Friday, January 29, 2010

SFMOMA: Amazing Grace McCann Morley, (II)

  "If art of today is overlooked, or misunderstood, the loss is serious. Art fails then to give its full value to daily life." * Grace McCann Morley.

 When Morley retired, she left behind a thriving organization with forty-four hundred members and a collection of over three thousand works of art. She tacked San Francisco's provincial outlook with missionary zeal. When she purchased Klee's painting "Fast getroffen" (Nearly Hit, 1927), a disgruntled anonymous museum member sent her a note, "What a disgrace for a choice." She responded with grace, courtesy and a clear-eyed goal of broadening the museum's vision. There are numerous examples in the exhibit of her friendly but non-nonsense answer to these critics, from typewritten letters (no typos!) to the education programs and films at the museum. Her reply to another letter questioning the purchase of another piece of modern art was to suggest a course and a reading list. She was no pompous elitist nor did she sneer at those who didn't immediately share her goals of promoting cultural democracy - "that art should be available to everyone. She held firm convictions about the crucial role that museums could play in this endeavor: "If art of today is overlooked, or misunderstood, the loss is serious. Art fails then to give its full value to daily life." *

Picasso, La Cruche Fleurie, 1937

While never being condescending, Morley's "something for everyone" philosophy paid double dividends when she presented a Picasso retrospective in 1940. There was such great public interest that, on the last day of the show, thirteen hundred visitors refused to leave "until they had had their fill." The event was so amazing that it was reported in over fifty newspapers all over the country.

Fast Getroffea, 1928

The article accompanying this piece was written by Grace. It's one of the clearest and most eloquent pieces on both Klee and art that I have ever read. "Art is not always solemn. Artists often invite the public to laugh with them.." On this particular piece, "..the colors and brush strokes create a background full of life; the direct, economic lines produce a shorthand symbol of narrow of a narrow escape...Much of Klee's work has this power of symbol and art." (Life Magazine, 1935).

Braque, Vase, Palette et Mandoline, 1936
*Bishop, Janet, Keller Corey, Roberts Sarah (eds). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 75 Years of Looking Forward. Catalogue to the exhibition.  2010. Essay by Kara Kirk, pp 71-76.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

SFMOMA: Amazing Grace McCann Morley

 When I started writing my articles on the lack of women artists at SFMOMA, it never occurred to me one of the most striking omissions was that of Grace Morley, the first director of SFMOMA (1935-1958). She built the museum from the ground up, bought the paintings that provided the keystone of the collection, defended her purchases and created a vibrant place for culture. I've lived in San Francisco for forty years, am a practicing artist and an avid museum goer and I'd never heard of her.

She was the key figure in the development of the museum, establishing the SFMA (the early name of SF MOMA) as a major American museum. She also founded UNCECO's museum division after WW II and after leaving San Francisco, moved to India where where she helped found Indian's National Museum.

Not only that, but she got paid less than her male peers. According to Kara Kirk, who is the only one to write anything in depth on Morley, her starting salary was $2,400 a year, just under half of the sum being paid at the time to the director of the Minneapolis Museum of Art -- and a fraction of Alfred Barr's $9,000 starting salary at MoMA.

When she started at the museum, she had one assistant, 98 prints and a handful of oil paintings. In 1955, when the article was written, the museum had 3500 members, 4000 works, a full schedule of films and lectures and a TV show (!). (Time Magazine).

Just three years after the Time article was written,  she was forced to leave San Francisco.  "She cut off ties with most of her friends and colleagues in the Bay Area, which is one reason her memory has been somewhat buried," Morley scholar Kristy Phillips wrote in a 2006 e-mail on "She felt betrayed here by the museum and its trustees and at one point declared that she wanted to forget S.F. completely."

