Reframing Conservation

Barry McGee, _Untitled_, 1996. Mixed media.

Barry McGee, Untitled, 1996/1998. (Second SFMOMA installation.)

In the first in an occasional series of posts focused on issues of conservation, managing editor of communications Apollonia Morrill talks with director of conservation and collections Jill Sterrett, about an installation by Barry McGee, and the ways the field of  conservation evolves to meet the demands of new artwork.

As a student of art history, I was always fascinated by the field of conservation. I started out studying medieval art; of those who work in with this material, conservators seemed most linked to its inner life and its makers. They get to touch the art, after all. I’ve now worked at SFMOMA almost eight years and am myself an artist, and, with a view behind the scenes, I’m still awed by the work conservators do. Conserving modern and especially contemporary art is a complex affair. The artworks in our collection present challenges that range from the stabilizing traditional materials in a Giacometti sculpture, for instance, to archiving concepts behind a piece like Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s curtain of gold beads that will be installed in The Anniversary Show with only a set of instructions from the artist for guidance.

I recently spoke with SFMOMA Director of Conservation and Collections Jill Sterrett about conservation, focusing on one particular work by local favorite Barry McGee. Well known as a graffiti artist, McGee (aka Twist) makes drawings, paintings, and mixed-media installations inspired by, and drawn from, urban culture and street life. SFMOMA acquired his untitled installation in conjunction with the SECA Award Show in 1996 and has subsequently twice reinstalled the work. It will go on view again this December as part of The Anniversary Show. The piece has presented some unusual challenges, and Sterrett’s approach underscores the creativity and flexibility of the conservation team, which has bent the traditional rules of its trade to make room for the quirks of contemporary art:

Apollonia Morrill: You’ve done extensive conservation work on Barry McGee’s untitled installation piece. Can you talk a bit about it?

Jill Sterrett: This work is comprised of 325 drawings and found photographs in found frames and installed by the artist. In previous installations, before hanging the drawings, he painted the wall, giving each installation a distinct look. The life of this piece raises very interesting questions about the artist’s ongoing involvement. And those are questions that we don’t have completely resolute answers for. Our conservation team here is very engaged with the idea that this installation has an active life. We invite the possibility of iterations, and then document each one, including making one-to-one templates of every installation, to show where each of the 325 drawings was hung for that round.


Not New Work

Vincent Fecteau162

Curator Vincent Fecteau in a confident mood.

Try as we might to get away from the museum, it always lures us in with something bright. This summer in San Francisco, we had the Richard Avedon exhibition and the show which matched Georgia O Keeffe and Ansel Adams (as some wags call it, Ma and Pa Kettle on the Farm.) Then there’s “Not New Work,” curated by SFMOMA’s Apsara Di Quinzio and selected by Vincent Fecteau from the museum’s own hoard of antiquity.

Max Ernstjpg


871 Underground

I first paid a visit to 871 Fine Arts when it was housed at 49 Geary. This must have been about three years ago. The long and wide room had posters on its walls, as well as original works by George Herms, Jim Dine, Franz Kline, and many others. In the very back was a tight square room packed with art books organized into interesting sections: Prints, Drawings, California Artists. The poetry section had an emphasis on its inevitable intersection with visual art. I went back a few times, often during the first Thursdays, in which the building was packed for all of the openings, though I often found 871 to be the most pleasurable place to visit.

871 Fine Arts moved to its current location about a year ago. It’s on Hawthorne now, a side street just off of Howard, south of Market. The new space is on the bottom floor and seems better suited to both the gallery and bookshop aspects. More space for the books overall, with a strangely exquisite light falling onto massive chrome shelves. The art is given two long walls and is also placed as an accent around the books, behind the desks and then a free standing glass case as well.

