Bay Watch

Kate Sutton on the new SF MoMA and this year’s Open Engagement

Left: 500 Capp Street's Jessica Roux. Right: Queens of the Castro at Southern Exposure.

“DISRUPT” MAY BE SILICON VALLEY’S favorite verb. Coined in the 1990s, the phrase “disruptive technologies” evokes the elimination of middlemen and the ousting of market juggernauts. But two decades later, we’re learning that the “empowerment” encouraged by such disruption isn’t always equally distributed. (Just Google “AirbnbWhileBlack.”)

If anything, what’s been “disrupted” most in the Bay Area are communities. Skyrocketing rents have notoriously pushed former city dwellers out to the last stops on the BART lines, only to have the displaced drive back into the city every day to Uber around the people who now live in their homes.

So perhaps it’s a relief that in its new expansion, SF MoMA avoided disruption altogether, sticking to a time-tested script when tailor-making its trophy case for the new old-money collection of Donald and Doris Fisher, founders of the Gap. A bastion for Bay Area blue-chip (with, as one curator tartly described it, a reigning “friends of Nancy Reagan” aesthetic), the Fisher Collection formerly housed its Warhols, Richters, Kiefers, and Ellsworth Kellys in Gap headquarters. In 2009, after detractors quashed plans to build the collection its own museum in the Presidio, the Fishers turned to SF MoMA, negotiating a one-hundred-year loan of the collection, a deal sweetened with a substantial contribution toward the construction of new galleries to showcase the bounty.

Left: Indica at the Oakland Museum’s Altered States. Right: Weed paraphernalia at Oakland Museum's Altered States.

At the helm for the overhaul was Snøhetta, the Oslo-based architects behind the September 11 Memorial & Museum. The addition nearly triples the space of the museum’s existing building, which was designed by Mario Botta as a postmodern pastiche centered around an “oculus” that scrolls up from the red brick base like a giant lipstick tube. Snøhetta’s crumpled, asymmetrical facade is supposed to hang over its predecessor like a cloud of fog, but it read more like a massive ice shelf, bearing down on the Botta building in its drive toward Yerba Buena Gardens.

The Botta effectively demoted, the museum’s de facto new oculus is the Fisher Collection. The nineteen exhibitions on display during last month’s preview kept rigid divides among the Fisher Collection, recent donated and pledged works from the museum’s Campaign for Art, and SF MoMA’s existing collection. The segregation meant missed opportunities for forging meaningful bonds among new acquisitions and a lot of retread territory. Like classic crewneck tees, when the Fishers found something they liked, they bought it in every color. Their collection galleries look like the results of multiple single-artist Google Image searches, with works from disparate eras lined up with little to no context to connect them. Some paintings—notably the Kellys and Agnes Martins—thrived in this kind of hang; others—the Baselitzs—were just bewildering.

When I tried to describe my impressions to Sam Orlofsky, who was busy manning Gagosian’s brand new outlet directly across Howard Street, he confessed: “I haven’t made it over yet, but so far everything I’ve seen looks amazing on Instagram.” Maybe that was the problem. In the morning press conference, chairman of the board Charles Schwab had lauded the SF MoMA as “smartphone friendly.”

Left: Dealer Graham Steele and advisor Meredith Darrow. Right: Kadist Art Foundation’s Devon Bella with artist Elsa-Louise Manceaux.

If the collection is an extension of a selfie, then what’s really on display is the museum’s collector base—largely white, largely conservative. Much has been made of the unfortunate placement of Charles Ray’s stainless steel sculpture of a slumbering homeless woman immediately in front of the first room of non-white-male artists. (Difference = poverty?) But Sleeping Woman’s proximity to the Christopher Wool painting might be worse. SF MoMA holds some impressive cards in its hand. What if instead of catering to the standard blue-chip they had reshuffled the deck, laying out the conflicting lineages of a city once identified as the countercultural capital of the world: Jay DeFeo, Jess, Wallace Berman, Emory Douglas, Martin Wong, even Wayne Thiebaud or Robert Bechtle? “Come and see me,” Lynn Hershman Leeson’s surrogates coo in her hilarious 1970s-era Commercial for Myself, on view alongside Ant Farm in one of the noticeably smaller, darker galleries of the Botta building. I wish I could have seen more of Hershman Leeson. As it was, California figured in most prominently as a backdrop, the muted, mutable setting behind Sandy Phillips’s sweeping survey of landscape photography (though upcoming shows of Bruce Connor and Anthony Hernandez could correct this omission).

