Calum Colley brings us on a tour of the San Francisco MOMA. 

The San Francisco MOMA and the city skyline

The Museum of Modern Art sits impudently in the San Francisco skyline. It seems at first a jarring anachronism: this was the city, after all, where Hitchcock filmed Vertigo, and where McQueen thrilled in perhaps the most famous car pursuit ever filmed; it is a city that for many will forever inspire nostalgia for the times of martini-sipping executives and femme fatales. The Museum of Modern Art (or MOMA) stands out with its asymmetric hooded frontage and vast glass walls, even amongst the idiosyncrasies of downtown San Franciscan architecture.

Yet, on reflection, perhaps the MOMA is the precise embodiment of what the city represents. This was after all home to flamboyant gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk, the setting for numerous political demonstrations in the latter part of the 20th century, and a ubiquitous presence in the counterculture of the Swinging Sixties. It is the sort of city where art is never afraid to challenge or to shock, because that is exactly what San Franciscans look for.

As the last of the evening sunshine was greedily intercepted by the concrete canopy overhead, we made our way into the MOMA’s lobby. The room seemed unnecessarily expansive and its sterile, achromic walls revealed nothing of the delights hidden away in the rest of the building.

After buying tickets (a pricey $18), we ascended the stairs at the end of the lobby, arriving abruptly at a bizarre and absorbing wall-length installation by Takashi Murakami, the Japanese pop-artist, which featured dozens of variegated mushrooms with eyes and teeth. Turning to our left, we were at once hit with a cacophony of big names, among others: Kahlo, Picasso and Matisse. I can say next to nothing about the paintings in that room that wouldn’t in some way do them disservice, save imploring the reader to seek them out for themselves. Two other celebrated names were conspicuously absent from the collection: that of Andy Warhol, and Marcel Duchamp, the artist who achieved infamy by installing a urinal and presenting it as a work of art. Both Warhol and Duchamp are listed by the museum, and one can only hope that their hiatus is brief.

Rothko’s No. 14

In the company of these behemoths were a good number of distinguished artists in their own right. Arshile Gorky’s quirkiness in Enigmatic Combat is bewitching, as are Georges Braque’s and Franz Marc’s textured takes on a still life (Violin and Candlestick) and a landscape (Gebirge) respectively. Elsewhere, René Magritte turns scale on its head in Les Valeurs Personnelles, whilst Paul Klee threatens to steal the show with his signature mix of jejune form and oriental colour schemes. This is to say nothing of the works of minimalists Piet Mondrian, Joseph Albers (Homage to the Square: Confident) and Mark Rothko (No. 14), who all manage to get an awful lot of mileage out of straight lines and squares. Jackson Pollock even puts in an appearance (Guardians of the Secret).

This is a collection of remarkable scope. By naming but a few, I have sold so many others short. Whether it’s for the vast canvasses of pseudo-universes, the room full of unsettlingly obsequious spinning lights, or the greyscale animations that flirt scandalously with perspective, you will leave the MOMA with a broader appreciation of aesthetic ingenuity, a humbler attitude, and perhaps even a touch of vertigo.


Calum Colley

San Francisco MOMA image by Christopher Beland

Rothko No. 14 Image by Notnarayan