David Claerbout, The American Room (still), 2009–10; single-channel video projection, dolby digital encoded surround 5.1 channels, 24:29 min.; courtesy the artist and galleries Yvon Lambert, Micheline Szwajcer, Hauser & Wirth; © 2011 David Claerbout Source: http://www.sfmoma.org/exhibitions/426#ixzz1Nydm1S3I San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Last week I was called in for jury duty. Like most everyone who was instructed to report to the Civic Center courthouse that morning, I hoped to be ignored, or to find a way out of it with strong opinions. Alas, I was the second person to be called into the jury box for interrogation as potential juror. While I was screened by the defense attorney, he referred to a questionnaire I’d filled out the day before, homing in on how I termed my occupation.

“It says here you are a writer and educator. What does that mean?” he queried.

I replied that I write about visual art for various publications and teach artists in grad programs. I didn’t name publications or schools, or elaborate further on what I teach (which varies from semester to semester).

“Visual art,” the attorney repeated, his eyes narrowing, “is that like plays?”

“No, things in galleries and museums, mostly static work,” I corrected, feeling self-conscious particularly using the word “work.” I considered to myself that performance could be included in the mix, but refrained from mentioning it.

“How is that different than theater,” the legal professional countered as though he’d read my mind. It wasn’t really a question — he quickly moved on to address the person next to me, a substance abuse counselor (who was soon dismissed, for whatever reason).

Apparently, visual art is a more rational field than I thought, as I am now officially on the jury. The judge repeatedly notes that the subject of the case is something I’m forbidden to discuss, particularly in a blog, or on Twitter. But it’s the culture clash that is more personally interesting. The encounter left me feeling a little rattled, misunderstood. It was one of those scenarios that I often counsel students about in a professional practices class — how do we talk about what we do in general contexts? (Think of a way to describe your work to your grandma, is my usual advice.) I presume that someone with a law degree has some smarts, some brush with culture, and yet “visual art” didn’t register here. How could he have so little inkling of my field?

He’s not the only one. The brief courtroom moment was just another reminder of the cultural bubble within which we art people operate. I’d argue that we like it that way, at least to a degree. Making a case for the use of writing about art seemed like an interesting challenge — and I have to admit there’s some appeal in being in an environment where the conversation will certainly never touch on the Venice Biennale.

Of course, I’m viewing the experience through an aesthetic lens: I’m already fascinated by the digital renderings and PowerPoint graphs that have been projected in the courtroom to diagram the facts of the case (one legal team does it better than the other). I am as guilty of knowing little about the justice system’s current state of the art, but I can definitely evaluate the effectiveness of the technology and design, and how little it may have to do with a core of meaning.

Moving the other direction, evaluating contemporary art by applying law, process, and even some empathy seems like a more complicated endeavor. Or is it? I presume that the defense attorney made his comment because he’s a theater buff, and the stage is something he understands. There is so much theater to his own profession — the scripts are tightly written and immediately received by an audience. But courtroom drama is perhaps something I can view as narrative-based conceptual art, a ritual that circles around truth and tries to seduce us into believing something.

Maybe our worlds have more in common than I thought.

5 Questions: Aimee Shapiro

[Five questions to SFMOMA artists, staff, or guests. Aimee Shapiro is currently the education associate for school and teacher programs, but she will be leaving soon — after five years at SFMOMA — to pursue her art practice. Among many other things, Aimee was responsible for the teen mural project in DeFremery Park a few years ago, which she documented here. All of us here in the Education Department are especially sad to see her go, but so happy to wish her well in her next endeavor.]

Aimee Shapiro in her office at SFMOMA

Do you collect anything?

I collect small toys, the kind that you would find in a gumball machine. I probably have several hundred around my house. I also collect dogs. Real dogs.

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 serve?

I would invite Philip Guston to dinner, to talk about the apocalypse, and I would serve wine and cigarettes. He’s so apocalyptic, yet it’s like apocalypse hand-in-hand with cartoonish illustrations. Lighthearted hell.

What do you listen to while you work?

I listen to the movies that play in the Koret Visitor Education Center over and over and over again.

What’s your favorite tool?

I have two favorite tools. One is a pencil, and not just to draw with. I like how it feels to write with a pencil as opposed to writing with a pen. And you can do almost anything with an electric drill; you can take over the world.

What should I ask you?

You should have asked me what I’m eating. The most delicious chicken udon soup.

