Life always presents tough choices, even for this vacationing art blogger. And so, as I happily explore San Francisco, there are questions such as, “See another art gallery, or buy chocolate at Ghirardelli Square?” “See another art gallery, or walk the hills of the Castro District in gloriously breezy and sunny weather?” “See another art gallery, or check out the goodies in the markets of the Ferry Building?” You get the idea.
Fortunately, in my time here I’ve focused on visits to two fabulous art museums, luxuriating in the caliber of work.
First, the de Young Museum at Golden Gate Park, with much to admire — from its towering, muscular copper exterior to its serene sculpture gardens to its stellar galleries. I was lucky enough to see “Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years,” which includes more than 120 paintings and charcoal/graphite drawings that trace Richard Diebenkorn’s years (1953-66) of trying to find the sweet spot between figurative and abstract painting. His subjects loosely involve ocean views, landscapes, human figures in reflective poses, and still lifes of unusual objects. His mastery of color — intense when it needs to be — and perspective — which is often flattened — serve as evidence of his groundbreaking work in American Modernism.
The paintings that depict women standing or sitting yet lost in thought — which tend to rely on the slightest of details to make their point — were especially rewarding to see, at least for me. In addition, it’s helpful for Diebenkorn newbies like myself to read the wall texts next to many of the paintings and the over-sized quotations from the artist scattered here and there. Diebenkorn was especially mordant when talking about art; he once said, for instance, “Of course, I don’t go into the studio with the idea of ‘saying’ something – that’s ludicrous. What I do is face the blank canvas, which is terrifying.”
Here, with photos courtesy of the de Young Museum, is a slide show from the exhibition.
Elsewhere in the museum, I explored the collections of American painting, sculpture and decorative arts through history, stopping to examine pottery by the Tafoya family and other reminders of the Southwest. Also, off to the side in a sitting area overlooking the gardens, I was pleasantly surprised to come upon a Wayne Higby ceramic piece. You can still catch the Higby retrospective at the Arizona State University Art Museum through July 20, by the way.
In another Arizona connection, I enjoyed the James Turrell Skyspace “Three Gems” in the sculpture garden. We can lay claim to Skyspaces at ASU and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
My second great art adventure in the Bay Area has been the Contemporary Jewish Museum next to the Yerba Buena Gardens. Perhaps it can’t entirely fill the shoes of the nearby San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is closed for remodeling until 2016, but it’s wonderful to explore the Daniel Libeskind building along with CJM’s relatively small but well-executed exhibitions.
Seemingly the most popular of the exhibitions currently on view is “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg.” Several dozen of his works reveal that the famous Beat poet had a knack for charming, illuminating photos of friends, relatives and places in his life, all of which he later complemented with long, rhythmic handwritten captions. The exhibit is an excellent glimpse into the Beat movement — with black-and-white candids of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs, etal.
I spent quite a bit of time with “Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art,” consisting of 62 works from SFMOMA’s collection that provoke thought about Judeo-Christian beliefs as well as other theologies, without being overtly religious or dogmatic. Artists include Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Helen Frankenthaler, with sculpture, video and installation art supplementing the many paintings.
A small CJM gallery that I also enjoyed cleverly documents how Black-American music from the 1930s to the 1960s crossed over into Jewish heritage. With headphones and digital recordings at a few bistro tables surrounding a piano, listeners can learn how Paul Robeson, Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Mathis and other great artists interpreted Jewish-themed songs. The exhibit’s great name: “Black Sabbath.”
Although the CJM and the de Young have pretty much filled my need to see art, I have dropped by a few galleries, notably, the Meyerovich, the Hespe and Scott Richards, all of which have some astounding works. Note to self, though: Next time I visit this art mecca, I need to figure out which galleries cater to casual visitors versus art collectors, as stepping into some of them is a bit intimidating for this tourist from Arizona.