SFMOMA Showcases Gap Founders' Aesthetics

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Correction Appended

As I wandered around the new SFMOMA exhibit - culled from the private collection of Gap founders Don and Doris Fisher - I found myself seized by a burgeoning curiosity about the two people whose favorite art I was looking at. Something I think would benefit the showcase, entitled "From Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection," is a more concerted effort to incorporate the story of the Fishers themselves.

After all, you're looking at the art collection of people for whom virtually no painting or sculpture was unattainable - their only limitation was personal preference, giving the gallery an intimate feel. The art in the Fisher Collection is not a sampling of the biggest names in art - there are no Picassos, no Monets, no Klimts. What you will see is a series of works that share an aesthetic simplicity and a profound visceral strength.

Nevertheless, I find it funny to note the undeniable similarities between the unadorned, plain-colored clothing that's been Gap's trademark since the 1970's, and the simplicity of the art - for example, the monochrome geometry of Ellsworth Kelly - so beloved by the company's founders.

The works in their possession - especially those of Richard Serra and Anselm Kiefer - are proof that aesthetic strength can be rooted in the physical strength of the medium, which in the cases of Serra and Kiefer are often huge slabs of sheet metal.

Forget about art being effete or sissy - these paintings and sculptures are as forceful in their construction as their effect. It must've taken a dozen weightlifters - or more likely, a very powerful piece of machinery - to raise some of the works to the MOMA's upper floors.

But while there is a significant power in the straight lines, simple geometric shapes, bold colors and sheer mass of the pieces in the Fisher gallery, their general lack of subtlety and emotion can leave you cold. Many of the works seem like the kind of thing with which you might decorate the interior of a billionaire's cavernous house - large and eye-catching, but not likely to inspire the kind of enveloping stares evoked by busier, more nuanced paintings.

Observing the implication of purpose is as necessary to seeing a gallery as a work of art in itself as it is to appreciating the art of someone like Ellsworth Kelly. To admire Kelly, you must assume that, while he usually chose to paint his large canvases a single shade of color, he was capable of creating provocative portraits or exalted landscapes, right? Is extreme specificity - like that found in the works of Kelly or minimalist painter Agnes Martin-an indication of narrow-mindedness or just restraint?

The set of Agnes Martin pieces found in the Fisher Collection - a series of large square canvases painted sparingly with stripes and grids of muted color - gives no indication as to whether she was capable of painting in any other style. Was she a multi-talented artist with a singular vision, or just a crazy lady gripped by an obsession with pastel-colored grids?

See, I can ask these questions because I profess to know nothing about art, and because the label "philistine" doesn't scare me.

I have since found myself seeing the resemblance in color and form between Martin's grids and the blue-gray tile on the walls in my shower. Art or not, the question remains, what is the effect? Martin's perpendicular and parallel patterns soothe me like a warm shower, but something so easily ignored doesn't strike me as worthy of too much attention. But Don Fisher? He might've stared for hours.

That's the real beauty of displaying a private collection. While it's not as though most people hesitate to form strong opinions on visual art - which we often find cause to embrace or dismiss in an instant - there remains something emboldening for the viewer about evaluating the collection of two people who, while obviously art-inclined, sold cargo shorts for a living.

But of course, the Fisher Collection's inclusion at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gives some indication as to how the art elite views these pieces - and, make of it what you will, that is highly.

Tags: SFMOMA, CALDER TO WARHOL

Correction: Sunday, July 4, 2010
In the original version of this article, Nick Moore was listed as a contributing writer. In fact, he is a Daily Cal staff writer. Additionally, Nick referred to the monochrome geometry of the artist, Wentworth Kelly. In fact, the artist's name is Ellsworth Kelly.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Stare at the artful tiles in your shower with Nick at [email protected]



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