To help us digest all of this, SF MoMA hosted a preview luncheon on the rooftop terrace. I skipped the dining tables and joined staff curators Rudolf Frieling and Dominic Willsdon in the garden, where we had a clear view of the city’s skyscrapers, including the Art-Decadent PacBell building. “That’s Yelp now,” Willsdon mused. Frieling pointed to another skyscraper: “LinkedIn.”

While Big Tech may have secured the skyline, there was still a lot on the ground that sang to “old” San Francisco. After the preview, I dropped by an afternoon cocktail celebrating Isaac Julien’s “Vintage” at Jessica Silverman, where Cesar Garcia, Carolyn Ramo, and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn made moon eyes at outtakes from the artist’s sumptuous 1989 film Looking for Langston. Next up was the Kadist Art Foundation for a performance from Carlos Amorales’s ongoing “Cubismo ideológico” series. Amorales pounded the floor as Philippe Eustachon howled into a microphone, while the audience—including curators Hou Hanru, Evelyne Jouanno, and Jens Hoffmann—winced approvingly. “It’s like stumbling across Red Krayola in the 1960s,” Julian Myers noted with a sly smile.

Left: SFU Woodward's Andrea Creamer at Open Engagement. Right: Open Engagement panel with Deborah Fisher, Kara Q. Smith, Jan Cohen-Cruz, Jen Delos Reyes, Deena Chalabi, Pedro Lasch, and Shannon Jackson.

From Kadist, I followed Hou and Jouanno to Southern Exposure, Laura Owen’s solo at the Wattis, and openings at Minnesota Street Projects, an ingenious gallery incubator meant to help patch up the city’s art community. Founded by collectors Deborah and Andy Rappaport, the converted warehouse offers steeply discounted gallery space and rotating project rooms, one of which featured a special guest-gallery appearance by Andrew Kreps and Anton Kern. Also on view—though for now, only by appointment—was David Ireland’s former house–cum–total artwork at 500 Capp Street, which had been rescued from the auction block by patroness Carlie Wilmans after tip-offs from Ann Hatch and curator Madeleine Grynsztejn. “We’d love to open it as a museum, but we’d never be able to meet all the requirements,” Wilmans confessed, nodding to the artist’s habit of cannibalizing the house’s foundations for material to make his quirkily subversive domestic interventions. Still, its extensive restructuring has left it ripe for dinner parties, a hallmark of Ireland’s practice.

The following night, SF MoMA feted its expansion with an ArtBash, setting liquored guests loose in their sprawling new museum. Inaugurating the White Box was Rashaad Newsome’s vogue showcase FIVE, which—when coupled with Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet corps gyrating atop the shrimp buffet—hit target titillation for the patron set. The artist crowd—which included Trevor Paglen, Tacita Dean, Barry McGee, Takeshi Murata, Zoe Crosher, and Julie Mehretu, who will produce two wall drawings for the museum’s foyer—drifted in and out of Tom Marioni’s The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art, which was telling it like it is from the third-floor sculpture terrace.

That same night, across the bay, the Oakland Museum of California was drawing crowds of its own with a rowdy evening of open-mic performances and a “War Hoop Flash Mob,” all part of the kickoff for this year’s Open Engagement. The itinerant annual social practice conference began in 2007 as the thesis project of artist Jen Delos Reyes. Fashioned as its own kind of disruptive social technology, the weekend tackled its theme of “Power” using surprisingly similar terminology to SF MoMA’s patronage drive, including the well-worn bromide of “engaging audiences.”

Left: Ratio3's Theo Elliott. Right: Cantor Art Center curators Ali Gass, Jodi Roberts, and Jenny Carty.

