Five Questions: Steve Anker

Five questions to SFMOMA artists, staff, or guests. Steve Anker is the Dean of the School of Film/Video at CAL ARTS and the curator of three programs in the 75 Years in the Dark film series: Material and Illusion, Bush Mama and tomorrow’s screening of Chris Marker’s Le joli mai.  He lives between San Francisco and Northern Los Angeles.

Steve Anker in the Wattis Theater.

Do you collect anything?

I collect films, a small amount. I collect comic and graphic novels. All of them, all over the map, ranging from early even pre-20th century newspaper comics to underground comics to comic books of all kinds to contemporary graphic novels of all genres. And I collect various kinds of music, CDs and vinyl.

There’s the generic interview question that goes, “If you could invite anyone to dinner who would it be.” What I want to know is, what would you eat?

I would eat Cornish game hen. I don’t know why that sprang to mind.

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

A painting by Vermeer. I love looking at the magical quality of light in his paining. The other one would be a late Mark Rothko.

Other than your phone or keys, what do you always carry with you?

I carry a tin of Altoid chewing gum. I do a lot of speaking and meetings.

What should I be asking you?

How I think about my roles in the world. I see myself at this point as a curator, a writer, a program creator both for schools and for exhibition, and I think of myself as an educator and finally as an administrator. I have a long term relationship that I hold in the highest regard and I have family relationships—brothers, mother, cousins—that I take very seriously. So, those are my personal roles. I also play classical piano. And working out at a gym; I’ve been doing that on a regular basis for a couple of months.

The film series 75 Years in the Dark continues through May with screenings from SFMOMA’s film history.

Notes toward a Lecture on the Invisible and Art

We are all born blind, but artists are obsessed with seeing the invisible, unseen, and ignored.

Our physical eyesight can be cybernetically enhanced by telescopes, microscopes, or cameras, to make the impossibly distant, small  or brief things in the universe available to us. This is the popular, default, banal meaning of invisibility.

Our brains are evolutionarily developed to edit out most extraneous information that enters our eyes, information that it believes is not crucial to our survival. This is why, when you visit the Galapagos Islands, the naturalists explain that the frigate birds will ignore you because you are neither a threat nor prey. It’s not to be mistaken for friendliness, it’s that in essence they don’t see you. But if you tried to pet one it’d put a hole through your hand with its powerful six-inch beak.

“Attention is much more than simply taking note of incoming stimuli. It involves a number of distinct processes, from filtering out perceptions, to balancing multiple perceptions, to attaching emotional significance to them.

Imagine yourself at a cocktail party. You can attend to many features of this environment simultaneously: sip a drink while listening to a friend talk and watching a colleague dance with a new partner. Or you can process the many stimuli through a filter that lets the numerous insignificant bits of the environment pass through, leaving you with the big, meaty pieces; you might focus in on your friend’s face and words as he tells a captivating anecdote, while seeming not to hear the dozens of other voices or see the other visual images in the room. You also combine perceptions—say, sight and sound—to identify the abstract notion that a fight might be brewing across the room. The intensity with which you attend to such stimuli is determined by your own level of interest, alertness and anxiety….Scientists have identified four distinct components within the attention system, which together create the brain’s overall ability to monitor the environment: arousal, motor orientation, novelty detection and reward, and executive organization.” (from A User’s Guide to the Brain, John J. Ratey, MD (2002)

We choose to see some things or not to see them due to habit, cultural conditioning, or politeness.

There are things we once could see that we can no longer see: the dead, demolished architecture, lost or assimilated cultures and peoples.

There is the theoretical notion that art’s purpose is to reveal the invisible nature of social control, to pull constraints out of the shadows into the light of day.

Art starts with nothing to which is added an intense curiosity about a speculated possibility to bring something into visibility.  Some of the best manifestations of this are assertions of the overlooked and unseen.

