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Calder to Warhol

Fisher Collection at SFMOMA

  • SFMOMA
    151 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94103 (Map)
    +1 415.357.4000

Collecting fine art has long been a pastime of the rich and famous. However, while some quietly hoard masterpieces in the dark recesses of private high-security basement galleries, others choose to share their aesthetic wealth with the world. Doris and the late Donald Fisher (founder of the Gap) were of the latter ilk, first displaying the work they collected at Gap headquarters here in San Francisco, and now loaning their collection of 1,100 items to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection gives viewers a small taste of this generous bounty, with over 160 exemplary works occupying the entire third and fourth floors of the museum. Ellsworth Kelly, Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, and, of course, Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder: All of these modern and contemporary masters and more populate the walls, floors, and even rooftop garden of the SFMOMA until September 19th.

There are a couple of interesting things about this collection that are made apparent in the exhibition. First, the Fishers collected pieces that they liked and in which they were interested. They often got to know an artist and tried to collect works exemplifying the various stages of his or her career.

Thus, the exhibition is not just a mere collection of works representative of important modern and contemporary artists; it is also a window into the tastes and interests of this couple, adding a somewhat more personal nature to the exhibition. One doesn’t just encounter what is collectible or popular, but what was liked and appreciated by someone — the pieces become invested with additional meaning.

The second interesting aspect of the collection is its variety. For a private, personal collection, it is not only enormous, but also enormously varied in terms of artists, subject matter, and media. Calder to Warhol encompasses this variety nicely, delivering a delicious taste of the multitude.

The exhibition is actually divided fairly evenly between figurative and abstract art, which provides a nice combination and variety. For instance, Ellsworth Kelly’s solid fields of pure color contrast interestingly with the wonderfully unexpected portraits of Chuck Close. While one is an abstract painter and the other figurative, encountering them both in the same exhibition (though not in the same gallery) allows the viewer to compare the ways in which an artist might use solid shapes and colors to convey an image — whether a simple one (such as Kelly’s “Blue Panel”) or something more complex (such as Close’s “Phyllis”).

The breadth of the collection also lies in its encompassing more than just painted, two-dimensional works. Just as twentieth century artists experimented with color and shape, they also experimented with form and gravity, resulting in some fascinating sculptural works. Richard Serra’s spare slabs of thick steel and lead impossibly encompass a certain fragility in their tenuously balanced formations, while the delicate mobiles of Alexander Calder, despite their freely floating movement, convey a certain solidity with their simple shapes and impeccable equilibrium.

Speaking of physics, even time is taken up, most obviously in the form of film. William Kentridge’s “Preparing the Flute,” for example, combines theater, film, music, drawing and sculpture in a mesmerizing play of light. Swirls and dots of white move and transform against a layered background of charcoal drawings, all the while accompanied by selections from Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute. To watch the intricate transformation of images as the Queen of the Night delivers her beautifully complicated aria is eerily hypnotizing.

To imagine that these disparate works all have in common the fact that the Fisher family liked and appreciated them is mind-boggling, but also quite fortunate; the exhibition (and the collection in general) truly conveys a sense of the breadth of modern and contemporary art. While approximately 940 works from the collection are not on display, Calder to Warhol conveys a hint of what is to come and whets viewers’ appetites for the eventual expansion of SFMOMA to accommodate this generous loan.

June 25 through September 19th
Tickets: Free to $15