Coast to Coast

Left: MoMA associate curator Eva Respini, SF MoMA director Neal Benezra, artist Cindy Sherman, SF MoMA assistant curator Erin O’Toole, and SF MoMA board president Bob Fisher. Right: Britta Campbell with SF MoMA senior curator Gary Garrels. (Photos: Drew Altizer)

HOW IS IT that Cindy Sherman’s had such a paltry exhibition record in San Francisco? Back in the 1990s there were a couple small solo shows—a Berkeley Art Museum Matrix presentation of her history works, an exhibition of her thorny prosthetics pictures at the long-defunct Friends of Photography—but whole series passed by a city where costume play and identity shifts are colorfully visible, and where photographers have long found institutional haven. So the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art might be making up for lost time in picking up a leg of Sherman’s MoMA-organized career survey. Street-pole banners advertising the show popped up in hip neighborhoods like the Mission district and nightclubby patches of SoMa, the artist in various guises melding into the gritty landscape. While she is essentially an East Coast girl, Sherman’s famously good-natured temperament, elusive personae, and proclivity for dress-up dovetail particularly well with California dreaming, its deceptive niceties, and state-of-the-art plastic surgery clinics.

Wednesday evening’s Director’s Circle preview was warm for midsummer SF, which might have helped lend the festivities an unbuttoned vibe. There was, however, a little urgency to find a seat in the packed Wattis Theater; it seemed everyone was hoping to catch opening remarks by the oft-seen but rarely heard celebrity artist. Alas, this would be more of an institutional moment. SF MoMA director Neal Benezra noted that the museum was on a roll with women artists (and photographers to boot), with shows devoted to Francesca Woodman, Rineke Dijkstra, and Sherman, as well as an upcoming Jay DeFeo survey. Benezra introduced the show’s MoMA curator, Eva Respini, who delivered a brief PowerPoint offering the standard read on Sherman: They’re not self-portraits, she chided. There was even the expected nervous laughter from the mature, well-heeled audience when Respini, with art-historical objectivity, pointed out that the shiny polyester stockings of the caftaned character in one of Sherman’s late works were the kind used to mask varicose veins. An artist friend leaned over and whispered what everyone was thinking: “She’s referring to all the people in this room!”

Left: Artists Anne Walsh, Chris Kubick, and Trevor Paglen. Right: Artist Lisa K. Blatt and Cindy Sherman. (Photos: Glen Helfand)

It became clear that Sherman wouldn’t be taking the mic, but Respini encouraged us all to meet the artist upstairs in the show, a seemingly unlikely scenario that actually panned out. Sherman, in a short black dress with a geometric, tropical swath of sequins across the chest, ambled unnoticed through the lobby reception and took the elevator to her show’s entrance, where she warmly chatted with countless friends, fans, and collectors, smiling the whole time. Her grounded generosity extended to acts besides cocktail chatter, much of it concerning if the show was better here or in NY (an even split) and how the implosion of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art might be an apt metaphor for America, this being the first big California museum event since the Paul Schimmel imbroglio ignited art-world Facebook pages.

The relaxed vibe continued at the Phillips de Pury–sponsored dinner, a buffet on a tented terrace at the St. Regis Hotel next door. Large, decorative macramé hoops dangled from the temporary ceiling of the mingle-centric event, which was more democratic than a stuffy sit-down might have been. High-end donors and regular-folk artists all had to wait in line at food stations with regional monikers, like a steak-and-chop table called the “Wine Country Experience.” Simon de Pury earnestly worked the room with his leggy wife, Michaela. Sherman chatted with a couch-bound group that included Tom di Maria, director of the beloved Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, of which Sherman is a supporter, and architect Anne Fougeron. Again, Benezra stood up for remarks, in which he gleefully revealed Sherman’s Bay Area Fourth of July activities to the copacetic crowd. “She biked across the Golden Gate Bridge and back and, when she returned, went to the spa for a massage.” Sherman just smiled and maybe blushed, having this California experience in the bag.

Left: Chef Amanda Michael, Stanlee Gatti, and dealer Jessica Silverman. Right: SF MoMA trustee Yves Behar, Patty Hambrecht, art advisor Sabrina Buell, and auctioneer Simon de Pury. (Photos Drew Altizer)