“The missing object and empty room have become Conceptual art’s degree zero, gesturing towards the conventions that ‘frame’ raw material as art and making room for the forms of openness, contradiction, paradox and irresolution that are contemporary art’s essential condition. Curated by Ralph Rugoff, ‘A Brief History of Invisible Art’ surveyed a range of practices that use the rhetorical figure of invisibility to question the way we look at art. It collected together architectures of air (Yves Klein, Project for a Sheltered City 1959), paintings made with invisible ink, water and thought (Bruno Jakob’s Happy Nothing/Still Collecting, 1990–98), a cursed area (Tom Friedman’s Untitled (A Curse), 1992), a draft of pressurized air (Michael Asher’s Vertical Column of Accelerated Air, 1966–7), an air-conditioned room (Art & Language’s Frameworks: Air-Conditioning, 1966–7), legal documentation for a ‘stolen’ art work (Maurizio Cattelan’s Denuncia, 1991) and waves of energy (Robert Barry’s Electromagnetic Energy Field, 1968)….” (Julian Myers, Frieze, 2006) (more…)

LOBBIES, and their varieties

Searching for an in situ image of “Mural,” Julie Mehretu’s Goldman Sachs mural, I found this. A complete newcomer to business blogs, I was impressed that the writer, Courtney Comstock, has taken on the topic of financier’s art, and amused by the fierceness of her language.

Google image grab of Julie Mehretu's "Mural" at GS

(Apologies that it’s not a bigger image. Rebar has a nice one on their post.)

I’m skeptical of the thoroughness of Clusterstock writer’s Courtney Comstock’s research – she seems at least as crude in her discussion of an art work’s possible meanings and value as the G Sachs sources she draws on.  Comparing Mehretu’s piece to Franz Akerman’s on the other side of the building, Comstock writes:

Nobody thinks this one is any good either.

At least the big bright mural has two names, both “Sunrise, Sunset,” and “The Windmill, The Water, and The Grain.” This one doesn’t even have one name.

BUT, I’m falling down the rabbit hole of the the internet in leading with these details. Here I simply want to make a few comments about patronage and “public” art, and art history and memory – prompted by Rebar’s post, and by having read the New Yorker piece by Calvin Tomkins about Julie Mehretu with many mixed feelings. This began as a response to Rebar, but I’ve decided to up its status from carry-on to checked.

Medici is not a name that will ever disappear. But the artworks that survive from the House of Medici are certainly what I know better than the specific history of Medici rule. What that means, of course, is that Medici excesses, sleaziness, and brutality are vagaries in my mind compared to the deeply affecting works by Masaccio, Donatello, Fra Angelico, Brunelleschi, Rubens, et. al, that I’ve come to know in my life. I’m grateful that culture was grown and nurtured by centuries of Medici patronage. I’m also aware that the history of art I learned never EVER taught me what the politics of these patrons were, never discussed where the money came from, never pointed out that one could be a Medici AND a pope simultaneously.

A piece in the New Yorker written by Calvin Tomkins can’t be expected to challenge Mehretu on her work or her choice to take the $5 million from GS. Ethics is not one of Tomkins’s interests or concerns. I think, to Mehretu’s credit, she makes the legitimate point that given the location of the mural, GS offered her the opportunity to produce a PAINTING that was going to be visible to the public. A work of public art, so to speak. It might be nice to calculate what portion of this painting we, the “public” that is paying in vital fluids for some of GS’s venal and rapacious practices, actually OWN. I’d like to think I own some tiny part of MURAL, by Julie Mehretu. If I can figure that out, I feel okay too about asking Mehretu why the piece had to be titled MURAL, instead of something maybe a bit gutsier? (Courtney Comstock complains that the piece doesn’t have a title, which is apparently even worse….) Or am I just hoping that Mehretu feels something more than curiosity about the rendering of global financial movements? DId she know Mark Lombardi’s work when she set to work on this project?

Is it too much to hope that when Mehretu’s work is taught in the future, that the fortunes of Goldman Sachs will be discussed too?

Power and Patronage

I’m struck this week by Calvin Tompkins’s piece in the March 29 New Yorker on Julie Mehretu‘s recent commission for Goldman Sachs in NYC.

“It took me a long time—six months or so—to decide I wanted to do this,” Mehretu told the writer. Mehretu is thirty-nine, friendly, and open. “One reason was this wall, which is so clearly visible from outside the building…I could never make a painting this scale anywhere else.”

I’m intruiged by the relationship between Mehretu’s work, the creative process used by the architects of the building in which “Mural” is housed, and the story of Goldman Sachs history as a financial institution and patron of this creative work.

As described in Tompkin’s piece Mehretu’s work the result of the rigorous application and accumulation of layers of markings covered with silica, sanded smooth and then repeated. In this case the layers implicity refer to the history of finance capitalism – maps, trade routes, population shifts; then sets of architectural drawings projected and traced onto the canvas; followed by several other sets of markings and graphics. Because the upper layers are created with transparent colors, elements of the previous layers are visible enabling the viewer to look deep into the painting conveying ” a sense of embedded time”.

