Why would someone take a photo of the surface of the ocean? No boats, no waves breaking, not even a bit of sky above the horizon.
But this is a drawing, not a photo. Graphite on paper. Pencil.
Why not simply exhibit the photo? Presumably because the subject---the surface of the ocean---is not the point. Apparently the point is the act of drawing.
This is one piece in a large exhibition of work by Vija Celmins. There is a room full of these ocean pictures. And a room full of night skies, and a room full of desert floors. Dozens of drawings made over decades. Minimal subjects, maximum technique.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art says, "these 'redescriptions' are a way to understand human consciousness in relation to lived experience." Lived experience? What other kind of experience is there?
For some reason these remind me of Marcel Duchamp's ready made sculptures. He exhibited a metal rack used for drying milk bottles and a porcelain urinal as works of art. Those were minimal subjects and minimal technique, but, like these, the whole point was to draw attention to something.
On a recent visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I saw an announcement for this exhibit in the lobby, thought, "That looks like fun," and trotted up to the fifth floor.
Yes, I took the stairs all the way up. I do this instead of working out.
And it was fun. As you can see, people stroll through a room full of giant spiders as if they were in a theme park. Some even like to get close:
Of course these people are a self-selecting group. Not everyone feels this way. One friend opted out, saying simply, "No. I'll skip that." Since there's more at SFMOMA than one can possible see in a single visit, I took this to mean, "rather do something else."
But perhaps my friend doesn't like spiders. In "An Arachnophobe Faces Louise Bourgeois's Iconic Spiders," Tess Thackara confesses she projected her own fears when she interpreted one of these sculptures as an image of horror.
To the contrary she quotes the artist's interpretation: “Because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.” The usefulness is a reference to her mother's craft, repairing tapestries. She compares this to spiders spinning webs from threads.
Each of us brings something different to a work of art. Perhaps we should't ask, "What does this piece mean?" Instead, we should ask, "What meaning blooms when you encounter this piece?"
When I saw the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art had mounted an exhibit of photographs by Brassai, I hurried right over. Along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, he became one of my favorites when I started reading the Time-Life books on photography back in the 1970s.
As this exhibit shows, he was an all-around working photographer in Paris throughout the mid-twentieth century. The photos are grouped by subject: Society, Paris by Night, Pleasures, Portraits, etc.
His photos of Paris by night have made his place in history. It seems to me he practically invented Paris in the 1930s with pictures like this one:
You are seeing my cell-phone photo of the photo hanging on the wall of the museum. The definition and shades of gray are even better when you see the original.
I recall taking pictures of outdoor stairways with Kodak's Tri-X black-and-white film in my camera, hoping to create a magical image like this one. If I'd taken as many as he did, maybe I'd have learned to watch for the light to be just right.
One of the plaques says Brassai, like any working photographer of that period, made his living doing portraits and nudes. The pictures on display include fine examples of both, but nothing so memorable as these street scenes.
So his most original and inspired work was not the work that paid his bills. Many could say the same.
The U. S. Army built this powder magazine probably before America's Civil War. Because its purpose was to store gun powder, the walls are made of stone, three feet thick. If there were an accident, the roof would blow off, but the blast would not level neighboring buildings . . . and people.
Nowadays, it's a historic building in the Presidio of San Francisco, the only part of the National Park Service that is self-supporting. The Presidio Trust rents out the buildings left behind when the Army closed its base in 1996 to pay the costs of maintaining it for all to enjoy.
Inside the building is a sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy called Tree Fall, one of four Goldsworthy sculptures in the park (See below). This one uses the windowless one-room building to create a mysterious atmosphere for a section of a eucalyptus tree, which seems to float overhead. The tree and the ceiling are coated in clay, making it seem we are underground.
I have the pleasure of welcoming visitors to Tree Fall and the park two or three days each month.
This is the only oil painting on the walls of our apartment. I bought it at an antique shop when we lived in Philadelphia for less than we spend on groceries in a month. The bill of sale describes it as, "Oil on board of the 'Trou de Bozouls' in Aveyron, France (ca. 1946) signed F. Monge."