The current show (at the time of my visit) is paintings and drawings by June Felter. I overhear 871’s owner Adrienne Fish telling a visitor that these works are “classic California figurative,” and that Ms. Felter has just celebrated her 90th birthday, with two of the paintings in the show completed this year. Her use of color is consistently striking, especially within her beach scenes. The colors in these jump out in a manner I more often associate with abstract painting. I was dreaming of a summer house in which I might hang one. Felter lost many works in the 1991 Berkeley/Oakland fire, but managed to save her slides, and over the last ten years has been rather obsessively producing a series of books from these mostly lost works.

One of the things I have most admired about 871 is its relaxed and very inviting atmosphere. Adrienne seems to know offhand where even the most obscure volumes reside (for example: a picture book by John Cage on how to make mud pies; Piero Heliczer’s The Soap Opera, and 12345678910, a collaboration of poems and drawings by Robert Creeley and Arthur Okamura)

Sitting down at Adrienne’s desk, I mention that last year at the holiday sale I picked up a small book on John Altoon and that I always seem to be attracted to artists who are considered by some to be wildly uneven. She says this seems to describe every artist at some point.


Happy Thanksgiving

Unknown, Untitled [Family at the ocean], ca. 1900

SISTER-hood is powerful.

art blackout!

1. I was about sixteen years old, I was sitting on my bedroom floor, it was linoleum, I was writing on it with black nailpolish and smoking cigarettes. My mother knew I smoked and she hated it so I was forbidden to smoke outside in the streets where someone  might see me and judge her a bad mother for my habits, and I was not allowed to smoke in front of her, because she judged herself a bad mother for my habits. So that left my bedroom and that’s where I was, vandalizing my bedroom, lighting up Marlboro Lights, seeing if anyone wanted to talk to me on the telephone, listening to Sonic Youth’s Sister. No one home and the polish gone clumpy in the bottle, I picked up the album cover and stared at it. It was a bunch of different photos – the planet Saturn, cows, a baby – framed by scrawley gold paint pen and heavy black squares. I liked how all the photos together seemed to transmit an eerie, coded story. What was that giant sci-fi-looking machine? What city was that? It looked like an old-timey place. Did it have a special significance? Like Sonic Youth’s music, their album cover seemed a deliberate mystery. I turned it around in my hand and realized that the heavy black square was slightly raised; moving my fingers over the perimeters it began to loosen just slightly at the edges. It was a sticker! It was like finding a trap door, like pulling a book from a bookcase and have it twirl into a secret chamber. Better than playing the actual vinyl backwards and hearing instruction to worship Satan or smoke pot. I sunk a clumpy black-painted fingernail under the sticker and peeled it away.

secret mystery

There was another picture underneath, of a super creepy girl submerged beneath a wash of blobby paint that maybe wasn’t paint, maybe it was some sort of body fluid under a microscope, or the spots of storm on Jupiter. It looked organic. The girl had a staring problem, she looked like the ghost of a girl who had died in a sinister way on a Kansas farm in the 50s and whose spirit was not at rest. She was pretty but her eyes were dark and mean. Why was this hidden? I knew nothing about art, nothing about copyright and permission so the truth of it – that it was a photo by the photographer Richard Avedon, someone I had never heard of, and that the band surely did not receive permission to use the image and so some poor wage-slave had to spend god knows how many hours slapping stickers on LPs, this obvious reality didn’t occur to me. I thought I had made the right move in a scavenger hunt, I had unwittingly revealed the solution to a riddle. But without having known what the riddle was, I remained baffled by the artwork on Sister. What did it mean?! The sticker on the other side was tugged away to reveal a picture of Disney characters with magic marker radar waves radiating out from them. Weird. Sonic Youth was so cool they were almost like a cult.

