Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Parking Places vs. Bikepaths on Polk Street

Tuesday afternoon, businesses along upper Polk north of California Street were featuring SAVE POLK STREET flyers in their windows, decrying the "radical agenda of the SFMTA." Their concern is with the transportation agency's plan for a demonstration project this summer where curbside parking is to be eliminated in favor of dedicated bike lanes in both directions. According to the Save Polk Street website, the eventual plan is to remove parking along 20 blocks, from McAllister Street to Union Street, and local businesses are livid. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition announced three "separated bikeway" pilot projects on their website last October, to take place on 2nd Street, the Embarcadero and Polk.
Your San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has been active in instituting pilots all across the city...Pilots allow people to sample a design idea, to understand how it works, and for the City to evaluate what’s working or not — without making expensive or permanent changes. These pilots whet the public’s appetite for innovative projects, while making your ride safer.

Three pilots — on 2nd Street, Polk Street and the Embarcadero — are poised to help both refine the design of separated bikeways and also help educate San Franciscans, most of whom have never experienced one, about their benefits. And it’s all happening over the next year.

Your San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is working with local landscape architects and designers, the SF Municipal Transportation Agency, Department of Public Works and other agencies to help develop and pilot three demonstration blocks over the next year that include the next generation of bikeways. For all these projects, the demonstration block(s) will be a key step towards building a permanent, full and successful project.

A neighborhood informational meeting will take place on Monday, March 18th at 6PM at the It's A Grind coffeehouse at Washington and Polk. As somebody who doesn't drive either a car or bike, I am watching the controversy with detached interest. Personally, I would love to see a few major roadways closed to both cars and bicycles, with public transport and pedestrians given pride of place, but that seems unlikely in this lifetime. In the meantime, pedestrians in the Civic Center have the dual challenge of dodging cars making right turns on red lights at crosswalks and helmeted bicyclists tearing down sidewalks at ridiculous speeds. I am not sure which group frightens me more these days.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Wisdom 2.0

The Concourse Exhibition Center at 8th and Brannan Streets faces an uncertain future, since the long, low and funky convention hall is slated for possible destruction this winter in favor of condos and retail space by the politically well connected Archstone Development Company.

Meanwhile, the place is still hosting large, offbeat events, including a four-day conference this past weekend called Wisdom 2.0. According to their website,
"The people at Wisdom 2.0 come from all over the world and from numerous vocations, including coaches; technology staff from Apple, Microsoft, and Twitter; as well as venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. Everyone shares a common interest: to live with greater wisdom, purpose, and meaning, while using technology in ways that create a more open and healthy culture. Speakers come from numerous sectors, including technology, wisdom traditions, neuroscience, game development, and more. Past speakers have included the founders of Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Zynga, and Paypal, along with wisdom teachers from various traditions."
Marianne Williamson and Arianna Huffington were only two of the usual suspects among the inspirational speakers this year, which included congresspersons, tech executives, and yoga teachers.

Observing the crowd chomping on quick lunches outside before the next speaker began, they looked to be predominantly female and about 90% white. Having been nursed in California's countless esoteric spiritual traditions since birth, I harbor a fair amount of skepticism while believing in half of it at the same time. One bit of truth I do hold self-evident for myself, however, is that the chance of finding Wisdom 1.0 or 2.0 while wearing a nametag at an indoor conference on a beautiful day is close to nil. Swimming naked in the ocean, walking in a redwood forest, talking with a sympathetic friend, playing a game at a municipal golf course, or concentrating on a book strikes me as a much better bet for illumination. If we're going to throw the digital world into that equation, Wisdom 2.0 will just as likely come from the Poem of the Week at Patrick Vaz's site, where he helpfully explains each week's poem for those like myself who find most poetry completely unfathomable.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Kronos Quartet Plays with Local Ingredients

San Francisco's internationally renowned Kronos Quartet (l-r above, David Harrington and John Sherba on violins, Jeffrey Zeigler on cello, and Hank Dutt on viola) have been performing together for four decades. The group has commissioned close to 750 new works by composers from every musical tradition in the world, many of which they have recorded on a series of over 40 recordings.

