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by Walter Robinson
San Francisco has hills, homelessness and a healthy art scene, not bad for a burg of a mere 800,000 souls. Last month found your correspondent starting an all-too-brief visit to the city at the Legion of Honor, an impressive neoclassical pile originally designed to simultaneously remember the dead (from World War I) and celebrate the living (by showing art).

The Legion has a few other disjunctive juxtapositions. The museum, which has views of the fog-enshrouded Golden Gate Bridge, is surrounded by a golf course, hemmed in by putting greens on every side. Out front is a tall red Mark di Suvero abstract astrolabe, itself surrounded by parked cars, coincidentally arrayed in a sunburst pattern.

Go through the museum’s front arch, into an otherwise empty courtyard, and there sits a sizeable early cast of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, which museum founder Alma Spreckels bought from the artist herself. A wonderful sculpture to have yourself photographed with, if you’re a tourist, and should you actually give it any thought, an artwork that is now both comic and tragic.

On view at the museum until May 9, 2010, is "Cartier and America," a show of 200 glittering tiaras, bracelets, necklaces, pins and other treasures, courtesy of the luxe Swiss jeweler. You can’t help but admire the nameless craftspeople, whose raw material is pure value -- not money, but diamonds and jewels and platinum and gold.

And these things do have practical use, as is shown in the clip from the 1944 film Lifeboat  (part of the exhibition), in which a socialite stranded in the rubber raft with her fellow passengers volunteers her Cartier bracelet to serve as a hook to catch a fish.

San Francisco’s other museum-in-the-park is the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, which sits a little bit south in Golden Gate Park, across the way from the always-thronged California Academy of Sciences, a museum with rounded grassy berms on its roof. Redesigned five years ago by Herzog & de Meuron, the dimpled, copper-clad de Young crouches among the greenery like a prehistoric animal.

Inside, the spaces go every which way. The lobby is dominated by a huge, ultra-moderne photo mural commissioned from Gerhard Richter that has to be the boringest artwork he’s ever made. Dubbed Strontium, it consists of a grid of 130 photos of a blurry black ring that is supposed to be an electron microscope image of a molecule. Appropriately enough, it towers over the maze of stanchions that ropes off the people waiting in line.

On view during my visit was a show of Amish quilts (colorful checkerboard squares) and a King Tut exhibition, dubbed "Treasures of Ancient Egypt," which I gave a pass. The museum was draped with semi-transparent Tut banners, however, lending a rather uncanny air to the excellent permanent collection galleries, as a giant pharoah seemed to peer in through the slit window, towering above Franklin Simmons’ 1866 bust of General William Tecumseh Sherman.

In the contemporary galleries, along with the wall of Bay Area Expressionism, was a beautiful and large painting from 1988 by my old friend Martin Wong (1946-1999), a San Francisco native, animated by many of his favorite motifs -- firemen, ghetto boys, brick tenements and the constellations wheeling across the dark sky above.

Across town by the Civic Center is the Asian Art Museum, now ensconced in the neoclassical former city library. Banners hanging from lampposts all over the city were advertising the newly opened "Shanghai," featuring more than 130 objects, largely from three museums in the Chinese city (which hosts a 2010 World Expo in May). The fascinating recent history of China, as it morphed from traditional to "modernized" (i.e., Western) to revolutionary, is told here in no small part via images of women, variously "liberated" to dress provocatively, advertise consumer goods or lead worker cadres.

A mile or so away is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in its pleasantly stripey Mario Botta building, distinguished (to these eyes anyway) by having its own sidewalk cafe right there by the entryway. In its 75th anniversary show, SF MOMA devotes at least one floor to the "great genius" story of the avant-garde -- every individual a monad -- with high-ceilinged galleries devoted to trophy works by Ellsworth Kelly, Sigmar Polke, Doris SalcedoRichard Serra, Frank Stella, Clyfford Still, Kara Walker, Andy Warhol and other contemporary art stars.

Also on hand, up on the fourth floor, is the traveling Luc Tuymans retrospective, which in these light-flooded galleries looks like an orchestration of pastels -- monochromatic paintings done in mauve, lavender, pale green and grays. Tuymans is truly the anti-Warhol, celebrating the headlines not with iconic images in bright colors but with mournful, only vaguely identifiable pictures.  

The received postmodernist wisdom is that representations cannot be taken at face value, which with Tuymans’ pictures of contemporary barbarism translates into two insights of pop psychology, one "critical" (don’t trust appearances) and the other cynical (it’s not my fault). Does this last explain Tuymans’ appeal to the super-collector caste?

