San Francisco Museums

Alluring Autumn Art Exhibitions at 3 San Francisco Museums

By Carol Canter.

Three of the top San Francisco autumn art exhibitions feature artists as diverse as Bruce Conner, “realist, surrealist, hippie, punk;” The Brothers Le Nain, whose 17th century paintings are among the finest of France’s Golden Age; and Frank Stella, one of the most important and influential figures in the evolution of modern art.

Bruce Conner: It’s All True at SFMOMA

When a savvy East Coast artist friend told me she was unfamiliar with the work of Bruce Conner, the pivotal Bay Area artist who challenged the limitations of medium, genre, and style, it underscored a comment made by Director Neil Benezra of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

San Francisco, Autumn Art Exhibitions, SFMOMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Footage from Bruce Conner film, "CROSSROADS"
Footage from Bruce Conner film, “CROSSROADS” at SFMOMA

Benezra told Bay Area journalists that the strong reception of “Bruce Conner: It’s All True” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was noteworthy, since the artist is so much better known here in California.

Many of the themes of Conner’s work, produced between 1958 and 2008, link to and parallel “Left Coast” movements and consciousness of the times, from spirituality to a biting critique of American consumer society and its inherent violence. In fact, one of the SFMOMA tag lines is “Realist. Surrealist. Hippie. Punk. Bruce Conner was all of these and more.”

Conner was also a prankster who defied boundaries and shattered perceptions, ran for San Francisco Supervisor, and even once declared himself dead. In 1959 he made a painting for his close friend San Francisco poet Michael McClure, who then sold it to SFMOMA. The museum’s “Do Not Touch” sign infuriated Conner. In the 60s he was doing Light Shows, but unfortunately these are forever lost.

“Bruce Conner: It’s All True,” an apt name for an artist whose work defies all “isms,” is the first comprehensive retrospective of the work of this seminal American artist. Organized by SFMOMA, the exhibition brings together more than 300 objects in mediums including film and video, painting, assemblage, drawing, prints, photography, photograms and performance.

Allow enough time to view Conner’s extraordinary filmworks, in addition to his assemblages, paintings and prints. REPORT, based on footage from recorded live broadcasts and the famous Zapruder film of the JFK assassination, offers a scathing critique of consumerist spectacles. CROSSROADS uses footage from the nuclear bomb tests the U.S. government carried out in 1946 at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. The chilling impact of this catastrophic, if visually “beautiful”, event, is deepened by the soundtrack commissioned by Conner: Patrick Gleeson’s electronic score and Terry Riley’s meditative composition for organ. The 37- minute experience is sublime, provocative, shocking and deeply disturbing.

The show was first presented at The Museum of Modern Art in New York through October 2, 2016. After closing at SFMOMA on January 22, 2017, the exhibition will travel to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, February 21-May 22, 2017. The comprehensive full-color exhibition catalogue, published by SFMOMA in association with University of California Press, is predicted to become a collectors’ item with contributions from noted artists and scholars.

Make time to view the important work of another California artist at SFMOMA. “Anthony Hernandez” is the first retrospective to honor the more than 45-year career of this major American photographer with some 160 photographs, many of which have never before been seen or published. The show, which runs through January 1, 2017, is the inaugural special exhibition in the museum’s Pritzker Center for Photography.

The Brothers Le Nain: Painters of 17th Century France, at Legion of Honor

When “Peasants before a House,” painted in 1640, was acquired three centuries later by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) it was viewed by the art world here as a great coup … especially after one noted French critic commented that the painting had been “exiled to California!” It’s no wonder, as the three brothers were considered, alongside Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin, and Georges de La Tour, some of the finest artists of their era. Painters of altarpieces, portraits, and allegories, they are most renowned for their poignant scenes of peasants.

“Peasants before a House,” by The Brothers Le Nain, Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco
“Peasants before a House,” at The Legion of Honor

The Brothers Le Nain were “rediscovered” in the 19th century by critics, including Champfleury, who championed them as “painters of reality.” They influenced many artists including Paul Cézanne, Gustave Courbet and Pablo Picasso. The Le Nains were admired for their sympathetic and affecting portrayals of hard-working laborers in the fields or in the city, and “Peasants before a House” is one of the finest examples of their treatment of these subjects.