Before heading to Australia this week and the Netherlands after that, with a palate cleanser concert in Long Beach, California, the quartet gave a pair of performances at Yerba Buena Center's Lam Theater. The big news was that the globetrotting quartet was ending a three-year "partnership" with Yerba Buena Center by commissioning new works from San Francisco composers. The even better news is that the local composers did San Francisco proud, writing good music that will probably have a long life. (From left to right above, Stephen Prutsman, Nathaniel Stookey, Pamela Z, and Dan Becker being interviewed by pianist, radio host and Berkeley Museum curator Sarah Cahill.)

The concert started with Carrying the Past, a short piece by Dan Becker above, who is chair of the Composition Department at the SF Conservatory of Music. The piece was a collision between 78RPM recordings of his grandfather Eddie Sandson playing lead trumpet in big bands and Kronos playing a slightly dissonant, minimalist piece that occasionally mirrored the jazz recordings but more often was in its own universe. I've enjoyed all of Becker's music that I have heard over the years, including this piece, which lasted the perfect amount of time.

Nathaniel Stookey above was a San Francisco wunderkind who was born after the Kronos formed. His career seems to be exploding, with commissions from orchestras and arts groups around the world. Stookey's String Quartet No. 3, The Mezzanine, was receiving its world premiere from the commissioning Kronos and it's an ambitious, serious work channeling Nicholson Baker's odd, granular 1988 novel The Mezzanine about an escalator ride during an office lunch break with many footnotes (click here). The music was both silky and obsessive, and the performance was masterful.

After intermission, there were four short "translations" by pianist and arranger Stephen Prutsman above of a Bollywood song, a Turkish instrumental, a Lebanese hymn and an Ethiopian saxophone solo. Kronos has long been a pioneer in introducing World Music to the West and the string quartet tradition, and Prutsman has been their trusted, stalwart arranger for over 40 of these pieces.

The concert closed with And The Movement of The Tongue by Pamela Z above. Sort of a Laurie Anderson of the West Coast since the 1980s, Pamela Z has played with live, looped sound on computers for decades, and this world premiere is one of her best pieces. She uses samples of accented English by everyone from Berkeley based, Italian-accented composer Luciano Chessa to Southern twangs to Call Center computer voices. The writing for the string quartet was sometimes a simple accompaniment to the rhythms of the speech and other times worked in counterpoint. It was a witty, charming, and thoughtful work which reflects the wonder you feel sometimes in the Bay Area when listening to a Tower of Babble of accented English. Think Locally, Talk Globally.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Qin Shihuang's Immortality at The Asian

The Asian Art Museum has been sponsoring a promotional stunt involving someone appearing in public around the Bay Area as a "LOST" terracotta warrior who is looking for the rest of his army. On Wednesday morning, he was "found" at the Civic Center Farmers Market by the formerly homeless gentleman above whose first name is Moses, which seemed appropriate, who brought the warrior into the museum for a press preview.

China's First Emperor, Qin Shihuang (259-210 BCE), led one of the more colorful, action-packed lives in world history, and his death turned out to be similarly spectacular, with reportedly 700,000 slave laborers working on his underground tomb for decades.

In 1974, farmers digging a well uncovered the burial complex, which contained 8,000+ individualized terracotta warriors with thousands of bronze weapons to either guard the emperor's tomb or to conquer heaven itself. As part of the Asian Art Museum's 10th anniversary in its Civic Center location, China has loaned ten of the warriors along with other ancient objects found in nearby tombs. It makes for a fascinating, spooky exhibition that will be installed at the museum through May.

Qin Shihuang was born into intense palace intrigue in the the empire of Qin, and once he came to power, "unified" six neighboring warring states through military force. He was equal parts tyrant and creator throughout his 36 year reign. He had a central roadway system built, started the construction of the Great Wall of China, and simplified and codified written Chinese along with weights and measures. He also fended off numerous assassination attempts, including an attempt by a blind, virtuoso musician who tried to kill him with a lead lute. He also banished all foreign scholars as spies, and tried to destroy the Confucian intellectual movement by burying its scholars alive.