Good intentions aside, by taking on “Power” so baldly, the conference also foregrounded some of its mechanisms. My very first event launched from the provocative hook that “Environmental Art (Social Practice) is for white people with no skin in the game,” and rapidly devolved from there. Another panel ended with the white-identified presenters sharing heartfelt stories of how they came to recognize their privilege, while their nonwhite cohort sat silently until the Q&A. At a roundtable stacked with six formidable women, the microphone was inexplicably bogarted by the sole male. Adjunct faculty from California College of the Arts staged multiple microactions to draw attention to their unlivable wage, but the unsustainable industry of art schools was left largely unchallenged. (Indeed, one UC school was there to workshop a new social-practice MFA.) The controversial introduction of an admission fee—eighty dollars, or fifty-five sans keynotes —and the oblique selection criteria for presenters (several of whom were no-shows) prompted protests, which Delos Reyes coopted by making her own “Boycott Open Engagement” T-shirts. She said she borrowed this tactic from Beyoncé, but, like Jay-Z’s absolution at the end of Lemonade, it somewhat undermined the spirit of the project.

But there were also genuinely inspired moments, not the least of which was the experience of being in the museum itself. Under the guidance of curator René de Guzman, the OMCA is finding creative, unpretentious ways to tell the unique histories around Oakland, whose own legacy is riddled with high-profile power struggles, many of which were name-checked in the museum’s crowd-pleasing feature “Altered State: Marijuana in California” (where I watched a young father grapple with whether or not he should help his kid reach the nose-holes of the “smell-station,” with its samples of “Grandaddy Purple,” “Pennywise,” and “Sour Diesel”).

Among other program highlights was “From Houdini to Snowden,” the Center for Tactical Magic’s exegesis on magic as a relationship predicated on an unequal distribution of knowledge, observing that Houdini’s most successful tricks were in escapology. (As artist Aaron Gach snarkily put it, “Now why would the masses want to see someone escape penal confines and overthrow authoritarian oppression?”) Similar themes rippled through ARTs East New York’s “Anti-Gentrification Tool-Kit,” where the crowd was all whistles and snaps as ReNewLot’s Tian Mao outlined steps he took to group-finance homes within his block of BedStuy. Those snaps turned to shudders when Mao mentioned Airbnb amid his funding strategies. (As if we weren’t all there but for the grace of guest rooms.)

Left: Patrons Brian Saliman and Larry Mathews at SF MoMA ArtBash. Right: Dealer Michelle Maccarone with Ales Ortuzar.

Of course, the real power of the event collected around keynotes by Suzanne Lacy and Angela Davis. While Lacy kept it tight, eloquently surveying her latest projects, Davis opted for a more freeform, multimedia-driven delivery, that, quite frankly, made it hard to tell to what extent she was fucking with us.

Let me start over—she’s Angela Davis. That fact alone is enough to pack the house, and rightfully so. The meat of her argument, which centered on Marcuse, Kant, and Nelson Mandela’s idea of “softness” as “political potentiality,” touched on the paradoxical elitism of the democracy operating not only within Open Engagement, but also at the heart of all these “disruptive technologies.”

Davis took time to lament Hillary Clinton’s grievous “off the reservation” gaffe, as well as the closing notes of Kendrick Lamar’s otherwise astounding Grammy performance, criticizing his overlay of Compton and Africa. “Africa is far greater than one element of our origin story,” she snapped. “I guess here I could also talk about Beyoncé, but everyone’s talking about Beyoncé, so…” But the crowd wasn’t letting her get off that easy. “Let me repeat,” Davis began carefully. “You can enjoy something intensely and at the same time be ambivalent about it. I can appreciate the steps Beyoncé has taken, but there’s a corporate capitalist culture there that has to be critiqued.” So, who wins Davis’s seal of approval? Prince and Nina Simone, whose “Mississippi Goddam” Davis suggested was the true anthem of the civil rights movement.