Erin O’Toole: Photography and Change


The exhibition The More Things Change samples SFMOMA’s collection to present a range of works made since 2000, offering a selective survey of the art of the last 10 years and a thematic and psychological portrait of the decade. The exhibition is also an unusual collaboration among all five curatorial departments at the museum, and over the course of the year, Open Space will present texts from each of the 10 curators.


The desire to capture something in a photograph before it changes or disappears is as old as photography itself. Since the very origins of the medium, photographers have documented fleeting aspects of people, places, and things to preserve them for posterity. Many writers have attributed the prevalence of this memorializing urge to fears we all share: of change, loss, and ultimately, death. As photographs often outlive their subjects, they offer an uncanny sort of immortality to the people and things they depict, which is no doubt key to the medium’s perennial appeal.

Tacita Dean, _Beauty_, 2006

In recognition of the peculiar kind of afterlife that photographs provide, commercial portrait studios in the 19th century encouraged customers to “secure the shadow, ere the substance fade.” Although the practice and technology of photography has been transformed in many ways since those days, the desire to record and preserve transient things in pictures has not waned. If anything, it has proliferated, encouraged by the ease of storing digital files and sharing them on social media sites like Flickr and Facebook. As it was in the 19th century, photography remains deeply implicated in the production of personal and collective memory in the digital era.

Considering the centrality of photography to contemporary culture, it is not surprising that it continues to be a vital tool for artists. The photographs featured over the course of The More Things Change are just a sample of the stylistically and conceptually diverse work that has been produced with the medium since 2000. Some follow in a long documentary tradition, recording people, places, and cultural practices on the cusp of transformation or oblivion. Others evince a more conceptual bent, investigating the nature of photography itself.

When the other curators of this exhibition and I began to assess what the museum had acquired between 2000 and 2010, I was excited to discover that the painting and sculpture department had collected a number of works that either used or were informed by photography, and black-and-white photography at that. Not surprisingly, many deal in some way with the twinned themes of memory and history that photographs tend to elicit.

Left: Caspar David Friedrich, _Oak in the Snow_, 1825. Right: Eugène Atget, _Saules_, 1921.

Tacita Dean’s mournful Beauty, which is composed of three large-scale gelatin silver prints that have been partially masked off with white paint, is at once about the sublimity of nature and the nature of memory. By muting the tangle of brush that makes up the background, Dean creates the illusion that the central tree has emerged out of obscurity, like a memory surfacing from the cloudy recesses of the mind. The piece suggests that what we remember is generally not the entire picture, but an isolated fragment cut from the denser fabric of the past.

This dramatic piece reminds me of the photographs of bare, pruned trees made by Eugène Atget in his native Paris at the turn of the 20th century. It also evokes the heavily symbolic work of the German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, for whom gnarled and gestural trees served as memento mori, reminders of the cycle of life and death.

Left: Matt Saunders, Interview (Hertha Thiele 1975) #5, 2010. Right: Matt Saunders, Interview (Hertha Thiele 1975) #4, 2010.

Fascinated by the elusiveness and unreliability of memory, Matt Saunders creates layered and dreamlike compositions evoking the murkiness of the remembered past. To create this effect, Saunders uses cliché verre, a photographic process in which sketches made on glass, film, or other transparent substrates serve as negatives. A technique with a storied history extending back to the 19th century, cliché verre has been used by artists as diverse as Camille Corot, Man Ray, and Pablo Picasso. Saunders uses it to create a sense of depth and filmic movement, and to make his photographs look like stills taken from a heavily degraded old film.

Michael Light, Future Tract Homes Looking Southwest near Anthem, Arizona, 2007.

Just as these artists fruitfully incorporate photography into their mixed-media practices, many of the photographers whose work is included in the exhibition have found inspiration outside of their chosen medium. Such is the case with Michael Light, whose work is informed as much by the history of Western landscape photography as it is by Conceptualism and Minimalism. I see in his work echoes of Michael Heizer’s earthworks, as well as of Timothy O’Sullivan’s sere landscapes of the West. Like Dean and Saunders, Light is also concerned with memory and history — particularly with the erasure of both that is often the result of development.

Working across curatorial departments for this exhibition has allowed us to bring together diverse objects from across SFMOMA’s collection, revealing affinities that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. The relationship among the works that I’ve described here is only one example of the kind of unexpected and thought-provoking synergies The More Things Change has generated.

Erin O’Toole is assistant curator of photography at SFMOMA. The More Things Change is on view on through October 16, 2011. Excerpts from these statements by curators will appear in the galleries at various points during the exhibition.