His historical reputation was blackened thoroughly after his death by Confucian scholars who survived the persecution, and who wrote damning accounts of his brutality. According to a good Wikipedia article, his historical reputation has been improving lately in China. The Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek was being approvingly compared to the First Emperor in the early 20th century, while Mao was said to have bragged that he had exceeded him:
Mao Zedong, chairman of the People's Republic of China, was reviled for his persecution of intellectuals. On being compared to the First Emperor, Mao responded: "He buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried forty-six thousand scholars alive...You [intellectuals] revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundredfold."

Qin Shihuang was obsessed with the idea of immortality, and had magical elixirs created for him in order to live forever. The irony is that most of the life-extending elixirs were laced with mercury which probably helped hasten his early death via poisoning. The final irony is that thanks to his spectacular burial complex being discovered intact so recently in modern history, he really has made himself immortal.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Performing Arts Center Weekend

Since at least the 1970s, there has been talk about the synergistic excitement of a true Performing Arts Center in the Civic Center neighborhood, but the reality has always seemed dimmer than the dream. Recently, however, it has felt like some kind of tipping point has arrived and the streets this weekend were a riot of locals and tourists from around the world zigzagging to simultaneous events situated next to each other. Walking the sidewalks Friday evening, it was easy to imagine that one had been magically transported to New York, London or some other global cultural capital.

There was a San Francisco Symphony concert at Davies Hall, the entire Hamburg Ballet company was performing an evening-length ballet about Nijinsky at the Opera House, the SFJAZZ Center was featuring three sets in their newly opened Joe Henderson Lab of Josh Jones playing Ray Barretto, the SF Conservatory of Music was presenting concerts and recitals at their campus on Oak Street, and Bill Graham Civic Auditorium was hosting one of five sold-out shows as part of the global farewell tour for Swedish House Mafia, a trio of DJs that have been described as ABBA meets House Electronica. At the Herbst Theatre in the Veterans Building, there was also a concert by Philharmonia Baroque above, with Nicholas McGegan leading the original instruments orchestra in early symphonies by Haydn (#44), Mozart (#29), and music by Johann Christian Bach.

McGegan conducted with uncharacteristically slow tempos in most of the Haydn and the CP Bach, and the music sounded a bit plodding to my taste. The bassoon and oboe soloists for the CP Bach Sinfonia Concertante, Danny Bond and Marc Schachman above, were delightful, but probably should have been moved to the front of the stage rather than hidden at the back of the orchestra. For a more detailed and enthusiastic account of the same concert at Stanford's Bing Hall by David Bratman, click here.

Saturday afternoon was spent with the Hamburg Ballet company, which arrived last week for seven performances as part of the SF Ballet season. They are performing John Neumeier's full-length fantasia on the life and career of legendary Polish dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, whose dramatic artistic career lasted 16 years before being institutionalized for schizophrenia in 1919 for the next 31 years of his life. The 70-year-old Neumeier is Wisconsin born and raised, but after a European dancing career, he became the resident choreographer and eventual Company Director of the Hamburg Ballet in 1973. Neumeier became obsessed with Nijinsky after reading a biography of him at an impressionable age back in Milwaukee, and Nijinsky is one of three ballets he has created about his idol. There was Vaslaw in 1979 and the later Le Pavilion d'Armide in 2009, but it's hard to imagine those ballets being as ambitious as this 2000 effort.

The ballet starts at a society event in a Monte Carlo pavilion in what turns out to be Nijinsky's last ballet as both choreographer and dancer. There are onstage piano pieces by Chopin and Schumann playing as musical background before a swirl of biographical and performance memories takes over and the full orchestra launches into Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade, which was choreographed by Fokine for the Ballet Russe over the strenuous objections of the composer's heirs. During a homoerotic sexual duet between Guillaume Cote as Nijinsky and a magnificent Edvin Revazov as the impresario Serge Diaghelev, the sad, slow third movement from Shostakovich's Sonata for Viola and Piano interrupts the R-K Orientalia, foreshadowing the second act, whose soundtrack is the entire, 70-minute Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony, The Year 1905.