In landscape architecture pedeagogy,  this type of layering in referred to as palimpsest.

Drawing by T. Kelly Wilson for Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects L.L.P.

Mehretu’s process of layering and tracing was undoubtedly used by the architects during the process of designing the building. The glass- and stainless-steel tower, designed by architect Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, will house six high-tech trading floors, three floors of meeting and amenity spaces, and 30 floors of office space.


Sunset Transparency at the new Goldman Sachs World Headquarters, New York City

Sunset Transparency at the new Goldman Sachs World Headquarters, New York City

Architectural works of this scale are only possible via the patronage of global corporate capital and are potent symbols in every city of current global power relationships. In other words these buildings would not exist without billionaire patrons to cultivate architectural talent and astounding feats of engineering.  Interestingly, great effort and expense has gone into crafting corporate identity through the building’s design: it incorporates environmentally sustainable features and the latest green-building technologies — including use of ultra low-sulfur diesel fuel — with the anticipation of earning a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. Its big bad global corporate capital cloaking itself in an environmentally and socially responsible skin.

Eighty feet long by twenty-three feet high, “Mural” dominates the entrance lobby of the new building.  Its the largest piece undertaken my Mehretu  to date.   The billionaire patronage of Goldman Sachs has enabled this artist to realize a creative feat otherwise impossible to achieve.

To what degree has the desire to shape corporate identity guided the creation of Mehretu’s enormous new piece?  How much has the capital intensive global art market driven or suppressed artistic innovation.  What  and whose narrative will be legible through the palimpsest of history?

Particles Matter

In a fit of nervous energy, last night I started a new website called Particulated Matter. A brief description:

Particulated Matter lists only artist-produced books, printed materials, and dispersed ephemera created with online print-on-demand services. These include,, and others. As a clearinghouse for these autonomously-published works, Particulated Matter attempts to form a network and hopefully aids in the distribution and acknowledgement of these creations.

Despite what sounds like a general waning of print media (the refrain is: “isn’t everything going digital?”) there’s a resurgence in a form of artist book publishing that is being assisted by the ease of digital media. Print-on-demand services are fast, cheap, and sometimes, depending on the content published, out of control. I have many artist friends who are creating their own catalogs and books, some as an archive of projects, and others as conceptual works in themselves. Just design and upload your file, and–voila! Accessible to everyone at reasonable rates! No overhead and no excess books lying around taking up space. Order and print as you need them.

This is a great thing. I’ve been able to publish several books this way, and have begun to start thinking of printed works as a part of my practice. The only problem with the decentralized and (generally) online presence of these works is that they seem to float free in the internet ether, uncollected. In a just world an online database with the same ethos as the brick-and-mortar New York organization Printed Matter would exist for these floaters. Particulated Matter is my personal way of starting a collection of independently-produced artists books that exist in this state. They’re like little particles knocking about and orbiting around an artist’s studio practice. All links on Particulated Matter take you to the artist webpages and more info on how to acquire the book (some are even free downloads!). Here’s to giving them more attention and acknowledging their production.

1. of, pertaining to, or composed of distinct particles.
2. a separate and distinct particle.
3. a material composed of such particles.
4. particulates,
a. the aggregate of such particles, esp. as produced by one source: tests to analyze diesel particulates.
b. Meteorology. solid or liquid particles suspended in the atmosphere, esp. pollutants.

Note: Particulated Matter is a beta-test site for now. I would love to have it set up with tiny icons like and a more extensive background of artist info. Also, it’s not exactly a database — it takes advantage of free blogging software and layouts. Basic, but a start.

Dance Anywhere Part III

As a fairly cynical short-attention-span-generation type, I am always amazed how much seeing live dance gets me all choked up.  This is the third year in a row the SFMOMA Atrium’s been host to an impromptu Dance Anywhere performance. Two years ago Kara Davis and Nol Simonse performed a duet.  Last year there were three dancers.  Today Kara was back, this time with her group Project Agora.

Thanks to Ian, our social media maven, for the video! More, from all three performances, here.

