Ten Things to Love in What Is Now the Nation’s Largest Modern Art Museum

SFMOMA is finally open after three years of renovations, and it’s magnificent


Standing on the second floor of San Francisco’s newly opened Museum of Modern Art, admiring the bright red elevator doors, I was approached by a maintenance worker who asked me, “Do you like that color?”

“I do.”

“Then don’t miss the bathroom.” He pointed. “It’s right around the corner.”

Obediently, I circled past the coat check and into the men’s room. The sight astonished me; it was like walking into a tomato. Every surface and door, from floor to ceiling, was painted brilliant crimson.

The rest rooms on every floor, it turns out, are color-coded to the elevator doors. Who knew? The lesson demonstrated that much can be missed in the reinvigorated SFMOMA if you aren’t paying attention.

When it reopens to the public on May 14, after being closed for three years for renovations, the SFMOMA will be the largest modern art museum in the country, with just under four acres of exhibition space. The renovated museum was designed by the architecture firm Snøhetta, melding an undulating, egg-white 10-story expansion with the building’s original form. Additional entrances make the museum more accessible than ever. Better still, the ground-floor galleries are now free to all—and there’s no admission charge at all for visitors 18 and under.

“We are so excited to open the doors and welcome the public to the new SFMOMA,” said Neal Benezra, the Helen and Charles Schwab Director of the museum. “We have an incredible new building, an expanded collection with thousands of new works of the highest quality, and a staff that is proud to share what they’ve been working on for the past three years.”

The museum’s collection now includes more than 33,000 works of art, and features two remarkable assets. One of these is a 100-year partnership with the Fisher Collection, a treasure trove of Modern art assembled by the founders of the Gap clothing empire. With works ranging from playful Calder mobiles to brilliant canvases by German painter Gerhardt Richter, the Fisher Collection would fill a museum on its own. The other gem is the Pritzker Center for Photography—now the largest such exhibition space in any United States art museum.  Nearly everything about the museum has been transformed, expanded or modernized. Spread out over 19 exhibitions, some permanent and others temporary, it’s a mind-boggling experience, and well worth a trip to San Francisco—even if just to enjoy the classic Cezannes, Kahlos and Warhols that are already so familiar.

But if you’re like me, you might be equally drawn by the surprises that await—and the new SFMOMA is full of them. Here are 10 unusual things to notice during your first visit. It’ll take a bit of searching to find some of these, of course, but that’s a good thing—you’ll encounter plenty of fascinating diversions along the way.

Mobiles in Motion

Alexander Calder (1898-1976) taught art to dance – but many of his famous “mobiles” (a term coined in 1931 by Marcel Duchamp to describe his friend's work) hang statically in museums, far from any breath of wind. In the new SFMOMA’s Alexander Calder Motion Lab, doorways on either side of the gallery—opening to the outside world—allow fresh breezes to circulate through. The mobiles are hung so low, almost at eye-level, that even the motion of people walking by stirs them into action. The brightly painted shapes of metal move hesitantly, seeming to awaken from a long sleep.

Up Close and Personal

(Credit: SFMOMA)

In this age of one-click photo mosaic montages, most of us have already seen pixelated, spooky deconstructions of human faces. But Chuck Close has been doing this for years, playing (as did Impressionists like Seurat) with how our eyes and brains assemble pattern from seemingly abstract shapes. And when you get up close to a Chuck Close canvas, it really does make you question the sense of vision. For his portrait of minimalist painter Anges Martin, Close (b. 1940) took a Polaroid photograph of the subject and reconstructed it down into tiny painted cells of discrete colors, shades and shapes. Each of the more than 1,000 small squares that make up this large canvas is a tiny abstract painting in itself. Together they form an unexpectedly complex portrait.

Stairways to Heaven

It may sound strange, but one of the most wonderful features of the reimagined ten-story museum is its many maple-clad staircases, each of a different size, connecting every floor (and sometimes offering shortcuts into selected galleries). Illuminated by daylight, each is a unique experience—and a wonderful, and energy-efficient way to experience the new building. “They’re intimate, almost domestic in scale,” reflected Craig Dykers, founding partner of the architecture firm Snøhetta. “If you start your visit without taking the elevator, you’ll commit to the stairs!” It’s a worthwhile diversion, with visual rewards of its own. As visitors descend from the sixth to the fifth floor, for example, the facing stairway—seen through a pane of glass—appears to be a reflection, slightly out of synch with reality.