I've done a little searching to find out who F. Monge may have been and have turned up nothing. Maybe there is a small regional art museum somewhere in France that celebrates Monge's work. If so, they don't turn up in an internet search.
I've wondered whether F. Monge might be due for rediscovery by the art world, or if some scholar might find that a famous artist signed some paintings with this name at a stage of his or her career.
Such a discovery would make this painting more expensive, but not more valuable. In the years we have owned it, I have not gotten tired of it. I still enjoy looking at it. That is its value for me, along with knowing it is a relic of the mid-twentieth century.
If it became an expensive painting, I would have to pay to insure its replacement cost. I might even have to take precautions so it wouldn't be stolen from my home. I might hear from people who want to see it or borrow it for an exhibition. That might be pleasant or not, depending on the person.
I like owning a painting that is valuable, but not expensive. So, I guess, the theme of my "collection" is, "art without the bragging rights."
Several times I saw this bicycle parked in front of the place where we go for breakfast once a week. The painting depicts the Palace of Fine Arts, which is near the cafe.
One day I struck up a conversation with a guy wearing bicycle clothes, and he admitted to being the artist, John Paul Marcelo. We had a nice chat about his work. I especially admired the way he captures the effect of fog to make peripheral elements of the picture recede from the main element.
I didn't ask any of the obvious questions, because they seemed to answer themselves.
Why does he ride around with the painting strapped to back of his bike?
It's the only way to carry it when travelling by bicycle.
Why doesn't he cover the painting to protect it?
This way he advertises his work.
What if it rains?
Then he wouldn't be painting outdoors.
What if it gets scratched?
He can repair it.
The only question I can't answer is: Why don't we see more of this?
San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora does many things right. It's within walking distance of several other small museums and one big one (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). It's programming is varied and innovative. The staff is friendly and helpful.
It's architect also got several things right. The front of the building is a three-story window. It showcases stairways that take the visitor to all three levels. I love stairways flooded with daylight, and, if they have a view, so much the better.
The view from this stairway features a visual stairway of buildings across the street, two-story, four-story, six-story, skyscraper. I love the idea of a museum that puts a frame around a piece of the city, allowing me to see it as a work of art.
It helps to know that the lovely, two-story, red-brick building is the home of the California Historical Society, which includes exhibition spaces for history and the arts. Their programming is also excellent.
Much as we enjoy San Francisco's large fine arts museums, the town wouldn't be the same without its smaller museums. Over the weekend we visited the Contemporary Jewish Museum to see their exhibit of "The Art of Rube Goldberg."
Goldberg's drawings ran as comic strips in newspapers when I was a boy. Although he wrote and drew conventional multi-panel cartoons, his name became synonymous with his "inventions." Here's one from the exhibit:
Prof. Butts creates complicated solutions to simple problems. This one is an eleven-step system for putting a stamp on an letter. These were so popular that people took to describing anything that was too complicated as "a Rube Goldberg contraption."
As the exhibit showed, he wasn't all slapstick. The drawing below, entitled "The Future of Home Entertainment," was a cover for Forbes magazine in 1967 . . . 1967!
The de Young Museum has an exhibit through August 12, 2018 celebrating the machine age as reflected in American Art of the 1920s and 1930s. These steel gates, for instance, once marked the entrance to corporate offices in a skyscraper in New York City. Elsewhere the exhibit features paintings of things such as the internal workings of a mechanical watch done in a style called precisionism.
The machines are still around, but the cult of the machine has been replaced by the cult of electronics. We used to speak of "electronic music," but today it's rare to hear music that is not somehow made electronic, if only by being run through a PA system. Video games gave us visual tools that are now being incorporated into fine art, as I experienced yesterday at The Museum of the African Diaspora. Their exhibit, "Digitalia," allows the visitor equipped with a smartphone or iPad to look through the device's camera and see additional images invisible to the naked eye.
It's hard to imagine the cult of electronics will pass as the cult of the machine did, but perhaps that's beginning to happen. David Sax's book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, was published two years ago.
