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.

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.


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