Rhapsody in Steel

Looking down upon Richard Serra’s Sequence from the maple steps on the museum’s free-to-the-public second floor, the installation appears almost fragile; like twists of caramel ribbon, or delicately bent strips of deeply burnished wood. But the fragile appearance of the work is deceptive. Serra (b.1938) works with ideas of mass and space, and there are few better examples than this magnificent work. The 14-foot high steel walls are a kind of iron-age nautilus, a labyrinthine passageway constructed of twelve sections and weighing in at half a million pounds. Sequence was the first artwork installed in the new SFMOMA; once it was in place, the walls of the gallery were raised around it.

A Giant Green Wall

Designed by Habitat Horticulture founder and “botan-artist” David Brenner, the Living Wall—nearly 30 feet tall and 150 feet wide—is a literally a mural composed of 19,442 live plants. Its nearly 4,400 square feet include 37 species—21 of them native to California and the San Francisco Bay Area. The baby tears, huckleberry, ferns and pink flowering currant literally provide a breath of fresh air on the SFMOMA’s third floor patio. And unlike the other artworks on view, this already fragrant masterpiece will evolve as time goes by. What does Brenner hope for the living Wall’s future? “We’re already seeing pollinators, like hummingbirds, butterflies and bees – which are rare these days – and I’m hoping they’ll continue to visit.”

Positive and Negative Space, I

(Credit: Jeff Greenwald)

Across the Oculus Bridge on the Museum’s fifth floor, Guglie, by Tony Cragg (b. 1949) is a clever and whimsical series of towers made from old machine parts—from tires to gear to flanges—which rise from the floor like a series of miniature Turkish minarets.

Positive and Negative Space, II

Across the gallery is its dark textural nemesis: Vortex by Anish Kapoor (b. 1954). Silky smooth and super high-tech, Vortex is a wall piece—but it’s impossible to tell how far into the wall it descends. Like Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park, Vortex is a highly sophisticated fun-house mirror—or a view into a black hole, playing havoc with notions of space and gravity.

An Artist for All Seasons

Seeing Gerhardt Richter’s work displayed through three galleries in the new SFMOMA, a viewer can be forgiven for thinking this is a group show featuring a dozen different artists, each at the top of their form. Because Richter (German, b. 1932) is one of those rare artists who is equally comfortable with minimalism, impressionism, abstraction and serene photorealism. From his recent works on glass (created with squeegees) to this elegiac painting of a twilight seascape, Richter is a master of color and emotion. Along with Seascape, his 1994 portrait of his pregnant wife reading—titled Lesende—is a masterpiece of realism, echoing Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Magnificent Desolation

The Great Depression was a time of dead-ends—but not the road west to California. Dorothea Lange (American, 1895-1965) took this photo in 1938, well before Sal Paradise crossed the U.S. in On the Road. Few images sum up the hopeful loneliness of the long-haul traveler more evocatively than this stretch of old U.S. 54 in southern New Mexico. It calls to mind astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s words as he stepped onto the lunar surface: “Magnificent desolation.” Lange’s searing portraits of bread lines and migratory farm workers, taken while she was a photographer with the Farm Security Administration, are as much a part of this country’s history as the snapshots from the moon.

Clouds of Wire

(Credit: Katherine Du Tiel, courtesy SFMOMA)

As ethereal and bubble-like as her wire sculptures seem, Ruth Asawa (American, 1926-2013) was a dynamo. After spending several years of her childhood in relocation centers for Japanese Americans, she left for North Carolina to study painting, music, design and dance with some of greatest names of last century—including Josef Albers, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller and Merce Cunningham—at the small Black Mountain College. But it was during a trip to Toluca, Mexico, in the 1950s that Asawa learned the techniques of traditional basket-weaving, which inspired her to begin making “three-dimensional line drawings” in wire. These seemingly lightweight sculptures, which could fill a gallery while seeming to take up no space at all, had a huge influence on contemporary art. Asawa later devoted her time to creating elaborately sculpted fountains—some of them projects that included participation by hundreds of schoolchildren. Not surprising, as the tireless Asawa herself was the mother of six.

The Magic of Kentridge

(Credit: SFMOMA)

It’s wonderful and inspiring, of course, to see familiar works by great masters. But one of the best things about visiting a museum is making discoveries. For me, learning about South African artist William Kentridge (b. 1955) was worth the trip alone. Both of Kentridges’s parents were attorneys, active in the anti-apartheid movement. Kentridge himself brings a wry social awareness to his work, which he creates in a wild variety of forms—from mammoth bronze sculpture to tapestry to animation. To see Preparing the Flute—based on Mozart’s classic work, The Magic Flute—viewers enter a darkened room, where Kentridge’s ingenious animation (accompanied by a gorgeous recording of the opera) is projected onto a tiny stage set. It’s pure magic.

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