PRINT December 1994


SAN FRANCISCO HAS ALWAYS been the west coast’s city of culture, Los Angeles its capital of entertainment. Then, about a decade ago, a gauntlet was dropped when the fabled “cultural wasteland,” Los Angeles, mobilized to create the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA). The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has been trying to put itself back on the map ever since.

Last spring, SFMoMA caused some competition when it persuasively petitioned The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts for the choicest Warhol painting the foundation had to offer, National Velvet of 1963, even beating out the Museum of Modern Art of New York, where it was assumed the painting would go, especially since Agnes Gund, MoMA’s chairperson, was also at the time a trustee of the Warhol Foundation.

More impressive is SFMoMA’s new 225,000 square-foot facility, designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta and financed by $62 million in donations—nearly four times the kickoff funds raised by mom the building is dominated by a grand marbled lobby, striped like the buildings of Siena, a space designed to feel busy even when empty. The lobby is dominated by a 135-foot-tall skylit drum, which brings natural light into the middle of the building and suggests a host of religious associations, from the dome of St. Peter’s to a kaaba. Three floors of classically proportioned if somewhat characterless galleries revolve around this hub.

While art and architecture are not quite blissfully married here, the hostility between the two that has dominated recent museum design—most evidently at Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio—has been replaced by a temporary truce. In the SFMoMA galleries the architecture is unobtrusive, severing exhibition space from public space, and in so doing conveys the struggle of the american museum today between social space and a refuge for private contemplation, between popularity and scholarship.

While SFMoMA can now claim the second-largest museum building devoted to 20th-century art in this country, which it does, the permanent collection is spotty. It has some fine Matisses, an important early Jackson Pollock, and many postwar northern California gems, but this is not a major collection of modern art. So the museum’s position, both nationally and internationally, will be hinged to future programs and acquisitions. When the museum opens next month, alongside an exhibition of works from the permanent collection, “From Matisse to Diebenkorn,” it will present a major exhibition, “public information: desire, disaster, document,” which uses paintings, photographs, videotapes, and other artworks to examine how the photographic image, and its aura of “truth,” have shaped our perception of both art and the world around us.

Included in “Public Information” will be Robert Frank’s photographic series “The Americans,” Andy Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” works, a number of Gerhard Richter paintings, some of Edward Ruscha’s artist’s books, paintings and a videotape by John Baldessari, a pavilion and other works by Dan Graham, several photoworks and videotapes by Martha Rosler, videotapes and photocollages by Larry Clark, Jeff Wall’s phototransparencies, slide cycles by James Coleman and Nan Goldin, film and video installations by Chantal Akerman and Stan Douglas, an installation by Cady Noland, and several stack pieces by Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

As the museum was being prepared for the reopening, I interviewed the four curators who have organized this inaugural exhibition: Gary Garrels, Sandra Phillips, Robert Riley, and John Weber. —AS

ALLAN SCHWARTZMAN: Why does this exhibition begin with Robert Frank and end with Felix Gonzalez-Torres?

SANDRA PHILLIPS: We didn’t want to include traditional documentary works. We wanted to mark a time when things had changed, and I see Frank as coming out of postwar existentialism, cold war politics, and a complete dissatisfaction with the world at large, particularly as presented in the mid ’50s by Life magazine. When we were beginning this discussion, John Caldwell [the museum’s late curator of painting and sculpture, who died in 1993] was insistent that we should start with Frank and Andy Warhol as two important artists who dealt with this dialogue between Pop, private, and the public.

JOHN WEBER: If we’d described this as a show about photography we could have started in a lot of other places. We’ve come to realize that it’s not about photography but about the relationship between photography and picturing history, creating history, remembering history, and about how artists are engaged in that. Frank is an intriguing place to start, because he’s looking at America from the outside, coming from another country, noticing things that Americans haven’t looked at, or haven’t looked at in quite the same way. The exhibition is about a certain period of history, and the way art history registered that history. If you look at postwar art, and who’s working with a camera in a sort of fact-based way, Frank’s refraining of the way we look at the United States becomes unavoidable.

SP: I think we all felt there was a kind of antiheroicism to a lot of contemporary concerns and that Frank began not only in opposition to what was going on at Life magazine, and how the U.S., the world power, was being publicized, but also to this kind of heroic idea of art and the artist.

AS: With Gonzalez-Torres you’re ending with an artist whose work is itself an allegory of anti-heroicism.

SP: That’s right.

ROBERT RILEY: Just as the exhibition starts in three places, with Frank, Warhol, and Gerhard Richter, it ends with Cady Noland, Gonzalez-Torres, and Chantal Akerman. In D’Est [From the East], Akerman has put together a structural film, composed of long takes of people moving from place to place, waiting in long lines. Public conveyances come by, the camera is on a dolly moving like a bus on a street, and it makes a record of all these people in transition.

JW: Gonzalez-Torres throws some things into the mix that are different from what the other artists throw in, especially in the way he asks for a rethinking of what it means to own something, and of what an object is.