Andy Goldsworthy created a sculpture on a wall adjacent to the Officers' Club in The Presidio. It's called "Earth Wall," and indeed the wall you see in the picture is made of rammed earth.
Goldsworthy began by attaching curved eucalyptus branches to an existing concrete garden wall to create the ball in the middle. Contractors then built a temporary plywood wall parallel to the concrete wall and filled the space in between with a mixture of earth and cement.
When the plywood wall was taken away, the eucalyptus ball was completely submerged in the rammed earth wall. Goldsworthy then excavated the ball with a hammer and chisel until it was partially revealed.
He chose to make this piece of sculpture an excavation because the Officers Club is the site of an ongoing archaeological dig. Inside the building, visitors can now view an adobe wall that was part of the Spanish presidio (fortress) built in 1776. Next to the building is a dig that explores other parts of that 250-year-old building.
All of Goldsworthy's work is site-specific. It reflects the site on which it is created and is made of materials from the site.
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, meaning the DeYoung Museum of Art and the Palace of the Legion of Honor, have given us superb exhibitions of the later work of William Turner over the summer. By the way SF also has the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Asian Art Museum, which are not included when you say, "The Fine arts Museums of San Francisco," even though they definitely have fine art in them. And then there is the Palace of Fine Arts which is not an art museum and has no art in it, fine or otherwise. Clear?
Anyhoo, the Legion still has its exhibit of English Works on Paper through the end of November, and it is astounding to see what the likes of Turner, Blake and many others could do with pencil, pastel, ink and water color. These were often studies for paintings to be done later, and they don't hold up as well, being on paper. But there are effects that in some instances surpass what the masters accomplish in paint.
The DeYoung's exhibit of Turner's later paintings, now closed, was a jaw dropping experience. Mike Leigh's film, Mr. Turner, starring Timothy Spall, was a great warm-up for this exhibit. It tells the story of the barber's son who surpasses his contemporaries and starts painting the light, years ahead of those French Impressionists we now so love. Perhaps we know him less because he refused to sell his work to the highest bidder, instead leaving it to the English people to be held in trust. The paintings were spectacular.
The exhibit closed at the end of September, and this sky appeared as if to bid it goodbye.
Ann and I dropped by the DeYoung Museum to see their exhibition: Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland. In one way it was like strolling through any major museum -- a Titian, a Velazquez, a Vermeer, a Monet, etc. -- but I had never seen these examples, having never visited the National Galleries of Scotland. Also, there was a strong presence of Scottish painters I had not seen. My favorite discovery: Francis Cadell, portrait painter of the early 20th Century.
As you can see from my neckwear, I am a fan of audio tours. The best of them help me see things I would miss unless I looked at the picture for a long time. PRO TIP: ask the staff for the numbers to punch in for the children's tour. They are more fun and helpful than the grown-up version. Children don't have to listen to descriptions of a a picture of three young women embroidering as "exquisitely feminine;" nor a portrait of the artist's wife as "incredibly intimate;" nor the tartan worn in a nobleman's portrait as "highly symbolic." When they start laying on the adverbs, you know they haven't decided what they want to say.
MINOR COMPLAINT: the audio tour was given by someone with a British accent. I so wanted to hear the name "Braque" spoken with a Scottish brogue.
Thank you Scotland! What a great country! You sent us John Muir and you loaned us your masterpieces.
This traditional Chinese lion is part of the exhibit created by Ai Wei Wei for installation in the former Federal Prison on Alcatraz Island in San Franciso Bay. The irony is deliberate: an artist kept under house arrest for criticizing the government of his native country creates art to be seen and heard in a prison that is now open to all the world.
Imprisonment of political dissidents is the subject of the work. In an old cell block, he has installed recordings of everyone from Martin Luther King jr. to Pussy Riot. Each 5 x 8 cell plays a different recording. And then there is the old factory room which has the floor covered in portraits of the dissidents done in Legos:
I asked one of the interpreters on hand for the exhibit about taking photographs. She said the artist encourages it and is himself an enthusiastic user of social media.
By the way, thanks to my Annie for walking by just at the right moment when I was photographing the lion.