A Visit to SF MOMA

By , May 21, 2010

Yesterday, I took myself on an “artist date” to visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA).

What I noticed most, during my visit, was how different pieces of art captured my attention, and then how my mind struggled to figure out why.

(I’ve been reading a book, The Artist’s Way, which recommends a regular “artist date,” an excursion with one’s self, as one of several strategies for “filling the well” of inspiration and creativity.)

I’ve visited SF MOMA once before, in 2001.  Yesterday, I experienced many flashes of memory, recognizing pieces of art which had grabbed my attention and fascinated me on an earlier visit.  One of the first and most obvious was the famous Henri Matisse painting, “Woman with a Hat.”

I recalled being quite inspired and impressed in 2001 by this original painting, even though I’d seen the image before in books.  I recall noticing the texture and the fine detail; I’d felt as if I was just then “getting it,” perceiving the real beauty of the work.

But yesterday, I was surprised at how different it felt when the same original painting failed to inspire or fascinate me.  And I noticed how my mind immediately struggled to figure out why. Was it the lack of novelty, since I’d seen it before? Or was it some other difference or change? (I believe that during my earlier visit, it was displayed more prominently and separate from other works.)  Eventually, I concluded that the change was in my own mind, my own experience and perception, that led me to be so much less engaged by this work.

A short while later, I noticed that my attention had been captured by a Max Ernst painting, “The Numerous Family.”  I noticed how my eyes remained glued to the painting, captivated first by the work itself, and then after reading the card identifying the title and artist, I noticed how my perception of the work seemed to change.  It seemed to make more sense, and my respect and admiration for the painting grew.

But them my perception changed again. Perhaps it was because I considered whether I’d ever consider hanging a reproduction of this painting in my home or office, and quickly rejected the idea.  Perhaps it was some discomfort that the image generated.

Paul Klee. The Approximate Man (L'Homme approximatif) from the deluxe edition of the book L'Homme approximatif by Tristan Tzara. 1931

L’Homme approximatif (The Approximate Man), by Paul Klee

The next painting to capture my attention was “The Approximate Man” by Paul Klee. What surprised me was how this image somehow “jumped out,” to me, from among the many other Klee paintings and sketches in the same room.  And once again, I was also surprised at how my perception of the image changed after I read the title.  (I don’t recall thinking then about whether I’d hang a reproduction of this in my home or office, but now that it occurs to me, I think I’d definitely consider it.)

Paintings by Young Africans of South Rhodesia, 1957 (SF MOMA)

Paintings by Young Africans of South Rhodesia, 1957 (SF MOMA)

A short while later, I gazed at two walls filled with African children’s drawings (drawings like these were sold by the museum a half-century ago as a fund-raiser for an African school). This time, my eyes were drawn back, again and again, to a single painting (displayed as the ‘first’ or top-left image on the larger wall).

Something about this image snagged my perception, and immediately I noticed my mind working to understand why.  I pushed my attention to some of the other children’s paintings, but my eyes snapped back to this image, more than once.  I’m still not sure why, but I gradually perceived a change in mood when I looked at the trees in the image. They seemed to be pulling downward, as if gravity were uneven throughout the painting; I considered whether there was a surrealist element in the pictures, intended or not.  I considered whether I attached some meaning to the fact that the homes were in the background, or to the apparent three-way fork in the road.  Eventually, as usual, I couldn’t find any specific reason why the painting was so fascinating.

The next painting to capture my attention was David Park’s “The Bathers.”  I suppose it was the perception of nudity that first caught my eye, but then when I looked more closely, the detail seemed both crude and inconsistent.  I felt challenged by the simultaneous perception that the painting was realistic and yet somehow abstract, impressionistic but not. Even the figures seemed beautiful and ugly, elegant and awkward, at the same time.  When I read the artist’s name on the card, I remembered seeing it a few minutes earlier, and I walked over to see another (earlier) work, very abstract, by the same artist.

It was about this time that I realized how engaging I found this experience — the process of not just observing and reacting to art, but also the process of trying to figure out why I was reacting to specific works.

Later, I noticed similar fascination with another work which also challenged my ability to understand why the work intrigued me at all (and which might also have first captured my attention with an “impression of nudity”).  This was an untitled collage by Martin Kippenberger.  The harsh contrast of the elements in the image, and the incompleteness and partial obscuring of some elements, somehow compelled me to turn back several times to try to “understand” it.