Even if she was betrayed by the institution that she had nurtured for so many years, there was no reason - other than the ingrained sexism in our culture -- for her to be so completely forgotten. Unfortunately, she is not the first woman of achievement to be left out of the history books. We should honor Grace, who with grace, fought, brought, taught and built the core of the museum that still graces our city today. 
The story of how she brought the Pollock piece, one of the star's of SFMOMA's collection:
SF MOMA blog:
Twenty Years of Grace:,9171,861242,00.html
Includes links to Kara Kirk's interview with Morley and an article on her work in India:

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jeff Koons at SFMOMA - part of the 75th Anniversary Celebration

Does the path of excess lead to the tower of wisdom?

 Michael Jackson and Bubbles as part of the SF MOMA's 75th Anniversary show, gold polychromed statue that plays up a false aura or allure; kitsch and the Hyperreal; the sacred (?) vs. the profane; 1980's banality.

The gold and white porcelain is oh-so-shiny. Michael is oh-so-famous and his pet monkey is oh-so-cute, but the reflection from the flash bulbs can blind us to what the piece really represents. Koons' "Michael Jackson and Bubbles" could be a poster image for the 1980s. Koons did not make it. There is no mark of the maker's hand in this statue. As with all of his work, it was made by somebody else. It is the logical offspring born out of our mindless worship of celebrity and plastic, a bastard child that shows the deeply corrupt pairing of the art world and the zeitgeist of the decade.

Koons commissioned Italian craftsmen to fabricate the sculpture for him. The slick and shiny surface pushes the tradition of figurative sculpture into kitsch. But the piece also represents Koons' career, made famous through market manipulation. MJ and Bubbles' slick white surface does not have a single indication that Jackson was, in fact, an African-American (and apparently, deeply conflicted about his race).

More than 25 years ago, the renowned art critic Robert Hughes helped to change the way people thought about modern art through his TV series, The Shock of the New. He wrote that "Jeff Koons is an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he's Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can't imagine America's singularly depraved culture without him."

Looking at the statue, I could hear all the platitudes sprouted in the 80's, the greed is good mantra, the say-nothing speeches of our (then) Teflon president. If the 60's were the decade of the counter-culture, the 70's the decade of the disco, then the 80's were the decade of the grotesque, in which money dominated the gallery system, artists became celebrities for a whole five minutes and the art market was manipulated like soybeans on Wall Street.

The poet William Blake wrote, "The path of excess leads to the tower of wisdom." Looking at Jeff Koons work forces to me to point out that it ain't necessarily so. SF MOMA's statue of Koons, on display for their 75th Anniversary celebration is popular. It is the photo-op for the show; there always seems to be somebody posing in front, smiling for the camera. But the excess of gold, glitz and glamor didn't then and hasn't now, led to much wisdom.We might as well be in Disneyland where fantasy is sold as reality and a walk through a theme park passes for the real thing.
Time Magazine

Image courtesy SFMOMA

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Many-armed, several headed Buddha Statue to reside in the Civic Center?

Fifteen tons and what do you get - not a one-eyed flying purple people eater, (for those who remember the catchy 50's tune), but a three-headed, six-armed statue of the Buddha. Created by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan for the year-long celebration of our sister city of Shanghai, the statue will be located right across from the Asian Art Museum. But there's no guarantee that this benevolent many-limbed figure will grace the not too sacred grounds of the Civic Center.

The SF Arts Commission has to raise $100K to ship the thing from Shanghai, and the parking garage roof will also have to be strong enough to withhold all that weight. Sacred or not, fifteen tons of bronze and steel is heavy and, as far as I know, the statue won't levitate. Time will tell if the Buddha's many arms shall caress San Francisco's resident homeless in the plaza. Will this help them achieve enlightenment?

More importantly, will it enable our mayor and the Board of Supervisors to embrace the Noble Eightfold Path - "right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration." I am sure that any one of these would be appreciated. Unfortunately, the tiny image (which is the only one I've been able to find) bears a striking resemblance to the Flying Spaghetti Monster and I'm not the only one who thinks so. So I suspect that mindfulness will not be on the agenda any time soon.

One of the new breed of international artists, Zhang Huan splits his time between Shanghai and New York. Although trained as a painter, his work is largely comprised of rigorous performances and monumental sculpture. In this instance, the artwork may prove too heavy for the Civic Center Garage, which is housed beneath the expanse of the plaza. But if there's one thing we love, it's a robust artistic controversy so I expect this will bring out the sarcasm, the snark and the note of appreciation.

