Diego in San Francisco

Installation of Pan American Unity at SFMOMA

I’ve only been to San Francisco…3 times, not counting layovers in the airport. You can tell I’m an east-coaster. I’ve been to New York many more times, know my way around, and even have a preferred subway line (Green, 4,5, and 6) but the geography of San Francisco is a mystery to me. I have to trust my friends and taxi drivers.

We stayed near this donut shop in what I think is the Richmond neighborhood but I’m not totally sure and I couldn’t find again without help from my hand computer.

The donuts were sublime and the coffee was burnt as things should be in a donut shop. They had 4 or 5 self-serve carafes of coffee, labeled things like “French Roast” and “Hazelnut” and “Ethiopian”. They were all the same coffee.

Fueled by coffee and donuts, the friend we were visiting collected us on a pre-determined street corner and whisked us off to a proper breakfast. Then we hopped a bus to downtown.

If you have the latest iOS update on your Apple Computer Pocket Slab you will get an update when you arrive in San Francisco telling you to add a virtual Clipper card to your virtual wallet so you can ride real buses for real money. I do what I’m told so I was able to wave my phone at a robot on a stick as I entered the bus, receiving a satisfied “bloop” sound as a thank you.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is bigger than you think. From the street it’s hard to see how cavernous it is from the outside. It is surrounded by bigger buildings, making it seem small in comparison. It’s bigger on the inside.

The show, Diego Rivera’s America, takes up most of the 4th floor of the museum. The show mixes easel paintings, sketches, and preparatory materials for his murals.

My favorite are the sketches. I love to see the bones underneath a work of art. Sketches and plans reveal an artist’s thinking and show you more about how they see things.

This drawing is a full-size preparatory study for a mural. It’s enormous. You can see little me, reflected in the glass, trying to capture the full image on my phone. I love the detail and subtlety around the nose and mouth, those subtle turns of of form. You can see where the laugh lines will be in the future, but not in the eternal today of this drawing. But the neck? Who cares. It’s a tree stump for holding up the head.

Rivera’s studies demonstrate his mastery of color. These are rendered in pastels and charcoal - which I’d bet is similar enough to fresco painting to be good practice.

When you look close at his pastels you first see the brown skin, but look closer and you see blues, greys, and greens subtly creating shadow and reflected light.

Preparatory drawings, like these, have a hard, bold outline. He’s breaking the image into two-dimensional sections which can be enlarged and transferred to a matching patch of fresh plaster, and painted water-borne pigments.

Fresco paintings require careful planning and execution. If you make an error or if the plaster dries out before you complete a section, you must remove the surface of the wall and start over.

This is part of what is so captivating about Diego Rivera’s murals. They are monumental, and carefully executed. When I look at on of these works, I know intellectually, that it is the result of systematic, disciplined work. But somehow the life isn’t wrung out of the painting by all of this process. It’s visually compelling, but still emotionally powerful.

Hi Frida

While I was at the museum, I dropped by to see some old friends. There is a roomful of Gerhard Richter paintings as the SFMOMA. Richter has always been an inspiration to me because of the diversity and variety in art making.

Most established artists settle into a sort of branded style. Think of Lichtensteins ben day dots or Jasper Johns flags. Things that let you identify an artist from across a room.

Richter can render the ocean at an appropriately epic scale:

He also can play with conceptual abstraction:

He is also known for making absolutely lavish and huge abstract paintings. For him it’s all part of picture-making which doesn’t have to be one thing.

There is also a room full of work by Ellsworth Kelly - his enormous shaped canvases.

I find these rooms to be both calming and vertigo-inducing. Several of these big shapes appear to be a hole cut through the universe, which you could fall through, land in the past, and become your own grandfather.

And, of course, the collection of Alexander Calder sculptures beginning inside their own gallery and spilling out onto the secluded sculpture garden.

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