Most of us first learn about Alcatraz Island from movies such as Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood and The Rock with Nicholas Cage. Most of us think of it as a prison. But, as the National Park Service delights in telling visitors, it is also a sanctuary for endangered species of birds, a museum of military history, an ancestral site for the Ohlone people, and often recently, an art museum.
Thanks to the Presido Trust, we rode the ferry out to the island to see an exhibition called "Future IDs at Alcatraz." The work shown is the result of helping people in prison imagine replacing their prison ID with another ID card when they are released. The project challenged them to imagine a new identity and create a pictorial representation of it.
I'm no expert in this field, but intuitively it seems right to add this exercise in imagination to the job-training, counseling, and parole-supervision that help people re-join society.
Four years ago, we visited the island for another art exhibit "@Large". That one featured work by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who was then under arrest in his country. He sent instructions for the installation, without sending any art objects. There have been other exhibits on the island, but those featuring art that comes out of imprisonment have a special resonance.
By the way, I did not use any filters to create the photo, taken from the boat on the way to the island. There was some mist in the air that morning, and it created the impressionist style.
On a recent trip to Scottsdale, Arizona, we came upon this OLEV sculpture. Little is known about the artist, Inda Mira. The name is thought to be a pseudonym.
There is no consensus among critics about the meaning of these parodies of Robert Indiana's famous LOVE sculptures. Few have even speculated about Mira's decision to reverse the L and the E.
Mira made many three dimensional OLEVs, but no two-dimensional copes survive. While Indiana's LOVE image was popular in prints and even appeared on a US postage stamp, OLEV survives only in sculptural form.
Perhaps because of Mira's refusal to market the image as prints, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other merchandise, OLEV has never taken its place alongside LOVE as an icon of Pop Art.
Happy April Fool's Day!
"The Star Girl" (aka "Star Maiden") was sculpted by A. Stirling Calder for the Panama Pacific International Exposition, a world's fair held in San Francisco in 1915. Ninety-five plaster replicas of it decorated one of the pavilions. This bronze copy was made recently for a bank building in San Francisco.
Audrey Munson was Calder's model for "The Star Girl." She also modeled for other figures at the Exposition by Calder and several other artists. She appeared in so many sculptures, paintings, mosaics, coins and other media that she became famous as "The Exposition Girl." She was twenty-four years old.
Before and after the Exposition, Munson modeled for many nude and semi-nude figures that appear on federal and state buildings, museums, cemeteries, memorials---anywhere architects place allegorical figures such as Peace, Abundance, Sorrow, Justice, etc. She was the model for Liberty on the half-dollar coin issued by the US Mint in 1916.
Beginning in 1915, she appeared in four silent films, playing the role of an artist's model. She was the first woman to appear nude in an American film.
Her brilliant career was brought to an end in 1919 by Dr. Walter Wilkins who murdered his wife because, he said, he was in love with Munson. At that time, Munson lived with her mother in a boarding house in Manhattan owned by Wilkins. Although Munson strongly denied any relationship with the doctor, she could get no modeling work after this.
She tried to continue her film career and to capitalize on her fame in various publicity stunts, but ended up supported by her mother. In 1922 she attempted suicide. In 1931 a court ordered her committed to a psychiatric facility where she lived the rest of her life. She died in 1996 at the age of 104..
Her image can still be seen on buildings and monuments throughout the United States.
This plaza is at 555 Market Street, San Francisco. It's outside a couple of skyscrapers that started out as headquarters for oil companies, and now rent out to all kinds of companies.
Stare at the center line and then sweep your eyes side to side. You may notice the paving looks like it's starting to fold up like the bellows of an accordion, or like a folding screen.
In reality it's perfectly flat. All the black pieces are the same size and shape, and so are all the white pieces. You can stand at the end of any row and see the same illusion.
The only reference to a similar visual illusion I could find is the "Missing Corner Cube." It is supposed to have three possible interpretations, but I could see only two.
On a hill near the southern border of the Presidio stands a sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy called Spire. It is about ninety feet tall, and can be seen reaching above the surrounding trees. It is a bundle of trunks from Monterey Cypress trees that reached the end of their lives.
Goldsworthy visited the Presidio in 2006 and found the forestry crew replacing cypress planted by the U. S. Army in the 1880s with seedlings. Struck by this moment, new trees replacing old, he created Spire to memorialize the old forest, which can be seen in the background.
In about ten years, the project will be complete. By then the newly planted trees in the foreground will have grown nearly as tall as Spire. This remnant of the old forest will disappear into the new one. It will become a secret sculpture, discoverable only by walking to it.
The spire Goldsworthy created will not change, but, since the growth of the seedlings was part of the concept, Spire is a kinetic sculpture. It's moving very slowly, but it is moving.
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?"
Why is there a life-size sculpture of a blue whale at Crissy Field?
Why not? Given the choice between having something this cool and not having it, I think most people would go for it.
But there's a little more to it than that. This lovely sculpture is made entirely from plastic trash collected in California.
Why make a blue whale out of plastic trash? Because, Every nine minutes, 300,000 pounds (the approximate weight of a full-grown blue whale) of plastic and trash end up in the ocean.*
*According to National Geographic.
Come on, people, we can do better than this!
By the way, Crissy Field was formerly a military airstrip. It's part of The Presidio. The whale sculpture is a joint project with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and some other great organizations. You can read all about it here.
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.