Links - oh yes, boy and howdy do we have links (but no decent image yet).
Image from SF Examiner

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Asian Art Museum: Shanghai (Opening February 12th)

The Asian Art Museum will usher in the Year of the Tiger with  another ground breaking exhibit, this one focused on our sister city, Shanghai.

During its history, this small town on the banks of the Yangpoo river grew from a fishing village to a huge, sophisticated and polyglot metropolis. Shanghai's culture and government represented the best and worst of East and West. It's been a refuge for groups as diverse as the native Chinese fleeing revolution and civil war, White Russians fleeing the Russian Revolution and Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. The city was the gateway into China for European (and later Japanese) businessmen which forced the lethal opium trade upon the Chinese, reaping immense profits while creating a huge population of addicts. The city was a byword for lawlessness, cruelty, courtesans, decadence and (for some), luxury and profit.  Life became a highly charged affair, what the Chinese call "jenao", a perpetual "hot din" of the senses.*

In the 1920's and 1930's, the  intellectual ferment in the city led to nationalist revolts against both the foreign devils and the corrupt local government. It saw the formation of both the Nationalist and Chinese Communist Parties. Both Chiang Kai-shek and Mao had their start in the city's political turmoil. Shanghai gave birth to a flourishing artistic culture that extended from the 19th century to today.Two cultures met here but neither one prevailed. That clash created the diverse works that will be shown in the exhibit.

The exhibit at the Asian will feature more than 130 oil paintings, Shanghai Deco furniture and rugs, revolutionary posters, works of fashion, movie clips, and contemporary installations. These artworks, drawn mainly from the collections of the Shanghai Museum, the Shanghai Art Museum, the Shanghai City History Museum, and the Lu Xun Museum, include the most significant visual documents of the city’s rich and ever-changing culture.

Opening February 12th:

For more on the year-long Shanghai Celebration:

Other references:
Stella Dong. Shanghai. The Rise and Fall Of A Decadent City.
* Harriet Sergent. Shanghai. Collision Point of Cultures - 1918/1939.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Henry Ossawa Tanner

In honor of Martin Luther King's birthday, Sherry Miller writes a perceptive and comprehensive essay on Henry Osawa Tanner. He was an artist of African-American descent who is far too little known in the US.

Why isn't Henry Ossawa Tanner a household name? He is a major American artist with an international reputation. Is he relatively unknown here because he is an African American? He has been acclaimed among black leaders including Booker T. Washington, Edward Bannister, and W.E.B. DuBois. Tanner's solid accomplishments in painting and his illustrious family history, together with their relative exclusion from American arts and letters, make a strong argument for multiculturalism - in this case the inclusion of non-white-male artists in the canons of our books and universities?

Read more at BAAQ.

"We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Thank you, Dr. King...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Breakaway from Everyday: Bruce Conner at SFMOMA

Conner was already a critically recognized assemblage artist when he turned to cinema in his mid-20s. Using what became his trademark assemblage technique, he combined diverse materials such as old movies, newsreels and stock footage into surrealistic montages. Each film pops and jerks to an interior and sometimes disturbing rhythm.

His 1966 “Breakaway,” now on view at SFOMA, features his original footage of the singer and choreographer Antonia Christina Basilotta, a k a Toni Basil. She looks like she's having the time of her life, dancing to her own rendition of the catchy song of the title. (“I’m gonna breakaway, breakaway from the everyday.”). Her self-conscious physical joy in her own body, hair whipping around, body jerking and thrashing, is another kind of explosion, similar to images in Conner's other iconic films, featuring stock footage of the atomic bomb. She's da bomb, just as explosive and maybe (even) just as lethal.