Sandra Bennett, twelve year old, Rocky Ford, Colorado, August 23, 1980, by Richard Avedon

Sandra Bennett, twelve year old, Rocky Ford, Colorado, August 23, 1980, by Richard Avedon

Like Sonic Youth, I don’t have permission to be using this image so we’ll see what happens. The photo hidden in Sister‘s artwork is Sandra Bennett, twelve-year-old, Rocky Ford, Colorado, August 23, 1980, by Richard Avedon, and it punched me in the gut when I saw it currently hanging in the Avedon exhibition at SFMOMA (up until November 29th). It’s just as creepy and gripping up close and larger than life, and it was just as much an eerie surprise, because I’d often wondered about the photo I’d found on the album, and now here it was, the mystery of a mystery solved. It’s part of his In the American West series, portraits of carneys and coal miners and physical therapists and bee keepers, all looking beautiful and extreme and slightly warped, like the tough haunt of Sandra’s eyes or the pitch black soot of a miner, the odd physical bend of the carney or the albino-esque bee-covered keeper. I think it was my favorite part of the exhibition, though the wall-sized photo of Warhol’s factory and the close up of Warhol’s Frankenstein torso come close.

Creeper boots by Alexander Wang

Creeper boots by Alexander Wang

2. I thought the whole ‘If you wore them the first time around you can’t wear them when they come back around’ fashion rule is, like many fashion rules, just another way to make people/women feel bad about getting old. I spent most of last year the way I spent most of 1984, with some sort of string tied around my forehead, and it felt great. But certain items are giving me pause. I don’t know if I am ready for creepers to make a comeback, even in the form of a boot, even if the boot comes with a leather faux-sock poking over the top, even and especially if it comes hung with a couple of decorative boot-belts. And even if they are designed by Alexander Wang. But you know, even as I type this, looking at the boots in their buttery lighting at Barneys, where they live, I am starting to have second thoughts. Maybe they are actually the greatest things I’ve ever seen. Sometimes being repulsed by a piece of fashion is a signal that I’m about to be obsessed with it.

One woman ponders reviving her aged 90s footwear.

One woman ponders reviving her aged 90s footwear.

Yeah, I know that you know that Doc Martens have been back on the street for over a year now, but if you wore the things in the 80s and 90s, you might be finding yourself a bit scarred by the trend and a bit reluctant to sign on. Last night, at my friend the writer Beth Pickens’ house I watched as she dug into her closet and from there, behind olden Lolapalooza t-shirts and an orange puffy vest stuck with Bikini Kil and pro-choice pins, pulled out a perfectly beaten pair of Docs. “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t know”, she was shaking her head and grumbling nervously. Then, “I can’t! I can’t do it!” But she did it. I felt like I was privy to a very special moment, an individual making contact with the Ghost of Fashion Past, coming full circle, sticking her toes into the grooves made when she wore the things to like clinic defense protests and Sleater-Kinney concerts. It was  tender. Beth isn’t sure she can do it, but I think they look excellent and the boots aren’t going anywhere; like combat boots, shitkicking work boots and all other hardy footwear of decades (oh, sorry, decade) past, they’re going to keep looking good for a while. Oh and the reason her foot is in the fridge is that’s where the best light was for the photo.

Jenna Riot is in the running to be America's next Forever 21 model.

Jenna Riot is in the running to be America’s next Forever 21 model.

3. Over in the UK, the Topshop-owned women’s clothing chain store Evan’s hired Gossip lead singer Beth Ditto to design a line of plus-sized clothes. Nothing quite that avant-garde has happened for bigger females in the US, but the options are starting to grow beyond Torrid (snidely called Fat Topic by feminist scholar, fat activist and burlesque star Cookie Woolner) and Lane Bryant (a friend calls it Lame Giant). Forever 21 is about to launch their plus-sized line Faith 21, and I don’t know if the clothes will be as interesting as the Ditto-designed pieces British girls get to wear, but they do have a shot at having a super hot, seriously talented, wicked queer San Francisco femme be their spokesmodel. The chain is having a contest on their website where you get to vote each day for the girl you think has the best style, and right now Jenna Riot is hovering at number four. I think you should vote for her. More than just sickeningly pretty and having of the good style, Jenna makes electro pop that is super fun to dance to but also has riot-grrrl inspired feminist lyrics, rhymes about being a queer femme, and plus has a crazy voice that is sort of breathy-sexy one minute and then is all wailing and haunting the next. She can sing. Check her out her MySpace page,, and then register at Forever21, and to to cast your vote and make a girl’s dream come true..

