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Wanderlust: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda, 2008-2010 (installation view); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase, by exchange, through a fractional gift of Shirley Ross Davis; © Doris Salcedo; photo: Don Ross.

Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda, 2008-2010 (installation view); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase, by exchange, through a fractional gift of Shirley Ross Davis; © Doris Salcedo; photo: Don Ross.


By James Foritano

San Francisco, CA – How does one sum up a museum so huge that it qualifies as the largest space in the world dedicated to modern and contemporary art? Carefully and incompletely, I found.

Feelings of gratitude and trepidation alternated as I found myself transported from quaint, historic Boston to a city and museum all about the future — the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, modestly abbreviated as SFMOMA.

I had already acquainted myself with Columbian artist Doris Salcedo’s mystical, complex vision of human suffering and endurance in “The Materiality of Mourning” at the Harvard Art Museums. My view of Salcedo’s vision deepened considerably as I wandered through an expansive installation of, to put it too simply, her ‘upended furniture’ at SFMOMA as part of its “A Slow Succession with Many Interruptions” exhibition showcasing 40 artists responding to the evolving conditions of the 21st century.

Not that I understood completely, but, as I winded my way around and about a confrontation of varied pieces making up Salcedo’s installation, “Piegaria Muda,” I stood closer by some indefinable metric to an artistic vision generated over a lifetime of engagement. The east and west coasts of North America as well as Salcedo’s homeland at the top of South America, came together for me with an audible click.

This was ‘big’ for me, a roving art lover, but for SFMOMA, it was square footage they could well spare after closing down for three years to expand an already expansive space into a stronghold of world eminence.

I was grateful for this surprising bounty but also feeling shaky. How many epiphanies could I absorb and still remain standing? Another installation beckoned but, for now, I demurred, deciding to enjoy the smaller generosities of expansive spacing.

One habit I kicked at SFMOMA, not an epiphany, but a help, was the habit of looking slantwise at the label and commentary of a piece of contemporary art which eluded my immediate comprehension. Since labels were placed at least seven feet away, or so it seemed, from the art they explained, I most often gave my neck a rest and just engaged. How many museums would have used this precious space between label and artwork to slip in a whole exhibition of the artist under consideration? But for SFMOMA, there’s always another gallery — no need to crowd.

And the beat goes on. The Don and Doris Fisher collection of modern and contemporary art, just loaned to SFMOMA for 100 years, renewable, pauses to examine “German Art after 1960.” Again, I was grateful for expanding a modest familiarity with German artist Anselm Kiefer gleaned mainly from our own MASS MoCA, by a roomful of Kiefer’s large paintings.

Kiefer speaks in long, and I feel, despite their fullness, carefully considered sentences about Germany’s fraught 20th century past. He seems to throw every material, including soil, gravel, tar, straw and tin, at works as much sculpture as paintings. I appreciated his rhetoric of Germany’s burden of history and spent more time in that one gallery disentangling strands of insight, sensuous and cerebral at once, than I did in the decades more of art encompassed by this rich, multi-galleried exhibition.

Finally, and wisely, I used this same survival strategy to again focus my waning energies on just one gallery of another comprehensive exhibition that opened up right beside the coat rack: “Open-ended, Painting and Sculpture since 1900.”

San Francisco might look to a Bostonian, just arriving, as a city “all about the future,” but it does have a past of some scope and generosity. Part way through an exhibition I knew I wouldn’t survive on my feet, I found, in one large room, a slew of paintings donated to SFMOMA by a grateful Clyfford Still after he was granted, in 1943, his first solo show. In that room, I caught my breath and studied just one multi-layered treasure trove of the exhibition “Open-Ended.” As our own Thoreau recommended, knowing when to slow your walk to a saunter can make all the difference.

(For more information on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, visit sfmoma.org.)