Why We Should Read Bouvard and Pécuchet

Bouvard and Pécuchet, characters in Gustave Flaubert‘s last (and unfinished) novel, are two copy-clerks, men of a certain age who meet by chance on the hot summer streets of 1840s Paris. As they walk, live, and explore the world together, they discover an infinity of shared habits and interests: writing their surnames in their hats in case of loss, inspecting public works, and an eternal quest for knowledge.
In dozens, even hundreds, of discussions and arguments characterized by thesis, antithesis, and on occasion, synthesis, B and P skim over a dynamic world of discoveries and information, dipping into book after book as if floating through an old-fashioned library. Converting a surprise legacy from an estranged uncle into a country homestead, they take up agriculture, scientific experimentation, and an autodidactic confusion of theory and practice, hoping to live in a state of eternal emergence. Many of us might want to do the same today.
Their crops fail to grow, or combine into monstrous hybrids. Their anatomical studies are condemned by both the local country doctor and their parish priest, and culminate in an ill-conceived attempt to dissect the farm dog, ending only when their homegrown anesthesia fails to stupefy him and he runs from their homebrew operating table. Canned goods, preserved after consulting the leading scientific authorities, decay into disgusting messes. Their efforts at citizen science — paleontological studies — cause their arrest for digging in a militarily strategic coastal area. After their disappointment with the Revolution of 1848 leads to religious conversion, they fill their mansion with countless cheap religious trinkets, but find their faith doesn’t survive disappointingly banal discussions with their local clergy on evolution and the process of transubstantiation. Pécuchet’s virginal explorations into human sexuality result in a dose of venereal disease. They build a cabinet of curiosities, but the local connoisseurs are unimpressed by its flea-market-level objects. And so on. Flaubert, who in preparation is said to have read 1,500 books, takes them and us on a wacky tour of the ideas and dogmas of the time. Yet while the book functions as a critique of human credulity, blind acceptance of received ideas, and fuzzy thinking, it’s also a picaresque, funny story, and a chronicle of a particular flavor of love. I’ve long wanted to cast a couple of Bay Area cultural figures as B and P, but I won’t tell you who they are.
Why should we read Bouvard and Pécuchet? They are we, and we are they. Google could have been their favorite tool, and Twitter their narcotic obsession. Like so many of us in the present, information is candy to them, a bright, shiny pendant swinging in an hypnotic arc. They can’t resist new input, and throughout the entire story, they never develop means of distinguishing symbols from their referents, or information from knowledge. Their hungry and impressionable minds hear all voices with the same volume and acknowledge every authority as equally correct (or incorrect, depending on the moment). Their problems are ours. This is a highly predictive book. Or perhaps we simply grew to resemble it.
One older and one newer translation of Bouvard and Pécuchet, which was originally published a year after Flaubert’s death in 1881, are currently in print, and the French text is online, as well. Pay no attention to reviews that would steer current readers away — this is fiction that prefigures the dystopic dimension of our utopian present.

Visitor Flickr Pic

Photo: Laura Ramos

A group of California College of Arts MBA in Design Strategy students met at the museum for a social outing and activity. They were asked to take three pictures of things that moved them, and as you can see, some took that literally by reenacting Eadweard Muybridge‘s Jumping over boy’s back (leap frog) on the third-floor landing. A new spin on Jumping in Art Museums?

Thanks to Laura Ramos for snapping this great pic and to Jessica Watson for posting it on Flickr!

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

Sean Fletcher and Isabel Reichert: The Economic Realities of Being an Artist

As a postscript to the suite of Shop Talk conversations, I wanted to leave you with artist team Sean Fletcher and Isabel Reichert’s PowerPoint presentation from the closing evening of discussion. The question we focused on that night — and there were many other threads of direction we might have followed — was What are the economic realities for artists?

You can see all of the posts related to this discussion series here.

Sean Fletcher and Isabel Reichert have been collaborating since 1999 on conceptually based performance works, interventions, writings, installations, videos, photography, and prints. The artists use their personal arguments to investigate the dynamic interplay between power and vulnerability. Humorous, subtle, and always thought-provoking, Fletcher and Reichert use their art to press emotional buttons and broaden our understanding of the human condition. Visit their website.

The Steins Collect: Back to the Bay

The landmark exhibition The Steins Collect opened last Saturday. It is fantastic; do come see it. American expatriates in Paris when the 20th century was young, the Steins — writer Gertrude, her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael’s wife, Sarah — were responsible in many ways for the turn-of-the-century revolution in the visual arts. This video is the last in a suite of five produced by our interpretive media team. The others are here. Enjoy.]