Onstage, the second act runs out of ideas fairly quickly as Vaslav goes crazy, his brother Stanislaw (the amazing Konstantin Tselikov) goes crazy, and the entire world in the person of World War One goes crazy. The latter is represented by dancers running around in unbuttoned shirts and underwear like Chippendale Soldiers, which was borderline silly, but somehow made no difference. The dancers and movement were so good that what it all meant ceased to matter after a while. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra gave a mesmerizing account of the powerful score with probably half the players that the San Francisco Symphony employed for their great performance of the Shostakovich 11th last fall.

There is one final performance Tuesday evening, and I would recommend the show highly. In fact, I may return for a standing room stint to see the main cast Alexandre Riabko as Nijinsky and to hear the Shostakovich symphony again. Click here for the SF Ballet website for any remaining tickets.

Saturday evening continued with Opera Parallele's production of Ainadamar, the 2005 Osvaldo Golijov opera about the assassination of the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca by the Falangists in 1936. Though downtown's Yerba Buena Center, where the piece was being performed this weekend, is not in the Civic Center Performing Arts Center, the Opera Parallele company is definitely a part of the neighborhood. Conductor Nicole Paiement teaches and conducts at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she skims the cream of the musical crop for her orchestras and singing actors. Director Brian Staufenbiel usually conducts most of his rehearsals at the Conservatory or the nearby Kanbar Performing Arts Center.

The production displayed the usual Opera Parallele virtues: a visually beautiful production that was musically exquisite thanks to Paiement and her uniformly good cast, along with thoughtful direction. My only problem was with the opera itself. Though not a particular Golijov fan, I enjoyed the Ainadamar original cast recording with Dawn Upshaw. Even with prerecorded gunshots and horses' hooves and other electronic sounds, the score is gentle, written for about 90% female voices, and the girls' choruses sound like the beautiful final girls' chorus at the end of John Adams's oratorio, El Nino.

Listening to the recording, though, insulates one from the banality of David Henry Hwang's libretto which is about a famous poet but which conveys not a single ounce of poetry. As the late film critic Pauline Kael once wrote about Man of La Mancha, "The lyrics sound as if they had been translated from Esperanto," and so does this libretto, which may partly be on account of Hwang writing it in English, and then having it translated into Spanish. The libretto's insistently heterosexual take on a gay character was also weird, especially since Lorca (like Nijinsky) has been a Legendary Gay Artistic Martyr among global subcultures since the day of his death. At least Nijinsky conveyed that historical reality.

I had no problem with Federico Garcia Lorca as a trouser role for a low-lying soprano, but why is the character such a complete cipher? It's hard to care if he/she is killed, especially since in this production the fine singer Lisa Chavez looks like Wayne Newton about to launch into Danke Schon. On a more positive note, Jesus Montoya as the Flamenco Singer bad guy was electrifying, while Maya Kherani and John Bischoff confirmed once again that their voices are joys to behold, and my guest who loves flamenco liked the dancers led by La Tania very much. The womens' and girls' choruses, who seemed to be the only people onstage or in the pit who weren't amplified, were musically lovely.

Sunday afternoon was spent at Davies Hall with the San Francisco Symphony featuring a splashy program with the young Pablo Heras-Casado above conducting. The program started with a recent Magnus Lindberg ten-minute curtain raiser called EXPO, which my guest liked. "It sounds like 21st Century Sibelius," he said, which is about right. The second half of the program was Prokofiev's World War Two era Fifth Symphony, which sounded bombastic and nothing more. I heard Michael Tilson Thomas conduct the same music in 2008, and thought the symphony masterful, so I'm going to put the blame on the young Spanish maestro who doesn't seem to understand the harmonies or rhythms of this composer quite yet. Most of the audience, by the way, loved the loud assault and gave the performance a standing ovation.