Venus in and out of Furs: Joseph Losey’s “Eve” & “Accident”

Eve plays tonight, Friday, 3/26/10, and Accident shows this Sunday evening, 3/28/10 — both at the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, as parts of the retrospective Joseph Losey:  Pictures of Provocation. Click here for more information about this series.

Jacqueline Sassard in Joseph Losey’s Accident

Joseph Losey’s massive body of work exists against an even greater body of odds. An upper-middle class boy from corn-fed Wisconsin, Losey drifted into theater from pre-med during his college days at Dartmouth and Harvard, became radicalized in the early years of the Great Depression, was introduced to the Harlem Jazz scene by a nineteen-year-old John Hammond, and was aesthetically marked for life by Soviet experimental theater and a first meeting with Bertolt Brecht on a trip to Russia in 1935. Returning to a burgeoning vocation as a director in New York’s leftist theater scene, Losey eventually collaborated with Brecht and Charles Laughton in their English-language production of Brecht’s Galileo, then began a promising career in low-budget Hollywood features, including a few now-classic Marxian-inflected films noir. Appraised of rumors he was about to be subpoenaed to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to testify about his activities as a member of the Communist Party USA, Losey fled to Europe in 1951, where, tortured by the justified paranoia brought on by persecution, he slowly began to eke out a reputation as the most consistently brilliant director of British genre films of the 1950’s.

Stanley Baker and Jeanne Moreau’s foot and leg in Joseph Losey’s Eve

Marxist or not, Losey was a man of infinite ambition and little faith in received wisdom in whatever environment he found himself. “I like to listen to people who know what they’re talking about — my trouble is I never believe anything they say” ventures a Losey stand-in in his 1961 nuclear-panic thriller, These Are the Damned. Enviously watching as European Art Cinema began to fully flower on the continent, Losey yoked his chances to two equally enterprising British stars, Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker, whose talent for on-screen self-laceration, and distaste for each other mirrored the splits within their director’s psyche. With their collaboration, Losey laboriously crafted an oeuvre which would take him to the highest pinnacles of the International Art-film game, and which reflected a world-view fully consonant with the Modernist take of modern man being out on a limb.

Stanley Baker and Jeanne Moreau in Joseph Losey’s Eve

Buoyed by a building vogue for his work in France, Losey was able to break into the big leagues with Eve in 1962. Aptly described by Losey’s biographer, David Caute, as “visually…a ravishing tour de force“, Eve pits fraudulent “author” and male hysteric Stanley Baker against the cold, high-class courtesan title character portrayed by Jeanne Moreau. The two encounter each other plying their trades amongst the jet-set of Venice. Baker’s Tyvian is an undereducated Welshman who has made fistfuls of cash by publishing his deceased brother’s manuscript as his own novel, then selling the screen rights. Though presenting himself as a rough-hewn raconteur and cocksure cocksman, Tyvian is awash with anguish and insecurities, the perfect prey to the wiles of Eve. This self-assured and self-contained manipulator of rich men’s self-images (especially those based on the contents of their pockets, and other items in close proximity) encounters

Jeanne Moreau and Stanley Baker in Joseph Losey’s Eve

Tyvian on a dark and stormy night, when one of her patrons plans on consummating a long-desired conquest by barging into Tyvian’s seemingly-deserted rustic author’s hideaway. Ty takes it as his right to shoo away her suitor and take his place. Eve sizes Ty up, seizes him by the nose, and spends the remainder of the film’s two-hour running time leading him to his destruction. Dolce Vita-era Rome and Venice are exquisite stages for their theatrics and follies, and the many conflagrations sparked by this emotionally sadomasochistic retelling of Tristan and Isolde spill every which way, and onto all bystanders, including Ty’s sensitive and fantastically beautiful fiancée (Virna Lisi), who, to her regret, follows through on her very bad decision to become Ty’s wife. (more…)

Visitor Flickr Photo of the Week

absorbing in different ways. Photo by Chris de Rham

Did you know that SFMOMA produced one of the first-ever TV shows dedicated to art?  Chris de Rham a.k.a. ah zut caught visitors taking it in.  You can too in 75 Years of Looking Forward: The Anniversary Show, up now on the 2nd floor.

We choose the Flickr pictures of the week from anything tagged “SFMOMA”. You tag too!