Across the way from the SF MOMA is an expansive public plaza and park, home to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which was between shows during my visit, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Housed in a vaguely Federal-style brick building (a former 1907 power station, actually), the CJM is distinguished by its Daniel Libeskind-designed annex, a huge, blue, cuboid volume tilted up on one corner and melded to the original structure (its space partially devoted, rather comically, to the museum gift shop).

Inside are the kind of fascinating interdisciplinary exhibitions that Jewish art and culture museums are known for. Upstairs in the cuboid is "Jews on Vinyl," a show devoted to Jewish record albums, from famous cantors to Allan Sherman and Barbra Streisand -- complete with listening stations.

Also on view is "Our Struggle," a project by a French artist named Linda Ellia, in which she translated her shock and rage upon discovering that Mein Kampf was still in print by painting, drawing and collaging artworks onto the book’s individual pages, a project that grew to include contributions from many others. The show’s asymmetrical galleries are packed with 600 of the resulting artworks, which are interesting not for their artistry but for their common vocabulary -- skeletons, candles, ghostlike figures, heaps of bodies, stars and crosses.

The city’s gallery scene is multifaceted and spread out, despite the concentration of several on Geary Street downtown. The steadfast Gallery Paule Anglim had an extensive selection of delicately mysterious works by the blind and deaf Outsider Artist James Castle, while Brian Gross Fine Art was showing somber, brushy abstractions by Bay Area painter Robin McDonnell, works that San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker called "decorative materialism."

Frey Norris Gallery featured a show of the lively anime-Pop-cowboy paintings and sculptures by the artist Tomokazu Matsuyama, who should be better known in New York, since he lives in Brooklyn (he shows at Joshua Liner Gallery on West 28th Street in Chelsea).

Rena Bransten Gallery boasted its fifth show of the alluring, allegorical coloring-book paintings of San Francisco artist John Bankston, who now also makes polychromed ceramic sculptures, thanks to a new artist-in-residency program at the former studio of late ceramic artist Viola Frey

A little farther away is Chris Perez’s not-to-be-missed Ratio 3, located on a dead-end that he shares with a picturesque motorcycle club; the gallery boasted the post-psychedelic gridded computer abstractions of Ft. Lauderdale artist Jose Alvarez, one of which had spread out to cover an entire wall.

Nearby is the storefront Jack Hanley Gallery, which was filled with the slight (nay, Giacometti-esque) hardware-store constructions of Andy Coolquitt, who is clearly a "comer." Hanley, exhausted from the cross-country commute, is closing his San Francisco base to concentrate on his space on Watts Street in Tribeca.

Back downtown, the year-old Altman Siegel Gallery, one of the city’s avant-garde standouts, had a show of works by Los Angeles artist Shannon Ebner, whose work was included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, via a wall-sized message whose letters were formed by Xerox copies (if memory serves) of photos of cinder blocks hung on a wall covered with a grid of pegs. Ebner brings a sense of the concrete to abstract signs, then, and her stuff at first seems oddly off-putting, meaning that it’s new and attractive. The gallery here was dominated by a large asterisk made of stacked cinderblocks, which could hardly be a clearer suggestion that further explanation, citations, comments, etc., were to be found at some other place on the page.

Claudia Altman Seigel send me up the hill and over a couple of blocks to Silverman Gallery, founded four years ago by Jessica Silverman and now featuring, in its small storefront space, a fairly recalcitrant exhibition by Ginger Wolfe-Suarez. A pair of black-painted rectangular volumes were propped up above the door, while two other plywood boxes, shaped vaguely like beds, sat by the front windows on the floor.

In the rear of the space were several other items -- a couple of lightboxes, a pair of shoes cast in concrete, a piece of mirror, a half-arch of lumber covered with glitter and leaning against the wall, a scratchy soundtrack of people expressing their love. Titled "Theory of a Family," the installation is private, mysterious, intimate.

Closer to my hotel was Thomas Reynolds Gallery, which was founded in 1994 and had a survey of nudes -- small drawings and paintings dating from 1961 to 2009 -- by Theophilus Brown, one of the great Bay Area painters. Brown, the longtime life partner of painter Paul Wonner, was about to celebrate his 91st birthday, and is still working, from the male model, making reductive images that are both modern and classical.

Reynolds, who was in the publishing business before he opened his gallery exhibition, still has a little ink in his blood: he is putting out a weekly neighborhood newspaper called the New Fillmore, designed to promote the area’s cultural identity.

Probably my favorite gallery show was the 45 photographs by Diane Arbus on view at Fraenkel Gallery, one of the best photo shops in the world. Selected from the estate by artist Robert Gober, many of the images are unseen or little-known, and provided a chance for a close-up study of Arbus’ shifting esthetic. I took extensive notes, but at this late date, let’s just hope that a catalogue of the show, which is not planned, somehow comes into being.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.