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Andrew Berardini on Jens Hoffmann and Olafur Eliasson in San Francisco

San Francisco

Left: Artist Karla Diaz, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts director Jens Hoffman, and Capp Street Project artists Mario Ybarra Jr. and Tim Lee. Right: CCA dean of graduate studies Larry Rinder. (Photos: Andrew Berardini)

Could it be that the persistently provincial San Francisco Bay Area might finally give LA a run for its money as the West Coast’s cosmopolitan art capital? The question came to mind after attending last week’s collegial openings and parties for Jens Hoffmann’s curatorial debut at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts and “Take Your Time,” Olafur Eliasson’s small survey at SF MoMA.

The California College of the Arts (which has recently dropped “and Crafts” from its name) inhabits a former Greyhound station in an industrial neighborhood that locals say is “somewhere between SoMa and Potrero Hill but not properly anywhere.” Thankfully, Hoffmann, wearing pink jeans, a blue blazer, and an outsize smile, was standing by the door. Although he has only just arrived from London’s ICA, the Berlin-raised Costa Rican curator looked entirely at home in his new surroundings. After appropriate pleasantries, Hoffmann told me he is committed to his new institution and, as such, has just inaugurated a five-year-long curatorial project.

After a quick tour, I bumped into Kate Fowle, the founder and director of CCA’s curatorial-studies program. She announced her imminent departure to the other side of the Pacific Rim, where she will join the quickly expanding staff of the soon-to-open Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. She stood in front of the “Americana: 50 Months, 50 States, 50 Exhibitions” project, a lobby vitrine in the awkward shape of the United States that the curatorial students had filled with artwork and historical documents about Alabama (with the aid of Hoffmann). The team, which also includes Stacen Berg and Claire Fitzsimmons, has organized four other concurrent projects: two group shows (“Passengers” and “Pioneers”), a street-savvy Mario Ybarra Jr. mural, and a typically secretive Tino Sehgal performance. Thinking of five exhibitions in the modest available space, one might imagine a picture-choked salon, but Hoffmann has managed to pull it off. “Passengers” contains several hallmarks of Hoffmann’s idiosyncratic style, in particular a room in the center of the gallery that hosts rotating, ultrabrief solo shows drawn from the ranks of the group effort. By contrast, “Pioneers” mixes nineteenth-century daguerreotypes of gold prospectors with contemporary art. Despite the ungainliness of the yellow strip encircling the gallery walls, the seemingly tenuous connections between wagoneers and, say, painter Jay DeFeo held together.

Left: Kate Fowle, international curator at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. (Photo: Andrew Berardini) Right: Artist and CCA faculty member Michele Pred, Oakland Museum of California chief curator of art Phil Linhares, and CCA faculty emerita Eleanor Dickinson. (Photo: Robert Adler)

Yet Hoffmann’s curatorial derring-do is not half as a tricky as the art of Sehgal. I finally asked Berg, one of the institute’s assistant curators, how to find the Berlin-based artist’s performance. She replied, with perfect sweet calm, “Bush, in Iraq, Says Troop Reduction Is Possible. This Is New by Tino Sehgal, 2003.” Though initially confused, I figured out that the recitation was of that day’s headline from the New York Times—a performance that Sehgal, who rarely travels (and then only by boat), was not on hand to deliver himself.

Up the street at a cavernous club, the after-party featured spotlights projecting the Wattis’s modest new slogan—“Best Show in Town”—and incidentally illuminating a shuffling gaggle of curators from SF MoMA and the Berkeley Art Museum. The institutional presence was strong: Nearly everyone I met was either flown in for the occasion or a local curator.

Later that night, a kindly bunch from SF MoMA pointed me toward the next party, hosted by Tanya Bonakdar Gallery for Eliasson. The crowd of BMW suits (who underwrote Eliasson’s “art car” made of ice, on view at the museum), even more curators, and a spare artist or two mingled in the alleyway bar that, with its chinoiserie and antler chandeliers, seemed like a postmodern hunting lodge for opium addicts.

Eliasson’s opening, on the following night, felt inviting if a little sober. Located on the top floor of the five-story building, it included only just enough work to be called a survey. The crowd in the galleries was openly effusive about the colored lights, mirrors, and synthetic rainbows scattered about the show. Though San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier declared in his deep, resonant voice, “Eliasson is a genius, on par with Picasso,” I overhead one wit proclaim the exhibition “a lava lamp for the intellectual set.”

Madeleine Grynsztejn, SF MoMA’s Elise S. Hass Curator of Painting and Sculpture, with artist Olafur Eliasson. Right: Charles Schwab, SF MoMA board president, Helen Schwab, and SF MoMA director Neal Benezra. (Photos: Drew Altizer)

The official dinner, held nearby at the opulent St. Regis Hotel, was attended by an art-world power set that included Sir Nicolas Serota of the Tate, collectors Donald and Doris Fisher and Pamela and Richard Kramlich, and art historians Anne M. Wagner and T. J. Clark—and, of course, Charles “Call me Chuck” Schwab. At the bar after the meal, a tanned Tanya Bonakdar related that she couldn’t help but ask the stock-market titan for a little insight into the art market. “He told me the whole thing is surely going to collapse in the next year and a half. To be honest,” she added with a bit of a smirk, “I can’t wait.”

Left: Tanya Bonakdar Gallery director Ethan Sklar with Tanya Bonakdar. Right: Andy Warhol Foundation director Joel Wachs. (Photos: Andrew Berardini)

Left: Henry Urbach, SF MoMA’s Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design, with designer Yves Behar. Right: Art historian and critic Pamela M. Lee and Frida Bjørk Ingvarsdóttir, chairwoman of the Center for Icelandic Art. (Photos: Drew Altizer)

Left: CCA vice president of finance and administration David Kirshman and Ann Hatch, chairwoman of the CCA board of trustees and founder of the Capp Street Project. (Photo: Robert Adler) Right: SF MoMA curatorial associate Apsara DiQuinzio. (Photo: Andrew Berardini)

Left: Elizabeth Thomas, curator of the Matrix Program for Contemporary Art at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive. Right: Artist Kota Ezawa.

Left: Eliasson with Jack Lane, director of the Dallas Museum of Art. Right: A viewer examining one of Eliasson's works. (Photos: Drew Altizer)