Re: Mission Dialogue Continues

James Mitchell

Poet, activist, and publisher, James Mitchell has posted a smart and bracing response to my Mission School post of two weeks ago on his own blog, Plainfeather.  Mitchell has lived in San Francisco since the late 50s and has seen the edges of the Beat Movement, danced through the Summer of Love, and took to the streets during the gay lib movement.  Editor of the early gay literary magazine, Sebastian’s Quill, he later co-founded the preeminent Bay Area literary arts organization, Small Press Traffic, still going strong 36 years later.  Along with Francesca Rosa, he’s the publisher of avant-garde, yet populist, press Ithuriel’s Spear.  Check out his intriguing overview of the repeated rise and fall of various San Francisco political/arts movements, and the city’s rapidly changing demographics.

“The years of yuppification have all but put an end to low-rent neighborhoods and cheap places to eat, the essential requirement for artist scenes and popular culture movements in America since jazz music was born a century ago. As poets retreat from the streets to the’ impenetrable cleanliness’ of college classrooms, digitization fills local cafes with laptop zombies and young nerdlings chatting online to remote locations. People are now everywhere but here. Or as Gertrude Stein might put it, there’s no here here. It seems to have disappeared in a cloud of electrons. Certainly there’s hardly anyone left to chat with about obscure pieces of blues music over a cup of coffee or herbal tea.”

Facts, for a change

Okay I’ve been threatening to bring some numbers to bear on the perennial claims made by folks about artistic realities in the Bay Area without any research to back up their assertions. I’ve gotten a copy of “The Artists and the Economic Recession Survey: A Report Comparing Main Survey Artists [i.e., national] and Artists Who Live or Work in the Bay Area.” While not an exact match with what we’ve been discussing here, it does offer some interesting insights. The following research has been done by the Princeton Survey Research Associates International for Helicon Collaborative and Leveraging Investments in Creativity. The latter group seems to exist to help artists; their web site is here.

First, this survey is unusually inclusive. That is, 5,389 artists responded, all last summer. Another 1,583 were contacted through the end of November. So this data is very fresh. Particular attention was paid to keeping the sample balanced by age, race/ethnicity, education, discipline, percent of income made from art practice, and visual artists and performing artists. Surveys were available in Spanish. The only possible drawback is that all participants had to have access to e-mail.

Some of the first things covered are differences between the Bay Area art scene and the national art scene. Locally, 56% of artists are women, compared to 46% nationally. 9% of local artists are 65 or older, compared with 6% nationally. In the Bay Area, 71% of the artists have a BA degree or higher, as against 62% nationally. In the Bay Area, 69% of the artists are white, compared to 75% nationally. (Fewer are African American; six percent are Asian, 14% Latina/o, versus 2% and 5% outside the region). In the Bay Area 10 percent are foreign-born citizens, and 6% are non-citizens, versus 5% and 3% elsewhere. Of particular interest to me was that 56% of Bay Area artists have lived in the same county for ten or more years, and 67% of them went to art school in the same county in which they still reside (nationally: 49% and 58%). 70% of the Bay Area artists said they were either visual artists or media artists; 69% nationally (though different: we have fewer visual artists—46/50—and more media artists 24/19). (We also have way more dancers and choreographers and way fewer actors).

Okay. So. The numbers in this research say that Bay Area artists report the same total (art and other sources) income as artists nationally: 60% make under $40,000 a year (2008 tax year). 25% make between $40,000 and $80,000. 10% make over $80,000. What percentage of this income is from art making? The answer is polarized: basically very little of it or most of it. That is: 48% of Bay Area artists make less than 20% of their income from art (43% nationally). 29% of Bay Area artists make 61 to 100% of their income from art; nationally the number is 35%.

Seven in ten have another job besides being an artist nationally and locally; 40 percent have one job and 25 percent have two. Two-thirds of those jobs are in the arts; nationally the figure is lower, 59%. More than half of those jobs locally are in a non-profit, compared to 42% elsewhere. Half are in the academy and 40% in commercial art both locally and nationally. If artists work outside the arts, over 60% of their income comes from these non-arts jobs.

It seems like the situation is pretty much the same here as everywhere else. However, it’s possible that what we see is a homogenization. It would be nice to see New York separated out in the same way that the Bay Area has been separated out. It seems like artists do make slightly less from their art work here than elsewhere, but on the other hand almost a third of self-identifying artists make the majority of their income from their art. Also of note: most artists who subsidize their income with jobs either teach or work in commercial art jobs. There’s more data in the survey but mostly about the impact of the recession….