San Francisco Modern

Published: June 4th 2012
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Union SquareUnion SquareUnion Square

Union Square in relatively little fog!
I started today in Union Square, San Francisco’s wealthiest neighborhood.

The centerpiece is Union Square itself, a large concrete space around a Spanish-American War memorial.

It has some interesting sculpture.

A wealthy shopping district surrounds it with some impressive department stores, including another huge Macy’s branch.

Unlike many other stores that Macy’s took over (see Do you Like Green Eggs and Ham, SAM I Am?) this one is original from the 1940s.

Naturally, cold fog covered everything.

A nearby intersection holds a neoclassical water fountain.

It’s called Lotta’s Fountain.

It was one of only a few things to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire that basically destroyed the city.

Locals gathered here to search for other survivors.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

I found respite from the fog at the nearby Museum of Modern Art.

The building stands out, a red brick masterpiece with a center white skylight.

That skylight sits over a large four story atrium.

The galleries are arranged around it.

The back of this atrium, which serves as the lobby, had a black and grey box containing the main staircase.

The second floor contains a survey of modern art, arranged more or less
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Union Square heart, from the city's Have A Heart campaign

It started with the Fauves, with work by Henri Matisse, quickly moved through Cubism with work by Pablo Picasso, and then into Constructivism with work by El Lissitzky.

American paintings featured abstract painting by Stewart Davis, precisionism from Charles Sheeler, and more early abstraction from Arthur Dove.

I always want more after displays like this, because they show very little from lots of artists.

Thinks picked up with Surrealism.

This section took up an entire room with work for all major names, including Juan Miro, Yves Tanguy, and Alberto Giacometti.

Every artist had multiple works.

The following room on Abstract Expressionism was even better.

This room thoroughly explored every aspect of the movement from Action Painting (the expected Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline) to Color Field Painting (Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler).

Unlike the early survey, this one included paintings from more obscure artists.

That room led into one containing Pop Art, with one of Andy Warhol’s early self portraits, and two of Roy Lichtenstein’s ben day dot versions of Rouen Cathedral.

This room also had a copy of Marcel Duchamp’s famous Fountain, created as an ironic joke in 1964.

(The original from 1917 was a readymade, a found object declared

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, designed by Mario Botta
to be an artwork by Duchamp.

This one is a copy deliberately created as a sculpture, thereby subverting Duchamp’s original intent of avoiding the artist’s hand).

The next room was minimalism, with one of Carl Andre’s infamous layouts of metal plates, and an all-black paining by Ad Reinhardt.

He mixed different colors into the black as he worked, so abstract shapes eventually appear on the canvas after staring at it long enough.

At this point, the layout took a curious shift.

Instead of laying out the most recent work by year, the curators laid it out by topic.

I found the change rather strange.

San Francisco became a hotbed of art making in the last thirty years, so at least the area had a lot to look at.

The big room was on identity.

It mixed portraits by Chuck Close, (WARNING: May be offsensive) photorealistic paintings by Robert Bechtle, and a life size self portrait sculpture by Robert Arneson, wearing a jacket that read “California Artist”.

This section also had an amazing copy of an Academic French sculpture from the middle 1800s by Janine Antoni, done in powdered chocolate!

The top floor
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The central lobby of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
holds contemporary art.

It also was arranged by theme.

One room held a set of abstract sculpture, all of which looked like webs.

One artist arranged folded paper on a canvas to look like a giant spider web.

Another hung a series of dense strings from ceiling to floor.

The way the sculpture looks changes as viewers walk around it.

Yet another piece has polyurethane cushions stapled to the wall in random patterns.

Another room held paintings that ride the limit of figuration and abstraction.

One looked like abstract expressionist swirls from a distance, but became a highly stylized picture of sailboats on the ocean close up.

Another had the opposite effect, violent paint swatches close up and a bird farther away.

Yet another room had sculptures that incorporate video monitors.

Next to these rooms sat a multi-sensory sound piece by Bill Fontana.

A bridge runs across the atrium just below the skylight.

The bridge is made of mesh, so it has a lovely view four stories straight down.

The artist surrounded this bridge with flat panel speakers.
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View of the SFMOMA lobby through the skywalk on the fourth floor

The speakers play noise transmitted from the lobby.

The bridge looks at the lobby from the sky, and sounds just like it.

The combination is rather disorientating, especially when combined with the vertigo from being that far up.

The Steins Art Patronage

The third floor held a show on the most important art collectors to ever come from the Bay area, the Steins.

Leo, Gertrude, and Michael Stein were born to a Jewish stockbroker in Oakland in the 1870s.

In the early 1900s, all three moved to Paris.

Leo wanted to become an artist.

His sister became an important writer.

Michael owned a jewelry company.

All three, led by Leo, started collecting art.

At first, it was what he called “Modern Masters”, French artists considered highly influential by the current advent garde, like Paul Cezanne and Pierre Renoir.

Slowly but surely, that changed.

The three siblings met and started buying works from the most adventurous artists in Paris, particularly Henri Matisse.