Kenneth Baker comments that Conner steals the show:

"So-called media arts steal the show in SFMOMA's anniversary medley, thanks mainly to the late Bruce Conner, whose "Three Screen Ray" (2006) will meet a wide audience here for the first time as a three-channel projected video. It anchors "Long Play: Bruce Conner and the Singles Collection," which puts "Three Screen Ray" alongside music-inspired video works by various other artists, all to bolster curator Rudolf Frieling's startling view of Conner as the precursor of music videos."*

I disagree because I'm not blase about the line up of superb pieces from artists as diverse as Weston, Pollock, Eva Hesse and Diebenkorn (to name a few). But the Conner installation does dominate the second floor landing, largely because the sound is so loud. During the press preview, it was so intrusive that it was difficult to hear the curator's talk and the noise blasted into the space where the large, serene and iconic pieces by Diebenkorn are hung.

A rotating series of "singles," single-channel video works from the SFMOMA collection related to music or appropriating found footage, is presented in an adjoining gallery alongside the late San Francisco-based artist's 1996 film BREAKAWAY, which was a forerunner of the music video genre. The May program of "bonus tracks" moves beyond SFMOMA's collection to feature contemporary videos on loan from Bay Area-based artists.

* I don't understand the snarky reference to "so-called media arts." What else are pieces which combine sound, film, and installation to be called?

Breakaway @ SFMOMA

Dissent, Iran and the Arts

In today's issue of Modern Art Notes, Tyler Green points out an essay by Claire Messud in the NY Review of Books discussing how difficult it is for us to imagine life in Iran under the present dictatorship because of the dearth of fiction.  I find this a bit difficult to understand because there is a lot of literature about survival under oppressive regimes. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s books are one example among many. Another way is to read books about life before the current religious theocracy clamped down; an oldie but goodie is "Guests of the Sheik," by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. Sge spent the first two years of her marriage in the 1950s living in El Nahra, a small village in Southern Iraq, and her book is a personal narrative about life behind a veil in a community unaccustomed to Western women. She arrived speaking only a few words of Arabic and feeling dubious about her husband's expectation that she adapt completely to the segregated society in order to accommodate his anthropological study. When she left two years later she was an accepted and loved member of the village, inspired for a lifetime of work in Middle Eastern studies. The story of her life among the Iraqis is eye-opening, written with intellectual honesty as well as love and respect for a seemingly impenetrable society.

But what can fill in the gap is the plethora and richness of émigré Iranian art, starting with Shirin Neshat (interviewed in his article) and Shirazeh Houshiry. There are also a number of excellent films from Iran, some even made under the current government. Green goes on to talk about some commercial galleries who have presented Iranian artists but he misses one of the most important shows in 2009. Held at SF's Intersection for the Arts, eight Iranian artists tried to present a visual picture of what life in Iran is now. While some of the artists were a bit too derivative of Western art and some of the art would have been urban angst, anytime, anywhere, it was a unique show and deserves to be remembered.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Upcoming at the Asian: Shanghai (opening Feb 12). Remembering a forgotten star, Ruan Lingyu

The Asian Art Museum is getting ready for their next show, "Shanghai, " which will open on February 12th. For now, everybody is working like crazy to pull the exhibit together and it looks to be another exciting show. In its heyday, Shanghai, founded by the British as part of their trading concessions from the fading Manchu Empire, presented a fascinating, colorful and sometimes decadent synthesis of East and West.  Deborah Clearwaters,the director of education and public programs, has been assigned to find interesting film clips of Shanghai for possible use in the exhibit.

Of course, Western film buffs are familiar with Dietrich's famous quote, "It took a lot of men to make Shanghai Lil," from "The Shanghai Express (1932) which also stared the ravishing Anna Mae Wong. Another riff on Shanghai but one which had little to do with the real city was Orson Wells "The Lady from Shanghai,” starring his then wife, Rita Haworth. But I am interested in the native and pre WW II Chinese cinema and remembered the film that I'd seen on Turner Classic Movies, staring Ruan Lingyu, a major Chinese film star of the 1930's.