In between, the pianist Stephen Hough above gave the other highlight performance of my culturally overloaded weekend, playing the Liszt Second Piano Concerto with an amazing mixture of precision and abandon. At certain moments, Hough's hands were moving so fast that I saw motion blur that looked like an inadequate frame rate for capturing speed, except the effect was in real time. It was a privilege watching and hearing him in action, and a joy to live in a neighborhood where performances like this are happening.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Mitch Marcus Plays Joe Henderson at SFJAZZ

A new performing space at the SFJAZZ Center called the Joe Henderson Lab was christened last night by the young saxophone player Mitch Marcus above playing the entire legendary 1965 Blue Note recording, Inner Urge, by Joe Henderson.

The painting of Joe Henderson above was commissioned for the Lab, since he was an integral part of the SFJAZZ Festival for decades before his death in 2001. Henderson was born in Ohio in 1937, became a noted saxophone player on the East Coast in the 1960s after a stint in the Army, and moved to San Francisco in 1971 where he became a teacher, bandleader and continued recording.

The small, glass-enclosed room on the ground floor along Franklin Street is another acoustical miracle for SFJAZZ Director Randall Kline above, thanks to acoustician Sam Berkow. He used a floating floor, ceiling and double-paned glass to banish all sound from Franklin Street which is running alongside, while giving pedestrians and drivers a full glimpse of a performance.

For the Hotplate Festival concerts this weekend, the room is set up like a bar, with stand-up accommodation only around moveable cocktail tables facing the band. Since the cost of these one-hour sets is only $10 and you can bring in drinks from the lobby, it seems an eminently practical setup.

Mitch Marcus is from the Bay Area but has moved to The Big Apple, which is a smart move for a professional performing artist. He was joined by electric guitarist Mike Abraham, bassist George Ban-Weiss, and drummer Jeff Marrs. Even though we were all standing and the music was subtly, superbly amplified, it almost felt like listening to a serious classical chamber music concert. It was an interesting mixture of playing from notated scores and memory while maintaining an aura of improvisation. Strictly as a musical performance, it was astonishingly good.

There are three sets a night this weekend, at 7PM, 9PM and 10:30, and I'd recommend you check the place out. Tonight Josh Jones plays Ray Barretto, Tiffany Austin sings Ella Fitzgerald tunes on Saturday, and Mike Olmos plays Freddie Hubbard on Sunday.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Coming to Town

The ancient Chinese Terracotta Warriors and their accoutrements are being unpacked and installed at the Asian Art Museum this week in anticipation of next week's opening.

The marketing of the exhibit has literally been all over the map and will include a donor's party on the 20th and a dance party on Thursday the 21st that features a tenuous tie-in to the cult 1979 Walter Hill New York gang movie The Warriors. (For a British website dedicated to the crazy film, click here.)

Also coming to town are new directors for the San Francisco Girls Chorus at Page and Market. It's going to a dual directorship, with the San Francisco raised, New York based singer/composer Lisa Bielawa above left as the new Artistic Director, and Valerie Sainte-Agathe above right from Montpellier, France taking over as the daily Music Director and Principal Conductor. The manner in which the organization got rid of their last artistic director, Susan McMane, was a clumsy fiasco (click here), so it's great news that Bielawa is joining the organization.

Continuing with the French invasion, Emmanuel Morlet above will be the new Artistic Director at Sonoma State's Green Music Center, with its beautiful new Weill Hall, leaving his position in New York as Director of the Music Office for the Cultural Services of the French Embassy. Why can't I have I have a job like that, just for the job title alone?