Janet Bishop, SFMOMA curator and cocurator of The Steins Collect, tells the story of Sarah and Michael Stein’s return to the Bay Area and their collection’s impact on the then-fledgling San Francisco Museum of Art, now SFMOMA.

Preliminary Designs for the Expanded SFMOMA

Snøhetta! The press release is here. Pictures (click for larger view) are here:

Snøhetta, SFMOMA Expansion Aerial Northeast Façade; courtesy Snøhetta

Snøhetta, SFMOMA Expansion Howard Street View; courtesy Snøhetta

Snøhetta, SFMOMA Expansion Night Aerial; courtesy Snøhetta

Snøhetta, SFMOMA Expansion View from Yerba Buena; courtesy Snøhetta

Snøhetta, SFMOMA Expansion Sketch; courtesy Snøhetta

You can find out more, and follow details of SFMOMA’s expansion, here.

Positive Signs #23 & 24

Positive Signs is a weekly series of interpretive diagrams, quotes, and speculations on creativity, optimism*, and the lives of artists, published every Wednesday through June.

The human body, by his mere presence, imposes a schema on space. Human time is based in favor of the future.... Humantime, like the human body, is asymmetrical: one's back is to the past, one's face to the future. Living is a perpetual stepping forward into light and abandoning what is behind one's back. Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place, 1977. 35-36

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #23 (The Human Body), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm

Conscious/Unconsciou, health/life/illness/death, more/less, good/bad, happy/sad, virtue/depravity, rational/emotional. Most of our fundamental concepts are organized in terms of one or more spatial metaphors. We typically conceptualize the nonphysical in terms of the physical--that is, we conceptualize the less clearly delineated in terms of the more clearly delineated. Lakoff/Johnson, Metaphors we live by. 1980. 17, 59.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #24 (Conceptual Metaphors), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm

*Notwithstanding brief forays into the nature of space, stuff, experience, and cognition.

Next Wednesday: Positive Signs #25, 26, & 27 on experiential perspectives.
See all Positive Signs to date.

Shop Talk 3 Respondent: Helena Keeffe

[On Thursday, May 12, Open Space and Art Practical hosted the last of three conversations organized loosely around issues and themes raised by Stephanie Syjuco’s multiartist project Shadowshop, which closed May 1. We’ve been tracking the discussions in a number of posts here, and if you haven’t had a chance to look at some of that material, I invite you to do so here. Today, artist Helena Keeffe responds to the final conversation.]

Is “No” a NoNo?

What are the economic realities for artists? This was the central question framing the final Shop Talk discussion at SFMOMA on May 12th. It’s a complicated one. There are so many parallel realities and different kinds of artists. Cheryl Meeker, Lara Durback, and the collaborative team of Sean Fletcher and Isabel Reichert each presented their take.

Meeker’s practice is a permeable overlap of the worlds of art and activism. The work she engages in operates outside of the market-driven system and often directly questions and opposes it, such as in her collaborative work Capitalism Is Over! If You Want It.

Durback runs NoNo Press and is a writer and letterpress printer with an extreme commitment to using salvaged resources in her work and life. She talked about using only free and recycled material as a strategy for economic independence. She also touched on her involvement in a project which was eventually revealed to be the experimental marketing tool of a large corporation (causing her to leave the project due to mistrust of the true motives driving it).

Reichert and Fletcher delivered a PowerPoint presentation fit for a board meeting (think hard-hitting statistics accompanied by animated pie charts), but with a message intended to debunk myths surrounding the economic realities for artists. I could spend the rest of this post trying to summarize the information-packed presentation, but I am told they will be making it available here online so I hope readers will check it out when it comes available. What most stands out for me in retrospect is their assertion that artists should embrace the two-job lifestyle and that until we begin making art that has real value in the greater culture we will be unable to convince others that we should be compensated for our work.

Rather than simply recap the conversation that followed these presentations I would like to add to this sampling of survival strategies with one of my own. The email thread posted below is an exchange I had with a gallery. Although I have passed up opportunities like this before, this was the first time I decided to let them know why I was not applying. It’s not that I think they care whether I apply or not but rather a way of acting on my belief that it is absolutely essential that artists advocate for what they want rather than spending energy lamenting the way things are.

And of course I am not alone in my efforts to find ways to bring these issues to light. In her presentation Meeker mentioned Nato Thompson’s interview with W.A.G.E in the March 2011 issue of Artforum. W.A.G.E. has decided to take on a very specific cause in their activism — compensation from institutions for artists and cultural workers. They are attempting to increase transparency by surveying artists about their experiences exhibiting with institutions, as well as developing standards for a W.A.G.E. Certified Exhibition.