RR: What interests us about Cady Noland is that she’s involved with the metalanguage of media, not so as to take any moral position but to express their power: the all-pervasive, seemingly all-knowing, all-informing aspects of television, newspapers, radios, pop music, and tabloids, that ability of the media to sensationalize every event. In my mind Noland relates to Frank, because in Frank’s photographs the horror of the American landscape is that everything is defined, named, most things have price tags, everything has signs, language. Everything is this horrible combination of elements, so that you can never have an original experience. Noland shows that our experience is mediated subconsciously by the information that is all around us.

AS: Right in the center of the show, on an exterior terrace, will be a glass pavilion by Dan Graham, the only work not to include any form of photographic image. Why is this work here?

GARY CARRELS: The piece goes hack to the notion of the camera, camera being the Latin word for “room.” The Graham pavilion is a camera in both senses—it invokes the notion of the camera obscura, which involves the same kind of reversal and inversion of the image that begins to occur when you go into this room. I don’t know if everyone will immediately grasp these metaphors, but they’re certainly built into the piece. The pavilion is the pivot. Even physically, it’s at the center point of the exhibition. The show is hinged directly to the physical space of the building and to the path one takes between galleries, between spaces that are more intimate and spaces that are more public, both inside and outside the building. The Graham pavilion is the point where you enter the physical space of reflection. You actually go from inside the building to outside, and you have the city in front of you. It’s an intentional penetration of the membrane of the museum.

AS: This gets to the question of the show’s title, “Public Information.” Maybe you can explain how that title begins to outline this continuum of ideas about which you spoke earlier.

SP: The title was torturous. Bob, you have to remember some of the older titles, which were very funny.

RR: There was “Public Vision/Private Memory.” Then we tried “Public Memory/Private Vision.”

SP: “Inside/Outside.”

RR: We tried to think about truth for a while [laughter].

JW: Then we had a consultant come in to try to lead us to a path to a title, and he left exhausted.

GG: It really was the point of impasse. We couldn’t figure out how to summarize things without becoming so simplistic as to predefine the show. There had to be some ambiguity in the title. There also had to be a sense of something direct and experiential.

RR: Public memory is always under construction—recall and relapse, it’s always happening.

That’s not what the title means, but there’s a wonderful tape in the show that John Baldessari made in 1973 with Ed Henderson, an art student at the time. Baldessari rips little photographs out of the newspaper for this poor man to analyze.

JW: It becomes clear how little you can pin down about a photograph. Baldessari pins the photographs on the wall and Henderson tries to decipher what they might be about. If he has some knowledge of the news event, then he can say a lot. In other cases he’s almost baffled. It’s about the link between text and image. We get some images with a caption that allows us to read them and then we carry some captions with us, depending on how much we read.

RR: It’s also a counterpoint to the Evening piece of Stan Douglas, which is about how newscasters defined public, political, and personal unrest in 1969 and 1970. They’re all taking this position that unrest is outside, that it isn’t integrated in life, that it is this aberrant situation that is happening. They’re talking about the Black Panthers, about returning Vietnam veterans, about all these issues—difficult things—in very happy talk.

JW: A lot of the show is about the use of media information, about artists taking things from a public context and transporting them into another context.

SP: Frank was working against Life magazine, a completely public source. And he’s really important to people like Nan Goldin, people who have really personalized their work, made it a kind of visual diary.

GG: But the odd thing is that those images have become iconic, have been taken as more descriptive of a time in American life—as the real document. They’ve gone through this transformation.

SP: Larry Clark and Goldin become for us more genuine records of what’s really happening than something like Life.

GG: Another thing that goes on here is that we’re trying to reposition, to recontextualize, these historical works like Frank or Warhol or early Richter. A work of art takes on layers of meaning through the discourse around it. That too is embedded in the exhibition.

SP: The ambiguity of photographic work, of the machine-made visual object, is an important aspect of the show. There is no such thing as objective truth. This is something that’s been grappled with in the last thirty years, for a variety of reasons—for personal reasons, for reasons of social deterioration.

RR: We were naturally attracted to artworks we might call ambiguous about the moral position of the artist, about the artist’s relationship to “history with a capital H,” as Akerman calls it, and how that history is recorded, and how it might represent something different in the works of artists.

AS: The show deliberately commingles media—paintings, photographs, videos, inexpensively produced artists’ books. This defiance of traditional hierarchies has been much discussed, but hasn’t been evident in most museums in this country. Certainly it would he unlikely at a place like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where there are rigid media divisions between departments. Does this reflect a curatorial position, and does it speak of how the four of you may be functioning in the future?

GG: This is a question that I think museums all over the country are wrestling with. It’s a real issue for museums now, and I think that’s also part of the point of the exhibition. Contemporary art, at least much of it, doesn’t respect the traditional categories or hierarchies by media. We are all also working on shows that respect traditional divisions, but so much of what’s interesting in contemporary art doesn’t recognize those traditional boundaries or distinctions. We’re a small enough institution that we have the flexibility to look at this work, yet we’re a large enough institution that we can be very ambitious. This is a complex exhibition that a smaller-scale institution probably wouldn’t have the resources to pull off.

