We’re only on part 2? Well, to sum up the meeting, it was over in 6 days and I left with a box full of free books and learned that wearing heels all day is just not practical.
Tom and Matt (my uncle and brother) were flying out to San Francisco for the first phase of the trip, sharing my hotel room during the week of the meeting. Matt hadn’t been to California before, though he was making his way out there, having been in Santa Fe for the first time with Tom a few weeks earlier. Tom kept trying to map out San Francisco based on a layout he knew from visiting 30 years ago, as though nothing changed.
For the staff who arrived early on the first day in town (several of us taking semi-red-eye flights), we had to go to the temporary offices to unload boxes and located our department’s shipments before we writing the day off to ourselves. In lieu of an official staff welcoming event this year (last year it was a dinner cruise around the Boston Harbor), we were left to make our own plans for exploring the city and encouraged to include people outside of our normal office social circle, which I was pretty sure no one was going to do. But I wasn’t around to take head counts because, despite their two hour flight delay, Tom and Matt and I were eager to get out of the hotel and down on the streets.
Tom’s a good tour guide, even in the cities we’ve never been to before. His pre-travel research usually culminates in a binder full of loose itineraries, street maps, and printouts of museum hours and travel blog restaurant suggestions. The Bible, as we call it. In usual form, we started down Market Street towards the Museum of Modern Art which was luckily open late and at half price admission on the evening we arrived in town. There was a long line of people — mostly black-clad hipsters — who had the same idea, to take advantage of this bargain. The Museum is an interesting building. With the skyline view of mixed architecture in the background, the striped, rounded facade look like carefully arranged building blocks. The archway over the first level of forked staircases inside had that same striped marble, but somehow, in a room otherwise decorated in the typical Modern museum sterility motif (bleach white walls and naturally stained hardwood floors), it seemed to dwarf things a little like the shrinking room in Willy Wonka.
(SOMA from the MLK Memorial, photo by Tom)
I strayed around each level with Matt while Tom went to inventory the museum with his camera, also in typical form. Matt isn’t really a fan of art museums and galleries, he’s usually more content going to natural history and science museums or kitsch museums like the Circus Museum in Sarasota (complete with a large-scale replica of a 1950s traveling circus) or the Torture Museum in Amsterdam (it even had an indoor roller coaster!). Tom and I are usually the ones who venture to the art museums, though I have no idea when the tradition began. But Matt didn’t complain. He’s a fun museum companion because, as opposed to standing in front of something, briefly observing and walking on, he seems to demand conversation and exploration. Though early on, with this curiosity, he seemed completely unaware of those sacred rules about not touching anything and drawing the unwanted attention of museum security (read: getting yelled at by a scruffy desk attendant at the University of Chicago). Basically, the same thing as the “May I Help You” riff.
(Rothko display at SOMA, photo by Tom)
As we were walking through the collections, Matt asked how I knew the name of most of the artists without even looking at the associating name plaques. The question took me by surprise; I thought the answer was obvious, given the number of art museums we’ve been to. But his question was (unknowingly) a spot-on observation about the homogeneity of art museums (and not just in architectural and design motifs) and their niche artists. What do you see in a modern museum of art? Jasper Johns. Max Beckmann. Kiki Smith. Pollock. Rothko. Giacometti. Brancusi. Pearlstein. Ofili. The list goes on, but it’s almost always the same list of artists represented and their body of work is almost always the same. Johns paints American flags. The Pearlsteins are always large scale canvases of warped female nudes. Pollock did splatters; Rothko did swatches. Brancusi sculpted organic shapes; Giacometti molded stick-figured pedestrians. Kiki Smith always does lifesize sculptures of ethnic people. Ofili likes to play with shit. We were even once in a contemporary museum in Athens were the Greek artists created almost exact replicas of popular works of the same period, making it just another near-identical exhibition of mid-century modern art to the point that you could make it a game to identify the famous artist who’s work was so similar. What would the Duke do?!!
Actually, not every museum can be criticized — the Smithsonian’s Hirschorn museum comes to mind as a refreshing collection of at least a less frequently represented repertoire of artists. But, generally, the artists seem to hit upon something that got them recognized (contextually-grounded like the cubists, the deconstructionists (surface painters), the pop artists, and so forth) and the gatekeepers (Mr. and Mrs. Curator!) refuse to allow them to be known or remembered for much of anything anything else. There is no progression.
Tom was talking about this too, saying he thought it would be interesting to see what would have become of folks like Warhol or Van Gough had they lived, comparing to their respective counterparts, Pearlstein (who’s still living) and Guagin (who outlived Van Gough) and the progression in their work. “I had to go all the way to Amsterdam to see this,” Tom said, referring to Van Gough’s later work in the Van Gough Museum. Even earlier works are interesting, on the rare occassion that there is some exhibition where you can find them like Kirchner’s prints, Charles Scheeler’s still lifes, and Hopper’s Maine landscapes, for example.
So much for sanitizing the museum of interior in order to avoid outside interpretation. Content selection by an official source completely contradicts that purpose. You can’t escape that the average visitor to a museum will assume something about the work simply because it’s in a museum. That’s how they getcha.
There were two surprisingly good photography exhibits at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that night. I say surprisingly because most of the photo exhibits I’ve seen lately are some kind of post-modern pretentiousness guided by that rule of thumb that shitty pictures blown up really huge (say it with me… C Prints) are guaranteed a spot somewhere in a museum. The latter reaction is also applicable to video installations as though there is something profound about a fifteen second loop of nothing but a silent, cluttered room. Once again the whole sanitizing of the museum interiors defy the intention to remove preconceived notions about the works therein.
