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by Walter Robinson
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From the street, Mario Botta’s 15-year-old San Francisco Museum of Modern Art looks like a string of shops: a capacious gift store, filled with trinkets, next to a movie theater, with a stripey stone façade and the ticket window right there on the sidewalk, next to a commodious café, complete with both indoor and outdoor seating. It’s perfect for the city, which is full of souvenir shops and coffee joints anyway. Did any other museum manage to be so emblematically postmodern?

Inside, up on the second floor, is a wall of pictures of all sorts portraying the city, hung salon-style and celebrating the museum’s 75th birthday. It would be prosaic if it weren’t for the Wayne Thiebaud streetscape, whose deliriously vertiginous extremities turn out to be more plausible than fantastic in this astonishingly hilly city.

The museum has two exhibitions that complement each other nicely, in the sense that neither is about art, but rather look at the way that our culture has become estheticized, whether it’s design or photojournalism. "How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine, 1976 to Now" does include a few artworks, rather incidental ones, by Diller + Scofidio, who offer a Last Supper-pastiche photomural of a wine fest, and Dennis Adams, who provides a bizarre video of a white-suited man walking in a daze through an estate, spilling wine on himself from the overfilled glass that he carries.

The show’s real attractions are the galleries devoted to "design and wine": photos, maps and models of fantastic winery architecture; a station where visitors can sample various wine scents ("noble," "petrol," "hamster cages"); and a long wall of wine bottles, categorized by their unusual names.

The show makes perfect sense: the San Francisco area is all about wine -- if you don’t drink, locals might well wonder just what you expect to do while you visit.

Also on view at SFMOMA is "Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera since 1870," a traveling photo survey in the middle of its three-museum tour. I don’t quite get the curatorial conceit: all photography involves looking, so what’s the idea? But never mind, what the show does have is a wealth of suppressed imagery: pictures of assassinations, murders, genocide, lynchings, this material inexplicably mixed with paparazzi and peep-show shots.

"Exposed" makes you realize the extremely limited role that real photojournalism plays, or does not play, in political affairs today. We have a propaganda of omission, with caustic imagery specifically hidden from public view, suppressed by corporate policy and public taste both. In an era of looking, we look away.

*     *     *
My last trip to the city was marked by a flurry of art activity. This time around I was determined to focus on the two global players whom I had missed before, galleries whose proprietors can regularly be seen bidding at the bi-annual art auctions in New York City. As one might expect, neither man was on his premises when I dropped by.

Anthony Meier Fine Arts occupies a lovely limestone gothic townhouse that looks like a private residence, with no sign whatsoever. A ring on the bell results in easy entry, and my visit coincidentally coincided with one by the art historian and writer Gwen Allen, who had interviewed me back in New York for Artists Magazines, her new book forthcoming from MIT Press.   

Inside the gallery was an installation by Gary Simmons featuring the titles of blaxploitation movies painted in white block letters on brown-painted walls, then given the artist’s signature smudge. Black Caesar, reads one title. Superfly, The Soul of Nigger Charley, Cleopatra Jones. What qualities adhere to such a thing? The nostalgic appeal of Curtis Mayfield and a youthful Pam Greer is there, somewhere, subsumed within a lyrical, even expressionistic kind of postmodernist conceptualism, in which the text is literally called into question.  

In any case, the installation (which starts at about $125,000) is especially effective in the stately front room and hall of the townhouse. Meier himself was in Salt Lake City for a Yayoi Kusama show, of all things.

Not far away is John Berggruen Gallery, which occupies two floors in one of the downtown gallery buildings, and which is currently housing a dual show of watercolors and sculpture by William T. Wiley and H.C. Westermann, and "Field in a Hollow Road," an exhibition of paintings by Isca Greenfield-Sanders. This last is the Metro Pictures appropriation esthetic made lovely, with Star Island, a 56 x 56 in. painting of two children at lakeside (from a found snapshot, presumably), suggesting a Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida for our time. It’s $50,000.

Around the corner is Altman Siegel Gallery, which was hosting, like so many other SF spaces, still another New York artist, Sara VanDerBeek, whose show, "Of Ruins and Light," includes several photographs printed at much larger scale than those in her current lobby exhibition at the Whitney Museum. The almost palpable grain of the black-and-white images adds to the sense of contingency that makes these images interesting: a simple structure, drawn from an autobiographical source (an image of an eclipse, say, made as a child with her father) or constructed with provisional means, positioned to capture the light just so and photographed at just the right moment. Large prints are priced at $16,000, and selling.

One more stop, the small storefront Silverman Gallery, now five years old, run by the famous Jessica Silverman, featuring an exhibition by the young Berlin-based painter Shannon Finley, who was born in 1974 in Ontario and studied at Cooper Union before settling in Germany. "I don’t do a lot of painting shows," said Silverman, who was nevertheless drawn to Finley’s eccentric, grid-based asymmetrical abstractions. With their veils and thin slabs of color, paint ranging from matte to sparkled, the works have a video-game sensibility that seems new, despite their tried and true format. The prices -- ca. $1,500-$5,500 -- were certainly right, and most of the works had already sold. I should have bought one myself.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.