Tomo Yasuda

I remember when Tomo was only in one band. It was [Hey] Willpower first, or wait, Window Window, and then Tussle and then Coconut? Maybe his two solo albums came first. I’m not sure that’s right, but I do remember that I was never worried as he was joining up with group after group. He just seemed to snowball into a force that was needed simultaneously by three groups with three distinct sounds. The kind of role I would ordinarily ascribe to a producer or arranger. Not to even mention other pairings that lasted a show or two or were just revived whenever the stars were aligned. He plays guitar for Coconut; bass, keyboards and percussion for Tussle; and keyboard for [Hey] Willpower. I used to read about the old big bands (Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and later Sun Ra) playing upwards of 280 one nighters per year, and I think Tomo would do well with that life, one of his bands dropping him off in Providence and then another picking him up there, trading him out as needed.

The first time I visited Tomo’s apartment he had a small hand-held recording device. The kind you set on the table between two people during an interview. It was the two of us as well as Nathan Berlinguette. Tomo asked if we wanted to make a sound piece, or maybe he said “a noise piece.” He waited until we were quiet, pressed ‘Record,’ and leaned back hard in his chair. I took a roll of pennies that happened to be at arms’ length and cracked it against the counter. I forget what Nathan did. The playback was very much like a crude Xerox of those few seconds. The recording came back with a rough loud edge I did not expect. We made several more that night, and each one turned out perfectly. It was like collaborating on poetry or an exquisite corpse drawing. It seems more about what the room wants when things are going well. Like when mute television is blending perfectly with music left on in another room.


Tim Miller and (My) Friends

Tim Miller, at Yerba Buena all weekend

I had to dress up to see Tim Miller at Yerba Buena tonight, because my friends are so fashionable. Like, Page McBee and Michael Braithwaite are the cutest couple ever, both looking like andro Blythe doll with cooler haircuts and more plaid. Page is a writer working on a collection of poetic essays about the body and until recently was stirring shit up as a Bitch Magazine blogger, posting  a controversial piece about trans women that really should not have been controversial at all except for pesky 2nd wave feminism rearing its tranemy (that would be Enemy of Transpeople) head. Page is over the drama but check out the excellent, smart writing at

Calender by The LGBT Collective of Madrid, sourced from

Calender by The LGBT Collective of Madrid, sourced from

Michael is a brainiac and a painter whose current day job is organizing events at the San Francisco Zen Center. Their big January shebang is going to be Nick Flynn, a straight man who writes memoir, thereby making it safer for everybody else. He wrote the best titled book ever, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and will be traveling around reading from his new book, which is not out yet but stealthy Michael had a advance copy in her backpack! I would have stolen it but I don’t want the karma, man. Also present was Ben McCoy, the performance artist who just killed the crowd at the Porchlight Storytelling Series earlier this week with a story about actually being a MCCOY – you know, the Hatfields and McCoys. Ben talked about the feud, in which ‘bitches got killed” and brought it home at the end with tales of her own lunatic yet righteous temper, beginning with climbing onto a moving school bus to terrorize the child that called her a witch (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and ending with  more mature Ben getting a gang of teenagers who threw a chicken wing in her hair on the subway arrested! Take that, youth! You do not throw chicken wings in a girl’s hairdo! Ben is one of my most favorite performance artists ever. I miss getting to watch Ben perform every night like I did on Sister Spit, her amazing piece where she opens acting like she’s going to lip-synch Lady Gaga, shames the audience for falling for it, then proceeds to lip synch a spoken word piece about drag queen jewelry theives and how crappy the world is to transladies.


Five Questions: Timothy Buckwalter

Five questions to SFMOMA visitors, artists, staff, or guests. Here’s Timothy Buckwalter in the Koret Visitor Education Center.

Timothy Buckwalter in the Koret Visitor Education Center

Name/Place of residence/Occupation/Hobby?

My name is Timothy Buckwalter. I live in Albany, California. I’m an artist and I’ve recently started curating and I also write about art. I have a blog about art. If I had a hobby, I think my hobby would be listening to music. I love music. Music is tied in real closely to my paintings.