AS: At the same time, it’s not an extravaganza of the sort that, let’s say, MoMA or the Guggenheim mounted when they reopened. The bells aren’t going off in this show, even though the building announces itself grandly as a kind of cross between ecclesiastical architecture and a shopping mall.

GG: Welcome to the late 20th century!

RR: We asked what kind of a show we’d want to open at this moment. The strength of our museum is its collections in the field of mechanically reproducible images, photography, media. It’s had quite a noble history.

GG: In film, too.

SP: When this institution began, the great local artists it collected were people like Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, lmogen Cunningham, and Dorothea Lange. That’s our strength.

AS: The exhibition you’re mounting will be by all measure a major event marking the opening of the building, but it seems destined not to be a crowd-pleaser. Let’s speak about the decision to begin with a show that’s taking an intellectual stance in a world where funding is increasingly tied to popularity.

RR: There is great interest when you open a museum, and it seems appropriate that you should find a show that defines the moment—all the problems of the moment, all the hopeful aspects of artists working at the moment. We’re really talking about the artist’s dialogue with the problems of media. Since working on the show, we see it more and more clearly—the whole media environment becomes this spectacular commodity. Finding meaning in it is one of the biggest puzzles that civilization faces at the moment.

JW: The technologically reproduced image has never been a reliable kind of image, but people have this faith in it. Now, thanks to digital technology, we’re reaching a point where technologically produced images are fictions in every instance. One of the most important things for a larger public to recognize and act on is that you can’t trust an image: an image is a story that is told to you by somebody with some point of view in order to convince you of a certain place and time in history. In some sense the show is about that lesson, and the tremendous variety of ways of absorbing it. It’s intriguing that it’s coming here to this museum because we are at the huh of Silicon Valley, where all this digital work is happening.

GG: This museum is poised at the midpoint between Silicon Valley and Lucas Valley [laughter]: we’re between information and entertainment. My view of the museum is that it has to be a laboratory, a catalyst, a place for artists who are doing things. On the other hand, we’re a place for preservation, conservation, history. This is a place for both objects and artists.

AS: But the moment you enter, the building announces itself as a place for a public. What is your link to your public? What kind of desires do you have for communicating to that public the issues explored in this show?

JW: The idea that the building announces itself as a public building in a certain way—some people would agree with that. Others would say it looks closed off from the outside. I think both things are true.

GG: Botta characterizes the entry area as a piazza. That’s a very self-conscious definition of space.

JW: Part of what we’ve been going around in the discussion of this show, and that I’ve been thinking about in terms of the public information we’ll present about “Public Information,” is, To what extent can we provide language to guide the viewer? It’s a struggle. If you provide too much information you erect a wall between the viewer and so-called “direct experience” of the work. On the other hand, a lot of people are going to come just because the building is new, and they’re just going to be baffled seeing, for example, Gonzalez-Torres’ stacks of paper being depleted and replenished. This discussion isn’t quite over. We’re working on a variety of kinds of tours and various kinds of dialogues. But when you get into the galleries themselves, we’re still trying to figure out what kind of information will he there along with the pieces. That’s a really difficult call.

RR: The public information officers here didn’t quite like us using the phrase “public information.” They were of the opinion that people would come into the museum, see the sign that said “Public Information,” and pass right on into the building.

SP: Traditionally museums have been autocratic centers of Western culture, and this show is questioning that kind of autocracy. That, I think, is a very healthy way to enter a new building.

JW: Yeah, but I hate to see this get too self-congratulatory. I mean the museum remains a site of—

SP: Experimentation—

JW: Well, a site of decisions that are in some sense imposed on the community. We’re kidding ourselves if we don’t recognize that.

SP: Oh, absolutely, we’re certainly in the business of making canons.

GG: It’s very clear that museums in the 20th century have become large-scale public institutions. This museum is going to be a very urban institution. We’re in the middle of the city. We’re a block from major transit lines, a block from the convention center, two blocks from the shopping district, two blocks from the financial district. We’re right in the middle of this urban environment.

SP: A richly diverse one, too.

GG: Right. And it’s going to be a museum where people are going to come in off the street. Whether or not they’re interested in art, they’re going to be interested in this grand, theatrical, dramatic public space in the middle of the city. Our obligation is to provide a range of different kinds of experiences dealing with the full gamut of art. Some of it is about beauty, and about pleasure and sensuality—

SP: All these old-fashioned ideas—

GG: —And I think they’re legitimate ideas. People come to museums as places of solace, as places of reflection, to get away from the world outside. But on the other hand the museum is one of the few places in contemporary life where people can come together for a critical reflection on what contemporary society and life are. It doesn’t happen in the shopping mall. And it doesn’t happen in the university, because a university is a sequestered place that isn’t accessible to the broad public. The museum is on the front lines.

SP: We have to speak understandably.

GG: Right. We’re like a capillary. We’re a place of exchange between artists and scholars, and it’s very strange being a curator, because you have to be a politician, an entertainer, a scholar, a technician, and an administrator.

Allan Schwartzman writes about art for a variety of publications.