You know when young families begin with a tiny starter home, then move to a bigger place when the kids start to get older?
That’s the feeling I get wandering through the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Think of it this way: No more bunk beds. Chuck Close gets his own room.
So do Gerhard Richter, Anselm Keifer and Andy Warhol. Agnes Martin is treated to her own heptagon-shaped abode, with eight walls devoted to her minimalist paintings. Ellsworth Kelly gets four galleries, practically his own suite. In this new house, he doesn’t even have to bump into Mom and Dad.
The list goes on. Alexander Calder, Richard Serra, Diane Arbus, Sol DeWitt: each is offered not just a moment but an immersive experience. The new museum is a deep-pockets occasion, a collection so comprehensive – especially in such areas as Minimalism and German Neo-Expressionism – that it can feel encyclopedic.
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The massive $305 million expansion, which opened to the public May 14, is more than a simple remodel. In one swoop, the museum is now bigger in terms of exhibition space than the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The exterior? Not as awe-inspiring. In fact, it’s hard to get a take on the building as a whole because of the way it’s situated. (Perhaps the best view is to head toward the Metreon and get a glimpse from there.) The new 10-story building designed by the Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta, led by Craig Dykers, with a skin of off-white panels of fiberglass-reinforced polymer, parks itself as unobtrusively on the skyline as possible, its rippling ridges and pronounced fifth-floor bulge suggesting a middle-aged paunch.
The addition has been has been tacked onto the existing iconic five-story brick-wrapped building with distinctive ocular skylight designed by Mario Botta. Just to remind you of how quickly things can change in a city filled to the gills with technological dollars: The Botta building opened in 1995.
The biggest change you’ll notice: The main entrance to the building, through the Botta doors, opens into an expanded lobby. Gone are the rigid staircases leading up to the galleries. Instead, a sweeping staircase in maple leads you up into an expanded lobby area with terrazzo floors, one of several “free areas” – including a gallery for Serra’s massive spiral sculpture “Sequence” – that you can check out without paying the $25 admission fee. (Those 18 and under get in for free.)
Once inside, the expansion reveals its real gifts: triple the gallery space. The expansion includes 170,000 square feet of new and renovated indoor and outdoor galleries tailored to the collection.
It’s oodles of space, a luxurious amount. The galleries are clean, bright, unobtrusive, beautifully finished. The interior architectural details are subtle – except for wildly colored restroom walls – and make an effort not to call attention to themselves. The art is king.
Instead of opting to reopen with a huge special exhibition, the museum offers no fewer than 19 special exhibitions composed of 1,900 works. Five of those shows are devoted to postwar and contemporary works promised by Doris and Donald Fisher, founders of the Gap. Other exhibitions showcase a bevy of additional promised works to the museum.
There’s no blockbuster show, then, to crowd and boast over. The overall project takes precedence.
My advice: Wander. The place is so big it would take you hours to linger over each work. Discover what intrigues you and immerse yourself. Be sure to allot enough time to take a break in the outdoor sculpture garden – from which you can look upward for the best view of the new building – and spend some time on the upper-floor outdoor terrace looking down at the garden and skyline.
Architecture and art critics have weighed in since the museum’s reopening, and while many have gushed, there has been some dissent as well. The Guardian newspaper called it a “gigantic meringue with a hint of Ikea.” Among the viewpoints: The museum remains a tribute to a New York-centric art world while neglecting the West Coast contributions to modern art. The collection needs to be broadened. In terms of the expansion itself, the Botta building should simply have been torn down and a new museum built from scratch.
“SFMOMA has killed its 1995 building to save it, or saved it to kill it,” the Los Angeles Times opined. “Take your pick.”
My perspective: I sympathize with the tear-down camp. But it wouldn’t have been realistic.
Still, if you’ve been a faithful SFMOMA visitor over the years, prepare for an outing that isn’t so much about exhilaration as transformation. I lived in New York when the Museum of Modern Art constructed its new building, and I remember the excitement of returning to a completely new experience, almost giddy as I zipped from floor to floor.
This expansion, on the other hand, is a sometimes awkward joining of the “old” (if you can really call a 20-year-old building old) and the new. It is a compromise, sometimes unwieldy but ultimately dazzling in terms of sheer ambition.
Near the end of my visit, I am mesmerized as I park myself first in the Close room, then others, feeling enveloped in the art. It feels luxurious, unhurried, compelling. With this expansion, San Francisco adds to its world-class cultural status. The best part: that I’ll be able to return again and again to explore its wonders.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
- 151 Third St., San Francisco
- 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through Labor Day
- Extended hours until 9 p.m. Thursdays
- $25, $22 seniors, $19 ages 19-24, free for 18 and under
- www.sfmoma.org, 415-357-4000