(Ekevara Kitpowsong/Special to S.F. Examiner)

A new SFMOMA for the 21st century

After a three-year closure, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is about to reopen, and guests at a recent preview called the new institution “daunting” and “amazing.”

SFMOMA, whose official opening Saturday will be accompanied by festivities throughout San Francisco’s Yerba Buena neighborhood, has undergone an extensive renovation and expansion — both its building and art collection.

Funded by a $610 million capital campaign, the transformation gives the museum seven floors of modern and contemporary art and 170,000 square feet of gallery space — more than twice the previous space. Its collection now numbers about 33,000 pieces, 1,900 of which are on view.

These include 260 works from the 1,100-piece Doris and Donald Fisher art collection, pieces acquired through the museum’s Campaign for Art, pre-expansion works housed in the old building and newly commissioned works.
According to museum officials, the old and new sites combined make up the nation’s largest museum of modern and contemporary art.

The Building

Designed by the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, the expansion is a layer-cake-shaped white structure whose rippled surface Snøhetta founding partner Craig Dykers described as partially inspired by San Francisco Bay waters and fog.

The older building — the brick structure designed by Mario Botta — has been renovated and joined with the new one. For seismic-safety reasons, each structure has its own foundation.

The merging of the Botta building, which contains mostly older, modern-era art, and the Snøhetta structure, whose holdings are generally contemporary, suggests a pairing of constancy and currency, fitting for a museum of 20th-century and 21st-century art.

The distinctive, rippling eastern facade contains more than 700 fiberglass-reinforced polymer panels. Silicate crystals have been added to the surface to reflect the changing light.

New walkways around the museum and a new public entrance on Howard Street help incorporate SFMOMA into the surrounding neighborhood.

Visitors can also enter on Third Street, where those familiar with the Botta building will notice that an old stairway is gone. Sunlight now fills the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Atrium via the oculus, under which Alexander Calder’s mobile “Untitled” (1963) is suspended.

Varied and casual, the Snøhetta-designed galleries range from an octagonal gallery allowing for contemplation to loft-like galleries designed for contemporary art. Breathing space is an added amenity.

“Palate cleansing” areas include sculpture terraces with city views. One such terrace on the third floor contains a living wall featuring more than 19,000 plants and 21 native species. (Staff members hope butterflies will take note.)

A free public-space is a commissioned-works gallery, where sculptor Richard Serra’s “Sequence” (2006), the heaviest work at SFMOMA, is on view.

The Art

Those expecting to see major Picassos or Braques or surrealist masterworks will be disappointed. The collection’s expansion largely involves art dating from the second half of the 20th century to the present.

That is the case with the Doris and Donald Fisher collection, which SFMOMA, through a partnership formed with the Fishers and announced in 2009, will exhibit for 100 years.

Collections tend to have a personality reflecting their collectors, and “big, powerful works of art” is how Robert Fisher, president of the museum’s Board of Trustees and son of Donald and Doris, described the kind of art his late father preferred.

While that statement seems substantiated by many of the works on view, the Fisher collection also contains quieter, intimate pieces, including seven minimalist paintings by Agnes Martin (one of Doris Fisher’s favorite artists).

Presented in sections devoted to American abstraction; pop, minimal and figurative art; post-1960s German art; British sculpture, and others, the Fisher collection contains significant works by such notables as Calder, Ellsworth Kelly, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer and Chuck Close.
A highlight is Kelly’s “Cité,” a hard-edge black-and-white brushstroke piece into which Kelly worked the element of chance.

Warhol’s “Nine Marilyns” and “Three Elvises” are strong examples of the pop artist’s celebrity portraits.

Various abstract and representational works show the versatility of Richter. Kiefer’s “Melancholia” (1990-91), a lead, glass, steel and ash sculpture of a wartime German war plane, inspired by a 16th-century Dürer engraving of a fallen angel, movingly captures the hope that flying machines represent and the destructive activities they are used for.

On the lighter site, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s steel, polyurethane and latex “Apple Core,” a pop piece that was reportedly a favorite at the Fishers’ Gap store site, will prompt smiles.

Also on exhibit are works acquired or promised through the museum’s Campaign for Art — more than 3,000 works from more than 230 donors.

Artists in this category include Diane Arbus, William Wiley, Carleton E. Watkins and Charles Ray. The latter’s “Sleeping Woman” (2012) — a realist stainless-steel sculpture of a woman, probably homeless, sleeping on a bench — will likely remind viewers of realities that state-of-the-art museums located in moneyed tech communities, including this museum, don’t immediately convey.

Newly commissioned works include “Aarde,” a textile mural recently completed by Claudy Jongstra.

Visitors won’t want to forget the oldies in the Botta building — a vital element of the collection. These include Henri Matisse’s “Femme au chapeau” (1905), Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917/1964) and works by Clyfford Still, Robert Rauschenberg, and Richard Diebenkorn, to name a few.

Additional attractions include the museum’s highly regarded photography collection, the new Pritzker Center for Photography, a film program, digital enhancement, and a restaurant serving dishes contributed by 80 chefs from around the world.

History and Future

SFMOMA was founded in 1935 as the San Francisco Museum of Art (“Modern” was added in 1975) and for 60 years operated in the War Memorial Veterans Building.

In 1995, it relocated to the Botta-designed building, on Third Street near Howard Street in the South of Market area, where it become an unofficial anchor of the Yerba Buena cultural hub. In 2013, the museum began its three-year transformation.

On the horizon are an exhibit of photography by Anthony Hernandez, a Bruce Connor retrospective, new work by Tokyo-based Sohei Nishino, and the West Coast debut of William Kentridge’s installation “The Refusal of Time.”

Officials at the preview repeatedly noted that guests ages 18 and under can enter for free; and that the building is offering free entry to ground-floor galleries off Howard Street, the location of the new main entrance.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Where: 151 Third St., S.F.
When: Opens May 14, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Labor Day, except Thursdays until 9 p.m; free public spaces open at 9 a.m. daily
Admission: $19 to $25. free for ages 18 and younger
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org
Note: Public opening day festivities in the area begin at 8:45 p.m. May 14; entry into the building on opening day is limited to ticketholders.

Alexander CalderCraig DykersDonald and Doris FisherMario BottaMuseums and GalleriesRobert FisherSan Francisco Museum of Modern ArtSnøhettaVisual Arts

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