Born in Shanghai in 1910, Ruan made her first film at the age of 16 for the then prominent Mingxing Film Studio. She was brought up by her mother who worked as a house maid to provide for her. Her first big break came in Spring Dream of an Old Capital (Reminiscences of Beijing, 1930). A massive hit, it was her first major work after signing for the newly-formed Lianhua Studio. Ruan's acting was so natural, accurate and graceful that, even after 70 years, her films still seem fresh.

Thereafter Ruan became the company's major film star. Her best works came after 1931, starting with the melodrama Love and Duty (1931) (directed by Bu Wancang). Beginning with Three Modern Women (1932; dir: Bu Wanchang), Ruan started collaborating with a group of talented leftist directors; most of her subsequent films have a strong socialist slant to them. In Little Toys (1933), a film by Sun Yu, Ruan played a long-suffering toy-maker. Her next film, Shenn¸ (The Goddess, 1934; dir: Wu Yonggang), is often hailed as the pinnacle of Chinese silent cinema, with Ruan's portrayal of a sympathetic prostitute bringing up a child one of the classics of the era. Later that year, Ruan made her penultimate film, New Women with director Cai Chusheng, where she played an educated Shanghai woman forced to death by an unfeeling society. A final film, National Custom was released shortly after her death.

In 1935, during the shooting of her last film, a divorce suit and slanderous stories in unscrupulous local newspapers caused her a great deal of mental anguish. She finally decided to take her own life to prove her innocence.

The Goddess (1934) is a tragic tale of shame and maternal sacrifice. We are introduced to the central character (Ruan, whom we will call the "Goddess," though she remains unnamed in the film) through a series of close ups of the furnishings of her room: makeup and perfume, elegant dresses, a child's toy and food, a crib. As might be deduced, she is a prostitute, who sells herself on the bustling, neon-lit streets of Shanghai to support herself and her baby son. This film about lower class life in 1920's China was painfully honest. Even now, some of the scenes of poverty and brutality have the power to shock. So much of the early Chinese Cinema was destroyed during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during WW II; we are lucky that this survived. This is just a taste of the treasures that we and the world lost through that tragic conflict.

Tragic Goddess:
 Asian Art Museum Blog - Shanghai FIlm Clips:

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Le Weekend: Jan 10-11th

One week into the new year and it's busy, busy, busy. Two shows are closing today (eeek) and I'd recommend that you go to either ASAP. Or both, if you have the energy. Both are good shows, coming from different ends of the world, both geographically and artistically.

Once Upon a Dream: Cartoon Art Museum. Closing January 10th. The exhibit explores the creation of one of Walt Disney Studios’ most enduring films, from pencil art and model sheets to animation cels, color guides and behind-the-scenes photographs of the cast and crew. Almost ten years in the making, Sleeping Beauty was designed to look like no other Disney film, drawing from both medieval illustrations and cutting-edge 1950s graphic design.

Head of a Buddha image. Approx. 1800. Thailand; Wat Phra Chettuphon, Bangkok. Stucco. The Avery Brundage Collection,

Emerald Cities: Asian Art Museum. Closing January 10th: Asian Art Museum

Suzanne Husky: New Artist-in-Residence at the de Young:
The de Young Museum hosts Suzanne Husky: Forest through January 31 as part of the Artist-in-Residence Program in the Kimball Education Gallery. Husky builds forests out of textile trees made from recycled fabric, responding to the museum’s surroundings and landscape paintings from the de Young’s permanent collection. Visitors are invited to bring in fabric and create trees using the park as inspiration. The fabric patterns and colors create foliage texture and reproduce natural and artificial biodiversity.

Openings: Flora Davis: Art work from the Art span 2010 selections exhibition

  • Exhibition Opening Reception: Thursday, January 14, 2010, 6-9pm (free and open to the public - 21 and over ONLY event, with complimentary cocktails and snacks)
  • Exhibition Dates: January 7 - 22, 2010, gallery open Tuesday - Friday, 3-6pm and Saturday by appointment
California Modern Gallery, 1035 Market Street

Kristina Quinones
between Control & Uncertainty ~ Soft fluid explorations of color and light.
Market Street Gallery (1554 Market btween Van Ness and Franklin). Opening January 15th.
Opening Reception: Jan 22,  6-9 PM