The Q&A went as these things are wont, with a lot of telling of one’s truth and very little forming of one’s question. One woman announced that she had opened an organic farm, then wandered off into her conflicted feelings about her partner being white. “It’s great that you have an organic farm,” Davis intoned, weightily. “Look, there’s no two-week intensive for racism. We’re all implicated and we have to recognize that the work we are doing now might not be apparent for many generations. The frame of the world doesn’t consist of the day we are born and the day we die. This is collective work, this is community work, and it stretches across generations. We’re in community with people who have yet to be born.” Talk about power—that was the most disruptive statement all week.

Left: Park View's Paul Soto with LAXART's Catherine Taft. Right: Curators Jennifer McCabe and Julio Morales at Open Engagement.

Left: Oakland Museum curators Carin Adams and René de Guzman with CCA's Eduardo Pineda at Open Engagement. Right: Curators Nicole Lattuca, Patricia Maloney, Evelyne Jouanno, and Hou Hanru.

Left: Di Rosa curators Kara Q. Smith and Amy Owen. Right: Broad Museum curator Marc-Olivier Wahler.

Left: Kadist Art Foundation's Devon Bella with artist Elsa-Louise Manceaux. Right: Dealer Graham Steele and adviser Meredith Darrow.

Left: Calder Foundation's Lily Lyons and Sandy Rower with SF MoMA curator Caitlin Haskell. Right: Salon 94’s Fabienne Stephan with Art Basel Miami Beach director Noah Horowitz.

Left: Artist Yin-Ju Chen with Kadist Art Foundation's Marie Martraire, Mariel Eplboim, and Christopher Squier. Right: Artists John Gerrard and Trevor Paglen.

Left: Artists Chris Sollars and Pete Belkin. Right: Artist Jürg Lehni with SF MoMA curator Joseph Becker and Viktor, the robotic chalk-drawing machine.

Left: SF MoMA's opening ArtBash. Right: Angela Davis. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

Left: Artists Barry McGee and Takeshi Murata with Francine Spiegel at SF MoMA ArtBash. Right: Artist Sonja Dahl at Open Engagement.

Left: Curator Jens Hoffmann with artist Juan Capistrán at Kadist Art Foundation. Right: Curator Connie Lewallen with artist Lynn Hershman Leeson.

Left: Maria Blum with dealer Tim Blum. Right: Marta Fontolan, artist Frances Stark, MoMA chief curator Stuart Comer, and artist Bobby Jesus at the Wattis.

Left: The Mistake Room's Cesar Garcia with Artadia's Carolyn Ramo. Right: SF MoMA curator Sandy Phillips.

Left: Bad at Sports's Duncan MacKenzie with Main Museum director Allison Agsten at Open Engagement. Right: SF MoMA curator Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher.

Left: Curators Anthony Huberman and Jordan Stein. Right: Dealers Andrew Kreps and Chiara Repetto.

Left: Dealer Casey Kaplan at SFMOMA. Right: Dealer Loring Randolph with Dallas Museum of Art curator Gavin Delahunty at SF MoMA ArtBash.

Left: Southern Exposure director Patricia Maloney with curator Laura Cassidy Rogers at Open Engagement. Right: Curator Elizabeth Thomas at Open Engagement.

Left: Artist Philippe Eustachon, dealer José Kuri, and artist Carlos Amorales at Kadist Art Foundation. Right: SF MoMA deputy director Ruth Berson with Snøhetta's Craig Dykers.

Left: Bay Area Video Coalition's Lauren Marie Taylor with artist Jenifer K. Wofford at Open Engagement. Right: Artists Lunar New Year, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, and Jess X Chen at Open Engagement.

Left: Center for Tactical Magic's Aaron Gach at Open Engagement. Right: Artist Jill Miller at Open Engagement.

Left: Oakland Museum curator René de Guzman with artist Suzanne Lacy at Open Engagement. Right: ARTs East New York's James Malone, Catherine Green, and Tian Mao at Open Engagement.

Left: 500 Capp Street director Carlie Wilmans. Right: Dealers Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn and Jessica Silverman.

Left: Charles Schwab, chairman of the SF MoMA board. Right: Artist Rashaad Newsome, performer Justin Gomez, and SF MoMA curator Frank Smigiel at ArtBash.