Art review: ‘Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection’ @ SFMOMA

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With great fanfare, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last year announced it had entered into a long-term working relationship with Doris and the late Donald Fisher, founders of the Gap clothing store chain, to house their collection of more than 650 paintings, sculptures, video installations and other works, plus 429 prints. A room of seven Agnes Martin paintings in the collection’s newly opened inaugural exhibition is emblematic of what that partnership means for the museum.

The room is spellbindingly beautiful. It spans four decades, roughly the artist’s entire working career as a mature painter. It begins with a gorgeous 1957 example, made just before her abstract style coalesced, jumps ahead to one of her first flat-out masterpieces from 1963, and then continues through first-rate examples of what followed.


The last work dates from 1995. For visitors, Martin’s progress as an artist unfolds in magnificent depth.

She’s not the only one. Of 57 artists in ‘Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection,’ 11 are represented by between five and 16 examples each. Warhol fills two galleries. So does Chuck Close. Alexander Calder, Georg Baselitz, Philip Guston, Ellsworth Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Roy Lichtenstein and Gerhard Richter get a room apiece.

The general level of quality is high. And historically important works are among the 161 inaugural selections -- perhaps none more than Sol LeWitt’s first wall drawing, dated 1968.

As the simple mathematical system guiding LeWitt’s composition plays out, straight pencil lines in elementary geometries become increasingly complex. His visual universe, no matter how convoluted the wall drawing becomes, maintains a strict moral neutrality. LeWitt replaces conventional human dread of complexity with wonder, ease and delight.

Expect other deep engagements. Richter, like Martin and LeWitt, is among the most important artists of the last half-century, and the Fisher Collection covers his waterfront -- blurry gray figure paintings, a magnificent color chart, gestural and photo-realist landscapes and gestural color abstractions that likewise seem weirdly photographic.

Among them are provocative gems. Take the 1967 painting ‘Gymnastics,’ which shows a young girl on her toes with arms thrown up and her back arched, as if in the midst of a gravity-defying aerial routine.

Gymnast Karin Janz, 15, had been nominated Athlete of the Year in East Germany, where the Cold War propaganda tool of athletic training was an emblem for Soviet triumph (for the East), and personal escape from grinding Soviet repression (for the West). Richter, who had fled Dresden for Düsseldorf, fuses that inherent contradiction with ‘Leap Into the Void,’ a famous photograph of French artist Yves Klein appearing to soar out a second story window on tippy toes, which Richter saw in a 1963 Paris gallery exhibition.

The smile on the girl’s face seems caught between joy and hysteria, youthful optimism and forced cheer. Forget exalted painterly uplift. A chilly, meditative small masterpiece, ‘Gymnastics’ refuses idealized fantasies of escape -- athletic, artistic or political.

Sculpture is a special strength, not least because Calder was Donald Fisher’s favorite artist. Among the most charming is 1951’s’Tower With Painting,’ in which painted organic shapes float on the surface of a tiny canvas, seeming to foreshadow an actual little mobile dangling from a delicate tower that rises from it. Later, the brute power of Richard Serra’s monumental, precariously balanced plates of steel and lead, italicizing the industrial-strength force of gravity, turns out to be but an order of magnitude of Calder’s fragile playfulness.

Collection missteps are not unheard-of. For instance, we know that Dolly Parton’s distinctive look derives from pneumatic drag queens; they exaggerate breasts, hair, lips and other feminine characteristics to outlandish cartoon proportions, satirizing heterosexual male taste. But Warhol’s bleary 1984 double-portrait of the country singer embodies his dreadful late-career decline.

Never mind. Go around the corner and let your jaw drop at the gathering of nine prime Warhol canvases, 1961 to 1963. Their surfaces are a literal silver screen for Elvis, Marlon Brando, some petty crooks and a couple of anonymous housewives killed by tainted cans of tuna fish.

The group brilliantly charts Warhol’s epochal transition from hand-painted Pop to mechanical printing, while using camp humor to demolish the false equation between existential freedom and heterosexual masculinity promoted by postwar American art. Unlike the tired Parton portrait, which repeats the same subject two decades later, the early work still shines with formal power.

There are also some plain clunkers by generally minor artists. ‘Chance Meeting,’ a posthumous bronze cast of a George Segal trio of life-size figures standing beneath two conflicting ‘One Way’ street signs, makes a ham-fisted banality grandiose. Beverly Pepper’s twin pair of slender, cast-iron monoliths, which almost but not quite touch, inflates an affecting, Brancusi-style ‘kiss’ into industrial bloat.

Overall, though, flubs such as these are few. It’s a great collection, and SFMOMA’s hitherto spotty permanent holdings of contemporary art are transformed by it.

It’s also a very 1980s collection -- big, brash, expensive, even vaguely avaricious in tone. Call it ‘Dynasty'-style acquisition, after the padded shoulder extravagance of the hit Reagan-era nighttime TV soap opera.

For good and ill, things changed dramatically in the ‘80s, which is when the Fishers really ramped up their collecting. ‘Calder to Warhol’ has its eye firmly focused on big-ticket artists, mostly from New York and Germany, born of the American art world’s first, big, market-driven era.

California artists, especially San Franciscans, barely register. Two paintings by Sacramento’s Wayne Thiebaud are about as close as it gets to the Bay Area, the Fishers’ lifelong collecting home.

The strongest work by an artist from L.A., whose powerhouse rise mirrored Germany’s in the ‘80s, is not one of the five more recent pieces by Ed Ruscha or John Baldessari, who matured in the 1960s, or even Richard Diebenkorn’s fine 1973 ‘Ocean Park’ abstraction. It’s the gorgeous, waxed-enamel 1989 wood relief by Robert Therrien, which twists a bent, crimson triangle into a monumental bit of physical and optical craftsmanship.

What registers is the post-1980 emergence of a few commanding Manhattan art galleries as brokers for contemporary artists’ reputations. The Fisher Collection isn’t just blue chip; it’s deepest, darkest, indigo blue chip. Pace Gallery is its Blake Carrington, with Gagosian and Marian Goodman galleries playing Alexis and Krystle, out wrestling in the lily pond for spousal rights.

It also reflects the Fishers’ era. The 57 artists’ average age today, were they all still alive, would be 76 -- and that’s factoring out Calder, born in the 19th century. (Donald Fisher died last fall at 81.) Since museum collections are mainly formed by private collectors, institutions don’t just acquire art; by default, they also collect styles of collecting. With these great Fisher works, SFMOMA now has a large trove of important individual paintings and sculptures, plus an emblematic example of a late-20th century collecting style.

-- Christopher Knight, from San Francisco

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Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 3rd St., (415) 357-4000, through Sept. 19. Closed Wednesdays. Adults: $18.


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