San Francisco, California—The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art guarantees an interesting experience for visitors with its collection of contemporary works that will definitely elicit reactions whether for better or for worse.
When I visited, they were having an Edvard Munch special exhibit for which they collected an extra fee. Since the Norwegian artist’s “Scream” was not there, I decided to save six dollars and skip that exhibit, plunking down $25 for general admission.
I didn’t take the guided tour but instead meandered through the building and its seven floors and outdoor spaces, going as my fancy took me. I must confess that modern art leaves me unimpressed. I prefer figurative art, which in my estimation takes more technical skill. Abstractionism seems to me like a bunch of rowdy kindergartners let loose in an art supply store. But I knew I would learn something from the experience.
In the SF MOMA lobby hangs a mobile by Alexander Calder, who invented the art form. Frankly, “Untitled” (1963, metal and paint) looks like a group of white clothes hangers supporting white forms that look like guitar picks. I prefer the bright primary colors of his “Big Crinkly” (1969, metal and paint) displayed in an outdoor terrace.
In one of the many rooms, my inner kindergartner’s eye is caught by Ellsworth Kelly’s “Spectrum I” (1953, oil on canvas). It has 14 carefully laid vertical stripes in the color of the rainbow, with the violet spectrum in the middle. Inner Kindergartner believes she can create such a painting herself with a 24-box of Crayola crayons.
Another work of Kelly’s comprises seven horizontal rectangles, painted, in order, blue, red, white black, yellow, white, and blue. The work is titled “Red Yellow Blue White and Black with White Border (1952-53, oil on canvas). Nearby are four larger rectangles arranged beside each other, painted blue, green, black, red. I face-palm.
In another room, Cy Twombly’s works have center stage. What is this that fills one wall? It looks like a chalkboard with furious scribbles, not even discernable text. The card beside it says these “restrained gray paintings” rendered with “oil-based house paint, crayon, and graphite on canvas” are actually referred to as “blackboards” for their “superficial resemblance” to those found in school rooms. I have seen more interesting drawings in elementary school classrooms.
I found Mike Mandel’s photographs of ‘70s California more rewarding and significant as a documentation of the times. In his photos are grannies with neatly coiffed hair and stylish coats, women with animal-print handbags and cat’s-eye sunglasses, views of motel swimming pools and boardwalks.
Walking through more rooms, a familiar style catches my eye. Frida Kahlo’s “Frieda and Diego Rivera” (1931, oil on canvas) is beautiful. It shows Diego towering over Frieda, her hand over his. It is a portrait of their love, made tangible, public, immortal.
As I leave, I spy another room, tucked beside the baggage counter. It holds the museum’s older artworks. Now these are more to my liking. Andre Derain’s oil painting “Paysage du Midi (Midi Landscape)” (1906) evoke a place with shape and color. Looking to be in a similar style are two seascapes by Henri Matisse, painted the same year. Dabs, flecks, lines, call to mind a beach and leave the rest to the viewer’s imagination.
Matisse has two figural works here, both oils—“Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat)” (1905) and “La fille aux yeux verts (The Girl with Green Eyes)” (1908). Both are modernist works that were considering “disquieting” to viewers back then. The latter, a portrait, is described by critics of the day as “a face crazed by absinthe drinking.”
Diego Rivera is represented by “Indian Girl with Coral Necklace” (1926, oil on canvas) and “The Flower Carrier” (1935, oil and tempera on Masonite). The former depicts a little girl in native dress, clutching her necklace, tiny bare feet on a red tile floor. The latter shows two campesinos (peasant farmers): a male in white kneeling on the ground as a woman adjusts a heavy basket of flowers on his back. The image depicts the backbreaking work of agricultural laborers.
There is much more to see at SF MOMA, including sculptures—Marcel Duchamp’s famed urinal “Fountain” is here, although a refabrication, one of several.
I might not have appreciated the abstract works, preferring those that outright tell stories rather than evoke feelings. But those who enjoy the genre will have much to admire. For me, it was worth the price of admission to see the lone Kahlo work.
SF MOMA has something for everyone to enjoy, and as a destination it is one of the must-sees in San Francisco.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. Follow her on Facebook: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Instagram: @jensdecember, @artuoste