S.F. Museum of Modern Art Goes on a Buying Spree


In a significant expansion of its permanent collection, the trustees of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have acquired for the museum 23 works by prominent 20th century artists valued at $40 million, officials announced Thursday.

The acquisitions coincide with the arrival of the museum’s new director, David A. Ross, who assumed his post Monday, and who since March has been commuting between San Francisco and New York, where he was completing a seven-year stint as director of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

“Every work in this group is something that we critically wanted, and that has been on the museum’s wish list for quite some time,” Ross said in a telephone interview Friday.

The artworks include 14 by Robert Rauschenberg, primarily from the artist’s own collection, most notably his landmark 1953 “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” for which, with Willem de Kooning’s blessing, the younger artist erased a drawing by the leading Abstract Expressionist and preserved the results.


Among the other major pieces are Piet Mondrian’s “Composition No. III Blanc-Jaune” and Barnett Newman’s 1969 massive Cor-ten steel sculpture “Zim Zum 1,” the last sculpture Newman made before his death in 1970. Created for an international group exhibition at the Hakone Museum in Japan, “Zim Zum 1" had been on extended loan to the Tate Gallery in London.

The bulk of the acquisition--which also represents artists Louise Bourgeois, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti, Anselm Kiefer, Brice Marden, Robert Motherwell and Wayne Thiebaud--was purchased with funds donated by trustee Phyllis Wattis, 93, a San Francisco philanthropist who has made generous donations in the past, both to this museum and others in the area.

This is not the first time the museum’s trustees have stepped in to significantly advance the institution’s stature. Trustees donated $65 million to build its new, Mario Botta-designed museum, which opened in January 1995. The museum had long ago outgrown the cramped quarters it had occupied in the city’s Civic Center since 1935. They also raised an additional $25 million for an endowment.

The new facility is credited with increasing attendance from 204,000 to 800,000 and increasing membership from 13,000 to 36,000 in its first year.


“The timing was not an accident,” Ross said. “While I was being courted for the job and discussing it with the board here, one of the things that was of great interest to me, the board and the staff was the commitment to and the continued growth of the collection. . . . It became very clear that this was not just idle chat, they had a genuine commitment.

“As soon as I accepted my new job, I had to recuse myself from acquisition for the Whitney because it would be a conflict of interest, and I made that very clear to my colleagues. So, as a result, I was able to work for some time with Gary Garrels [the San Francisco museum’s chief curator of painting and sculpture] on acquiring some of the key works.

“I guess what I brought to the table was a knowledge of the potential availability of this cachet of extraordinary Rauschenbergs. We began negotiations in mid-April, identifying a group that Bob [Rauschenberg] could bear to part with,” Ross added.

The newly acquired Rauschenbergs, 13 of which are currently in a traveling retrospective of the artist’s work, join two other major paintings by Rauschenberg already in the museum’s holdings: “Collection,” acquired in 1972, and “Catastrophe,” a 1996 fresco painting.