Diary

Fog Machine

View of FOG Design+Art, 2020, Festival Pavilion, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, San Francisco. Photo: Arthur Kobin.

FOR SEVEN YEARS, I’ve watched the art and design fair known as FOG recede and advance (last year, fifty-three galleries were present, this year a more manageable forty-eight); shift its art-to-design ratio (more art, less design); and beef up its ancillary programming (ten artist/curator talks in four days in the on-site auditorium). Taking place at the Festival Pavilion—the historic pier at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture––the fair features a considerable cadre of San Francisco galleries, or galleries with outposts in the city, and is disproportionately supported and visited by local collectors.

It’s an unusual art scene: The city is small, its collector base smaller, its wealth extreme but concentrated, and its major cultural institutions hegemonic. What art fair kicks off its proceedings with a ticketed gala whose proceeds benefit a museum? Or whose catalogue ad sales go toward funding said museum’s acquisitions from the fair itself? This is the arrangement between FOG and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)—a canny bit of brokering for a museum that already commands a lion’s share of the city’s arts patronage, and a way to ensure aesthetic continuity across both organizations. And so it’s no surprise to find that FOG has the mien of a blue-chip art institution: capacious, bright, and airy with carpeted and din-absorbing floors. You can spot the Golden Gate from outside the entrance.

At FOG’s vernissage-slash-gala, San Franciscans don glitzier attire than is typically associated with this community of athleisure aficionados and so-called tech bros (for an extremely clever, slickly executed probe into the latter, see Simon Denny’s just-opened show at Altman Siegel, which features Salesforce-branded Patagonia gear sewn from scarves formerly owned by Margaret Thatcher). White, male, straight, celebrated: FOG has a type. This is also one of the principal grievances leveled at SFMOMA, whose deal with the Fisher family prior to its 2016 expansion resulted in the institution becoming host––with strict exhibition parameters––to a private collection of world-class works predominantly made by canonical male giants of European descent. As I was leaving FOG, an acquaintance leaned in and whispered, “My friend bought The Rock,” referring to one of Michael Heizer’s massive volcanic rock sculptures brought to the fair by Gagosian.

View of Reform/The Landing's booth, 2020, Festival Pavilion, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, San Francisco. Photo: Arthur Kobin.

Still, I found plenty to love at FOG: a deft presentation of Ron Nagle ceramics, Thomas Demand photographs, and far-out Jordan Belsons at Matthew Marks; Jean Cocteau’s whimsical hand-painted plates and Josef Zotti’s wavy wooden armchairs at Lebreton; a Sprueth Magers stall given over entirely to Richard Artschwager’s paintings and sculptures, including an eye-catchingly bristly neon-yellow exclamation point; several comely squat wooden pieces by Alma Allen; and an “a” from Jim Melchert’s 1969 show of ceramic “a” sculptures at Reform Gallery/the Landing. Works by women were fewer but memorable: Ruth Asawa’s ink drawings of flowers, a great 1973 portrait of Rosemary Frank by Alice Neel, and a powder-pink contorted steel sculpture by Carol Bove at David Zwirner; a paneled piece with a lapidary feel by Nairy Baghramian at Marian Goodman; Davina Semo’s slender brass bell at Jessica Silverman; and a quivering painting from Luchita Hurtado’s “Moth Lights” series, ca. 1975, at Pace. More generally, however, works by people of color were few and far between.

Enter UNTITLED, ART, the Miami-born contemporary-art fair now in its fourth San Francisco iteration and held at Pier 35, its third home. This greener expo appeared to offer a vigorous corrective to the narrative pushed by SFMOMA and FOG. UNTITLED orients itself toward emerging markets and younger artists, while its galleries hail from an impressive range of countries with a significant South American contingent. This year, the fair opened onto Michael Rosenfeld’s abundant display inspired by “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” the blockbuster Tate Modern show currently on view at San Francisco’s de Young Museum. Rosenfeld’s allotted space was by far the most generous, its contents museum-worthy: an array of beautiful pieces by Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam, Frank Bowling, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Beauford Delaney, Betye Saar, and others. An adjacent wall featured a mini solo show of hallucinatory, colorful geometrical paintings by William T. Williams from 1970. The booth set the scene for a diverse cast of artists across the sixty-odd exhibitors.

View of William T. Williams, 2020, UNTITLED, ART, Pier 35, San Francisco. Photo: Arthur Kobin.

Unlike the homegrown FOG, UNTITLED has had to prove its commitment to the Bay Area. It has made connecting with the community a key feature of its undertakings, if only to carve out some space beyond (the) FOG. In addition to hosting a range of local nonprofits within the fair, from the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco to the FOR-SITE Foundation, UNTITLED has also collaborated on initiatives such as the Artist Emergency Fund (in partnership with &Art&) to support projects by Bay Area artists. There are also “Special Projects,” a podcast, a writer-in-residence, a showcase of Facebook’s Art Department, a $10,000 booth prize sponsored by eBay, a talk series, and a “Books & Editions” section––it’s a lot. I’m torn between wishing that everyone would do less––let’s call a spade a spade, these fairs are for-profit enterprises––and simply appreciating the hefty dose of culture. For what can feel like a small town, it’s a big deal to have two coincident fairs, and a bigger deal yet to feel that the audience is responding with genuine appetite. Calling this past week “San Francisco Art Week” (the phrase mysteriously began circulating this year) feels premature, but it heralds, I hope, a future in which the fairs complement a more widespread and inclusive celebration of art.

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