I began to notice how differently I was reacting to “multi-media” works at the museum, compared to my earlier visit.  I found the contrast of different materials and styles quite fascinating; I think I enjoyed these works much more, yesterday, than during the earlier visit.

I found myself pausing at, and then re-visiting, some of the more complex works.  One example was “Two Ways to Organize,” a huge painting by Leslie Shows.  At first, I was inspired by the seemingly explosive imagery, but after reading the title, I found myself re-interpreting the image, then exploring the detail, and then noticing the non-paint materials embedded in the work. (Looking at the tiny image at the right, and even at the larger image at the SF MOMA web site, I am profoundly aware of how different my experience was in viewing the original work; this is one of several large works that truly cannot be appreciated through a photograph.)

After visiting just one floor of the museum, I decided to pause, taking lunch in the museum cafe and journaling about my experience, before resuming my tour of the museum.  In the past year, I’ve rarely felt so inspired and self-aware, and I found it incredibly easy to write, even among the distractions of the crowded cafe.

I could share much more about the day’s experience in the museum, but instead I’ll just identify one more work that fascinated me.

This was an oil painting by Clyfford Still.  Among many other abstract works on the fourth floor, it somehow gripped my attention and wouldn’t let go.  I paused for a while, then walked to the next room, and then returned. After I moved on again, exploring the rest of the fourth floor of the museum, I felt compelled to return to look at this image again.

I soon began thinking of this painting as a “Rorschach Test.” Each time I viewed it, my reaction was different. I found my mind struggling to find “the right perspective,” the right focal point, the right “impression.”  I changed my position (distance, viewing angle).  I tried focusing on the colors, then on the black, then on the shapes (first the impression of shapes, then the specific patterns and lines), and even tried removing my glasses.

Thinking back, and looking at the smaller images at right and on the SF MOMA web site, I’m now considering for the first time whether I’d seriously consider hanging a reproduction of this painting in my home or office. I’m fascinated by my mind’s incoherent reaction to that question; the answer is simultaneously an emphatic, “No! Never!” and kindly “maybe” and an intrigued “Yes! Absolutely!”

This is why I visit art museums. This is why I hike trails. This is why I walk city streets. This is why I visit shopping malls. This is why I seek out a deserted beach. My mind is engaged. I’m learning about myself. I’m discovering new things. I’m uncovering ancient memories. I am inspired.

One Response to “A Visit to SF MOMA”

  1. Mark Welch says:

    Another visit to SFMOMA yesterday (September 19, 2016). Here’s what I noticed (in chronological order during my visit):

    Aaron Siskind - Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation
    Aaron Siskind – Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation >>
    (series of photographs)

    Donald Judd, Untitled, 1988 (sculpture)

    Frank Stella - The Chase, Third Day

    <<Frank Stella – The Chase, Third Day (sculpture)

    frank stella steller’s albatross 5x (sculpture)

    Oldenburg – Inverted Collar and Tie, Third (sculpture)

    Charles and Ray Eames, Computer House of Cards (sculpture)

    Gerhard Richter, “Janus”, 1983
    No image found

    Gerhard Richter, Stadtbild Madrid (Cityscape Madrid), 1968

    Gerhard Richter, Familie Ruhnau (The Ruhnau Family), 1969

    Gerhard Richter, Wald (4) (Forest [4]), 1990

    Sigmar Polke, The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible I (Tellurium Terrestrial Material), 1988

    Brad Kahlhamer, Super Catcher (sculpture)

    Dana Schutz, Ear on Fire

    Takeshi Murata, Melter 3D (sculpture)

    Lesley Vance, “Untitled” (2013), oil on linen, 24 x 17 inches

    Frank Stella, Sinjerli Variations

    Martin Puryear, Malediction, 2006-2007 (sculpture)

    Jay DeFeo, The Verónica, 1957

    Clyfford Still, PH-446 (1947-H-No. 3), 1947
    YES, this is the same image that provoked me in 2010 (above).

    Claes Oldenburg, Funeral Heart, 1961 (sculpture)

    Lynda Benglis, Lambda, 1972/1973

    Daisy Youngblood, Anubis and the First Chakra, 2012 (sculpture)

    William T. Wiley, All That Grass, 1966 [Slant Step]

    “Don’t be afraid of being right or wrong about art. … Be afraid of not feeling very much.” — William T. Wiley

    In the sfmoma gift shop:

    The Mindfulness Coloring Engagement Calendar 2017: Color Your Way to Calm Week by Week, by Emma Farrarons

    Bossanova Page Flags

    Grids and Guides: A Notebook for Visual Thinkers

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