Monday, January 4, 2010

Cantor Art Center: Sixty Figure Drawings by Frank Lobdell

Frank Lobdell Figure Drawings
November 11, 2009 – February 21, 2010

Before the war, Lobdell had studied at the St. Paul School of Fine Arts in Minnesota and attended the California School of Fine Arts from 1946 to 1950. Lobdell saw combat during World War II and had developed a dark and angst ridden style that reflected his emotional reaction to the horrors that he had lived through. By the 1950’s his pieces showed the influence of Clyfford Still with their rugged paint surface surrounding gnarled and convoluted shapes. His painterly vocabulary was vaguely suggestive of archaeological and American Indian images, boomerangs, rhombuses, sun discs, wing shapes, ragged claws and obscure pictography. These were inscribed with heavy black lines in grounds of thick, heavily worked white paint, which was the only material he could afford at the time. (1)

The drawings on display at the Cantor Art Center stemmed from a 1959 invitation to join some fellow artists and teachers in a weekly drawing session. Diebenkorn and Bischoff were concerned that their art work – abstract at the time- was becoming stale and repetitive, They had decided to return to figure drawing to recharge and rethink their artistic eye and vocabulary. Diebenkorn found an inexpensive paper in Crown Zellerbach warehouse which held a crisp line while still being able withstand heavier applications of gouache and ink. Lobdell continued his drawing practice after moving to moving to Stanford University in 1966, where he taught art until 1991. There, the members of his drawing group included fellow instructors Nathan Oliveira, Keith Boyle, and others.

Essentially a nonfigurative artist, Lobdell used these weekly drawing sessions as a springboard to develop a vocabulary of abstraction that was informed by a study of the human body and grounded in the formal issues of expressionist gesture and line. What evolved from this was to change the focus of his practice so that drawing became his primary means of finding an emotional voice.To further understanding of their different approaches, the museum has juxtaposed Lobdell’s drawings with several by Diebenkorn, Bischoff and Oliveira.To further understanding of their different approaches, the museum has juxtaposed Lobdell’s drawings with several by Diebenkorn, Bischoff and Oliveira.

In these drawings, never intended for publication, patterns and textiles become aggressive force fields. The nude figures flow and sprawl across the space; the focus is not so much on their anatomy but on an investigation of spacial complexity. His forceful, clotted line suggests bulk and volume while also radiating an aggressive, sometimes angry eroticism. “Gesture, attack, informs the drawings,” he reflected. The point was not to illustrate something, but to “find it. (2)

In the catalogue essay, Robert Flynn Johnson writes. “The starkness of flesh is achieved through the use of the untouched or lightly washed paper against the dark-washed background interiors. There is an unabashed sensuality and spirit to these women. The eroticism comes in part because they are not depicted as individuals but as a universal female presence.”...natural, alluring, and somewhat dangerous.”

There is nothing new under the sun. From Praxiteles to Courbet, artists have been inspired by the challenge, eroticism and sexual charge of working from a live model. Praxiteles scandalized ancient Athens by working from a live nude model who was also a hetaera. Courbet's painting, "The Origin of the World" was considered so obscene that it was not displayed in public until 1988. There are more than enough drawings which seem to focus on the pubic triangle, but as one who has attended many a life-drawing session, these may not be anything more than the artist working out problems of line and volume. Nevertheless, the circles of the breasts, the triangle of female sexuality, the geometry of the space, the black and white of ink, gouache, pen and pencil radiate power and energy; whether they also radiate a “dangerous sexuality” is up to the beholder.

Organized by Anne Kohn and Associates, the exhibit of approximately 60 figure drawings will be up until at the Cantor Art Center until February 21, 2010. Works are on loan from the artist and private collections and from the Cantor Arts Center's own collection. Admission is free to the museum and the exhibition.
1. Albright, Thomas. Art in the San Francisco Bay Area. 1945-1985. University of California Press, 1985. p 46
2. Lobdell, Frank and Anglin, Timothy: The art of making and meaning.  p 221.