Saturday, June 27, 2015

San Francisco's Museum District: Center of Diversity

It started with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, on Third Street, near the Convention Center, and by now there are five museums in that district around Third and Mission, and another is planned. SFMOMA is a major institution with a national reputation for its great collection. Currently it is closed because it is undergoing a huge expansion; the new wing towers above the old. But the smaller museums all around it are humming. The first arts institution to nestle in nearby was the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, right across Third street. This is not a museum, but a center that offers a program of art exhibits and theater presentations of the most avant-garde type. On Mission Street, between Third and Fourth, is the Contemporary Jewish Museum, located in a re-purposed PG&E power station. Tucked into a slot in the St. Regis Hotel Tower, with an entrance on Mission Street, is the Museum of the African Diaspora. Directly across the street is a storefront housing the California Historical Society, and moving up Mission toward New Montgomery Street you will find a Cartoon Art Museum and the GLBT Historical Society. It would be easy to fill a day museum-hopping. All of these places are small—a half-hour or an hour is plenty for a visit—but taken together they provide an experience of the city's cultural diversity and vitality.

On a recent afternoon, we managed to fit in two of these venues.

The Museum of the African Diaspora attracted us with an exhibit called "Portraits and other Likenesses," a selection of work by African-American artists drawn from SFMOMA. The most interesting aspect was a tableau of a living room designed by Mickalene Thomas. Thomas is best known for her colorful portraits of Black women looking bold and sassy. Often the setting for the portrait is a cluttered room that expresses the sitter's personality. This tableau appeared to be the setting for one of her portraits, but I now wonder if the tableau was in itself the work of art. It is upholstered and decorated in a manic, mismatching style that embraces what is cheap and ordinary. It was so real that I tried to walk into it, to take a photo of a painting inside the room, but so strange that it was surreal. Photos were not allowed but I found this photo on the internet that looks very much like what we saw.

Tableau by Mickalene Thomas, born 1971
Internet Grab
There was also a movie that Thomas made about her mother, a classy and resilient person. There were some prints of her paintings, but none of her wildly patterned paintings themselves, which was a disappointment. 

Mickalene Thomas' male counterpart is Kehinde Wiley, who became famous for painting Black men in the manner of the Old Masters. 

Kehinde Wiley, born 1977
Alexander the Great
Jan's iPad
Thomas and Wiley are contemporary, living African American artists. Historical precedent for their approach was set by Robert Colescott. His work is still very powerful. Across the bottom of this painting is the legend, "Wishing on a Prime Time Star." 

Robert Colescott, 1925-2009
Colored TV
Jan's iPad
Another contemporary painter, Chris Ofili, is best known for his paintings that incorporate elephant dung and sparkles. The exhibit had a good example, but it was in terrible light. I'm including it here because of the similarities in style and attitude with the previous examples. The painting rests on two balls of elephant dung, and a similar ball is used as a pendant in a necklace. He created quite an uproar when he titled a similar painting featuring elephant dung, The Holy Virgin Mary.

Chris Ofili, born 1968
Princess of the Posse, 1999
iPad photo
Many other artists were represented, for a total of fifty works of art; about six or eight were important. If you are interested in contemporary African American art, Thomas, Wiley, and Ofili are the artists to watch for.

After a pleasant stroll through Yerba Buena Gardens, we came to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, a venue for exhibits of both art and history. The most striking thing about this museum is its architecture. Originally, the PG&E power station was in a handsome brick building with traditional decoration. Internationally famous architect Daniel Libeskind was brought in to expand it and turn it into a museum. His addition looks like an irregular shipping container dropped on one corner. Since it is a dark mass in the shade of taller buildings, it's impossible to get a good photo of it.

Contemporary Jewish Museum
by Daniel Libeskind
iPad photo
No photography is allowed within, except for the foyer where a 90-foot long work of art composed of geographical globes is suspended from the ceiling.

David Lane
Lamp of the Covenant
iPad photo
The main exhibit was called "Night Begins the Day." This contained quite a range of artworks that were loosely united by the nebulous theme. Most of the works were interesting, and well-displayed, but only a few artists were famous, such as Josiah McElheny and Fred Tomaselli.

It's not like these museums are about "them"—some group of "others" that we don't have to care about. In principle, all of us derive from the African Diaspora, since Africa was the home of the first humans, who then migrated to different regions and mutated into different types. As far as Jewish culture is concerned, their historical role in creating and conserving American culture can hardly be overstated. Remember that "God Bless America" was composed by Irving Berlin, who meant it with an immigrant's passion. Museums expand our perspective.

The museum district will be enhanced by the addition of the Mexican Museum. Currently located in Fort Mason it is destined to occupy a fine old building on the corner of Mission and Third. The Mexican Museum has a good collection, but its location is out of the way and not good for art. A museum of Latino art would be a perfect complement to the Mission Street cultural corridor.