Gertrude Stein then started buying canvases from a young symbolist named Pablo Picasso.

From the perspective of nearly a century later, such moves were prescient.

At the time, they
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View of the San Francisco financial district from the SFMOMA sculpture terrace
were incredibly daring, backing artists that people either didn’t know or rejected as too radical for current taste.

The Steins eventually became good friends with most of the advent garde.

They organized a series of weekly parties for artists and art collectors starting in 1906.

These salons are their most important legacy.

Every week, artists met and exchanged ideas.

They also found patrons and buyers for adventurous work that galleries would not touch, allowing them to push their ideas to the limit.

Michael Stein became one of Matisse’s most important supporters.

He heavily invested in an art school Matisse started in 1908, which ultimately failed.

His wife Sarah was an early student.

She kept meticulous notebooks, which are some of the only primary records of Matisse’s working methods.

Unfortunately, both the family and the collection broke up after a decade.

Leo and Gertrude had a falling out over Cubism, of all things.

Leo called it an abomination while his sister was an enthusiastic supporter.

It was merely the latest of an increasing set of rifts.
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The atmosperic interior of the Gold Dust Lounge, (formerly) one of San Francisco's oldest bars.

Leo ended up taking most of the older paintings and moving to New York, Michael got most of the Matisses, and Gertrude got everything else.

At this point, the collection is widely disbursed.

Leo became a well known art writer in New York, but was forced to sell his paintings to pay living expenses.

Michael lost most of his paintings through shady dealers during World War I.

Gertrude kept her share intact, and even added to it, until her death in 1946.

Her heirs then sold most paintings to finance a book series of her collected writings, to ensure her literary legacy.

The show is the first one to exhibit most of the collection together since the breakup.

The paintings are organized by who bought them and when.

It includes a breathtaking selection of Henri Matisse, many important early Picassos, equally important paintings by Cezanne, and multiple by Renoir.

Scattered through the show are pictures of the Steins’ various apartments over time, showing their collection.

Paintings cover every inch of wall space.

One room has Sarah Stein’s art school notebooks.

The wall text discusses the history of the siblings, the salons they ran, and how they built their collection.

I loved the show for the breathtaking amount of work on display.

These paintings are some of the more important of their time; the Steins had incredible taste.

Unfortunately, it also brings up a queasier point, the role of patrons in advancing art.

The Stein siblings were able to do what they did because they had some wealth (although not as much as some collectors) and a big interest in art.

Without their willing support through purchases and the salons, modern art may have taken a different course.

The show gives a new perspective on families like the Belchers (see Adventures in Banktown), who basically did the same thing fifty years later.

After the modern art museum, I went to see a locally famous piece of art of another sort.

For many decades, the Emporium was the most glamorous department store in San Francisco.

The building was a Neoclassical work of art, famous for its large central dome of stained glass.

Sadly, the chain was bought by Macy’s (surprise!) in 1995 and the store closed.

Developers bought the building and announced plans to turn it into a mall.

The city preservation commission signed off only on the condition they preserve both the outer façade and the dome.

The new owners restored the dome, so it now looks better than ever.

They gutted the rest of the building, however, which now looks as unexciting as any other shopping center.

Union Square and the Tenderloin

For my time in San Francisco, I stayed at the HI Union Square.

San Francisco has the highest concentration of hostels in the United States.

They are far more affordable than the city’s hotels, and often have a better atmosphere.

They also attract a large number of international travelers.

Remember to bring a passport to check in.

I picked this one based on crowd and location.

Certain hostels have reputations as all night party spots, and I want to sleep at night.

The hostel is located in an old hotel on a street that shows the contradictions of downtown San Francisco.

The street marks the border between Union Square, one of San Francisco’s wealthiest neighborhoods; and the Tenderloin, one of the poorest.

A mere four blocks separates some of the city’s most expensive boutiques from grimy buildings where the homeless sleep on stoops at night.

San Francisco, unfortunately, is known for the homeless.

The city has the largest population in the United States.

Liberal groups bemoan a society that discards people with serious issues (mental illness, substance abuse, family violence) like so much trash, along with high rents.

Conservative politicians, of whom the city has some, blame the city’s famous liberal reputation.

For a long time, the city had a policy of providing social services to anyone who asked.

That policy changed in 2002 after a conservative Democrat was elected mayor.

Now, the cops arrest people who behave aggressively.

Still, large numbers of people wandering around the Tenderloin at night is a depressingly common sight.

For dinner tonight, I wanted something atmospheric.

The front desk person at the hostel recommended the Gold Dust Lounge about four blocks away.

The bar opened just after Prohibition, and its design reflects a San Francisco tavern of the early 1900s.

The walls are covered in red patterned wallpaper, with random paintings here and there.

It’s lit by glass globe chandeliers.

A long wooden bar covers one wall.

A band at the back played 1960s rock covers.

The price of this beautiful flashback was unremarkable food, but I put up with it for the scene.

(LATE UPDATE) The bar lost its lease at the end of 2011 and moved to the waterfront


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