Despite their immense talents and extraordinary imaginations, the brothers remain largely unknown to American audiences today. In their day, the brothers were celebrated not only as genre painters, but also as portraitists and painters of religious subjects. One of their most important devotional works, Nativity of the Virgin, an altarpiece from Notre-Dame Cathedral, is on display for the first time in the United States. “Although Antoine, Louis and Mathieu Le Nain are better known to the European public, this long-overdue presentation will reveal the power and mystery of their paintings, which are among the finest of France’s Golden Age,” says Esther Bell, Curator in Charge of European Paintings for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Of the 60-70 existing paintings by the brothers, over 40 are now on view at the Legion of Honor, so this is a once in a generation opportunity to enjoy them. Bell advises visitors to come and enjoy the beauty of the works, and not be intimidated by knowing little or nothing about the artists. The three brothers, unmarried and childless, lived and worked together to produce “some of the most enigmatic and arresting paintings of their time.” They did not individually sign their work, so research continues to solve various mysteries, including individual authorship.

The exhibition catalogue, featuring more than sixty paintings, presents groundbreaking scholarship. The exhibition, organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Kimbell Art Museum, and Musée du Louvre-Lens, runs through January 29, 2017.


Legion of Honor, Art Museum, San Francisco, CA
Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA, (Photo: Lee Daley)

Frank Stella: A Retrospective at de Young

Fifty works, including paintings, reliefs, sculptures and maquettes representing Stella’s prolific output from the late 1950s to the present day make up the first comprehensive U.S. presentation devoted to the artist since 1970. “Frank Stella’s impact on abstract art is unmatched,” says Max Hollein, Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “This retrospective is timely and important for San Francisco audiences. To see the development of an artist who created ‘masterpieces’ just one year out of college, who is still working as a major force today—it is impressive to see an extraordinary body of work that spans six decades.”

Frank Stella, de Young Museum, San Francisco
Frank Stella: A retrospective at the de Young Museum

Timothy Anglin Burgard, Curator-in-Charge of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco notes “Frank Stella’s works span the spectrum of art from Minimalist to Maximalist. In both ambition and achievement, his work appears to be the output of a dozen different artists. By combining intellectual rigor with aesthetic audacity these works have transformed the history of art.”

As part of the exhibition, “Das Erdbeben in Chili [N#3]” (The Earthquake in Chili) (1999) – one of Stella’s largest works, measuring 12 x 40.5 ft. – has been installed in Wilsey Court since October 24. With its exploding energy and density of imagery, the work has completely transformed the space, adding new life and color to the courtyard. The work is a fitting introduction to the breathtaking retrospective of a giant of 20th and 21st century abstraction.

In conjunction with “Frank Stella: A Retrospective,” the de Young is also presenting “Frank Stella’s Prints,” a focused exhibition highlighting the artist’s experimental printmaking over 25 years. 40 examples drawn from the Museum’s Anderson Collection of Graphic Arts show Stella’s dexterity with the medium, beginning with lithography, moving to screen printing, and eventually combining multiple printmaking processes. Many pieces in the exhibition mirror those paintings in the retrospective including Jill (1967) from the Black Series II, Squid (1989) from The Waves series and The Cabin. Ahab and Starbuck (Dome) (1992) from the series, Moby Dick Domes.

A landmark catalogue surveys the full sweep of Stella’s career, showcasing works from all of his major series. This exhibition, organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, runs through February 26, 2017.

Save time at the de Young to view the powerful black and white photography of Danny Lyon, who has documented individuals considered to be on the margins of society over the last five decades.  The exhibition, which enjoyed a critically acclaimed debut at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, was conceived and organized by Julian Cox, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s chief curator and founding curator of photography. The west coast premiere of “Danny Lyon: Message to the Future” runs through April 30, 2017.


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