Anyways, there were two good photography exhibits. One was the work of a sociological-styled documentarian named Robert Frank. In the 40s and 50s, Franks got a Guggenheim grant and basically traveled around the United States, capturing the weary (Spanish farmhands), the arrogant (a full-frame view of a beaming, polished politician with no public in sight), the materialistic (a man dressed as a cowboy standing in the streets of New York City), the idealistic (a holiday celebration), and so forth. Only 83 of the 28,000 shots were published in his book, The Americans (Kerouac penned the introduction) which ironically (but probably not surprisingly), was criticized upon release as being too un-American. Frank was even jailed in Arkansas on allegations of Communism.
But of the two shows, it was Richard Avedon’s that drew the most viewers, even as a ticketed affair. The rooms were packed with people seemingly mesmerized by the large, crisp black and white photographs. Avedon was from New York City and primarily a fashion photographer working for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the 50s and 60s before expanding his scope to photograph momentous, historic events like the Civil Rights era, Vietnam, and the Berlin Wall.
Richard Avedon’s photo of a 13-year old boy who made a living of skinning snakes.
The bulk of the viewing crowd had gathered in the rooms with the walls lined with Avedon’s photographs of celebrities. Actors, writers, musicians, and even public figures. My favorite was the gigantic spread of Andy Warhol and his Factory entourage. The whole thing took up one wall and they placed the benches in the middle of the room, so that anyone sitting on them would face either that portrait or the opposite wall (since they were backless benches). Members of The Factory were mostly actors and models, but more specifically homosexuals and transvestites. The kind of entourage that no doubt rock the senses of the stiffer members of society who hadn’t escaped the mentality of the uptight, highly conservative 50s. The kind that yelled at teenagers to cut their hair. The photograph was divided in half – shirts and skins. To have that kind of full nudity on full display — nothing regal like Rennaisance paintings where lucid looking girls sprawled naked in a chair alongside chunky angels, and nothing so terribly pornographic — but to have that, and on such a large scale, it’s interesting to see who looks (not gawking, but acknowledging) and who looks away. But Avedon’s portrait, especially of the leather-jacketed members of Warhol’s Factory, seemed to capture a real kind of cool that the 1960s and 70s New York art scene exuded that you don’t find anymore. Something so bad ass. A definitive mojo that could completely bitch slap shit-talking asshole types like Kanye West.
(Avedon’s photo of Warhol and The Factory at SOMA, photo by Tom)
The thing that people really clung to, however, was a section of living history. Two walls were covered in individual portraits of politicians, public figures, activists, writers, royalty, dignitaries, and the like circa 1960 something. I say living history because a lot of those featured are still alive like Ralph Nader and Henry Kissinger. The only way to identify the people in the photographs, unless you were already certain who they were, was to look at a diagram of numbers, one representing each photo that corresponded with a list of names. Like those who crowded around the wall of Norman Rockwell illustrations that were eventually turned into magazine covers at the museum in Orlando we had been to earlier this year, people were testing themselves to see how many people they could identify. It suddenly became an interactive exhibit, transcending the regular frame of just being some art in a museum. What a terrific trick.
We left the museum at closing time and walked back to Chinatown. Tom had read about a dive with a reputation for fabulous food called The House of Nanking. It wasn’t far from St. Louis Alley, which was where part of Little Trouble in Big China was filmed. I’m always weary of things considered to be “dives,” my expectations being closer to the shitty “religious” hotel Josh Baskin stays at in the movie Big, or any number of the places in Susan Seidleman’s Smithereens. The House of Nanking on the other hand, was just a small resturant loaded with a calico of dining tables and chairs. The waitresses kept busy, briskly moving back and forth between the tables and the kitchen. It being the summer, the windows were wide open and you could practically stick your head in and ask any of the patrons how their food was, though people usually let you know on their way out of the door that it was definitely worth the wait. And it was.
One way of finding a decent Chinese restaurant is too look at the menu beforehand and see how many exotic dishes they offer. That is, avoid the standard fast-food China-Americana standard offerings of things like General Tso’s Chicken and Lo Mein. When Tom and I were in Boston last year, we found a restaurant that had pickled jellyfish and rabbit ont he menu (not served together). These were pretty good indicators of the variety of food, and probably care you’re likely to get. We didn’t try either of those dishes, but we certainly walked away satisfied (and overstuffed) on things like Hong Kong Noodle Soup (a soup made with ginger and served separately from the noodles), Coconut Pork Chops (served in corning ware), and other things (I forgot what they were). We were the only ones who weren’t speaking Chinese and the lady and guy behind us were having a conversation and beating around the bush to hook up.
There wasn’t pickled jellyfish on the menu at The House of Nanking that I recall, but the food was fantastic and remarkably cheap (and far more than we could really consumer, even as late as it was). The lady sat the three of us against a wall at one table and three other people, twenty-something friends shared the other half of the table. Matt and I ordered Chinese beers and Tom ordered hot tea. At first I thought he got jipped with some sort of weak tea because he was delivered a glass mug with boiling hot water and something floating in the center. But as we sat there a few minutes, the bulb began to blossom like an alien life form, emitting the flavor of the tea. That’s a good sign. I tried to take Phil there when he arrived in town on the last day of the meeting (the same day Tom and Matt were heading back home), but the line was twice as long and we opted for another restaurant instead.
Tom seemed ready to keep going after dinner, even though it was around 11:30 by that point, but I was dead tired and had to get up early for the first day of the meeting.
To be continued.