continuing commitment to contemporary art. Additional galleries focus on unique facets of the museum's programs: the architecture and design department's outstanding collection of wood chairs and visionary urbanism, and the photography department's extensive holdings of snapshots and other forms of vernacular photography.
All images courtesy of SF MOMA