Do you collect anything?

I collect art. Contemporary art. I like to collect art that I relate to. I’m not going out and buying Joan Miro prints or something. I want to have something in my house that I have an emotional or psychic connection to. The work that I have is often by people that are my friends, or just work of someone that I respect or work that touches me.

If you could invite any artist to dinner, who would it be and why?

It’s a tough question because I have so many friends that are artists that I see all the time. I guess it would have to be somebody that was a hero of mine. I can tell you who I wouldn’t invite; I wouldn’t like to have dinner with Andy Warhol. I think he would be incredibly dull since he’s so staged. Maybe Dorothea Lange. Her work has always fascinated me and her ability to just continue working. I would like to have dinner with her. You know who I think would be wonderful to have dinner with? I’ve always admired Joan Mitchell‘s paintings. I would love to have dinner with Joan Mitchell. It would be a really wonderful dinner.

What if I could invite a couple people to dinner? He’s my dream dinner: it would be Dorothea Lange, Richard Prince, Donald Judd and Joan Mitchell. To me that would be the perfect dinner party. There would be endless debate. Or endless chastising.  But it can’t be a friend? I would totally like to have dinner with my friend John Zurier who is a painter who I have lunch with a lot and we talk about art.

If you could steal any artwork in the world to have up in your house, what would it be?

How about we rephrase the question because as an artist I don’t want to steal someone’s art. But if I could have a painting in my house. What about that huge Pollock that was in Peggy Guggenheim’s apartment? I would love to have that piece. I mean, there are so many pieces. I would love to have one of those early Stella black paintings. That would be amazing. A Kline, a really big Kline, like Chief at MoMA or something. Or I would love to have a Barnett Newman. One of those big Newman’s. But then I would have to have a bigger house. I would love to have a big piece of art but then I’d need to have a bigger house. I would like to have something that I’ve always thought about. It’s funny, last year on my blog I asked people what their dream collection was. The other thing I would love to have is Duchamp’s Étant donnés – it’s the barn doors that you look in and there’s a naked woman. I would totally love to have that piece. Bridget Riley did this amazing painting that’s like a nautilus that you walk into, that you spiral into in the late 60s; I would love to have that piece. A Robert Frank photo. There’s that Frank photo of the flags and the matronly women that you can’t really see their faces in the window, that Frank photo is amazing. I would love to have everything. All at once. I would go back in time too. I would love a della Francesca one of those frescos that are on church walls. If it’s art, I would probably take it. Actually, I don’t like Yves Klein so I wouldn’t take a Yves Klein.

What’s your favorite tool?

You mean like George W. Bush? That kind of tool? Does a paintbrush count as a tool? Then I love a paintbrush. I would say the paintbrush is my favorite tool. In the positive sense of a tool.

You may have seen Tim before when he put together a music-filled  “Collection Rotation” in June.

1001 Words: 11.19.09

*an ongoing series of individual images presented for speculation and scrutiny, with only tags at the bottom to give context. Because sometimes words are never enough…

Visitor Flickr Photo of the Week


Limits. Photo by Nick Shere

Nick, a.k.a kukkurovaca, took this picture of Ellsworth Kelly’s Stele I in the SFMOMA Rooftop Garden. Looks like the person on the left is entering another dimension.  The dapper gentleman on the right may have just returned from it.

Nick says:

There’s no real story to this photograph—If I remember correctly, I had just gone to see the Avedon exhibit for the first time, and the Adams-O’Keeffe for the third or fourth time, probably. I went up to the roof, got a beverage, and sat down to people-watch. I had my camera with me—I suspect I’m not alone in going to the roof in part to take out my pent-up photographic urges from the no-photography areas of the museum.

The composition that I wound up with is not *quite* what I had anticipated. At the time I brought up my camera, the fellow on the left was just standing and looking up at the piece; it was entirely fortuitous that at the moment I pressed the shutter release he began to step past it, or, thanks to the perspective, into it.