Finally, a host of performances are coming up this week that are all special. The SFJAZZ Center is opening up its ground-floor, glass-enclosed Joe Henderson Lab above on Thursday, Valentine's Day with the SFJAZZ Hotplate Festival for four nights. Also this week is Philharmonia Baroque playing unfamiliar Haydn, Mozart and C.P. Bach symphonies around the Bay Area, the San Francisco Symphony has an interesting concert featuring Lindberg, Prokofiev, and the great pianist Stephen Hough playing Liszt, and Opera Parallele is presenting Ainamadar by Osvaldo Golijov at Yerba Buena this weekend. Though not ordinarily a fan of Golijov's music, I have been listening to the Dawn Upshaw recording on the one-act opera all week and the piece is really growing on me. It will be great to experience it live.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Catholic Musical Sensuality

In the first chapter of the supremely witty, gorgeously written Memoirs of Hector Berlioz, the 19th century French composer wrote:
"Needless to say, I was brought up in the Catholic and Apostolic Church of Rome. This charming religion (so attractive since it gave up burning people) was for seven whole years the joy of my life, and although we have long since fallen out, I have always kept most tender memories of it. Indeed, such is its appeal for me that had I the misfortune to be born into the bosom of one of those schisms ponderously hatched by Luther or Calvin, I would undoubtedly have abjured it the moment I was able and flung myself into the arms of the fair Roman at the earliest promptings of poetic instinct."

Last week, the San Francisco Symphony offered one of the most remarkable programs in their history with a pair of rarely heard French Catholic choral masterpieces conducted by the Swiss/French/Canadian conductor Charles Dutoit. The concert started with the first SF Symphony performances of Francois Poulenc's Stabat Mater, sixty years after its 1951 premiere, an odd omission for such an exquisite piece of music.

Maybe it's because Poulenc's reputation as a masterful composer is still taking time to establish itself. A rich, gay, French Catholic, miniaturist, mostly self-taught composer who wrote operas for cabaret singers overlaps too many categories and is not to be taken seriously, so it's taken decades for the world to catch up. The similarly brilliant gay, British Catholic piano virtuoso Stephen Hough recently wrote a blog post at The Daily Telegraph called The Three Faces of Poulenc that is an amused appreciation of the composer's musical and holistic synthesis. It begins:
"A reliable, reputable, scholarly source told me once of an occasional activity of Poulenc when staying in Paris. In the late afternoon he would leave his apartment and go to the local park where he would have an anonymous encounter. He would then cross the park to the Catholic church where he would slip into a dark confessional. After being absolved of his sins, and less than an hour after first leaving home, he would return to a sumptuous supper, all ready to be served along with a decanted bottle of fine, red Bordeaux."

Listening to Poulenc's music, it is easy to hear his religious feelings are sincere. What is odd and charming is his integration of the spiritual with the sensual and sardonic, putting him far ahead of the institutional Catholic Church which is still officially demonizing people like him. So in honor of the first resignation of a pope today in 600 years, I will play Poulenc's joyous cantata, Gloria, to celebrate. (Photo above is of Ragnar Bohlin, Symphony Chorus Director, and Erin Wall who was the soprano soloist. They both did themselves proud.)

The second half of the SF Symphony's concert was Berlioz's massive 1849 Te Deum, which had not been performed in 40 years, another shameful omission because this piece is Berlioz at his greatest. Then again, the radical 19th century composer is still being absorbed into the world's cultural bloodstream. The first performance of this piece didn't occur until almost seven years after he had written it because of the money and the politics involved, and since then it has mostly disappeared as a repertory staple. The performances by the huge forces on Saturday night at Davies Hall were magnificent, and the music surpassed all expectations for beauty and strangeness, mixing delicacy and huge, bombastic effects seamlessly, decades before Mahler played with the same dynamics.

Dutoit, pictured below, is a jet-setting, veteran star conductor who can either phone it in or provide serious inspiration, and it was the latter who was on the podium last week, leading the San Francisco Symphony Chorus in one of their greatest performances.

In the first chapter of Berlioz's Memoires, he also writes about his first communion where he encounters the disgusting sexism of the Church and also receives a glimpse of heaven:
"It was spring: the sun shone brightly, a light wind stirred the rustling poplars; the air was full of some religious fragrance. Deeply moved, I crossed the threshold of the chapel. I found myself in the midst of a multitude of young girls in white, my sister's friends; and with them I knelt in prayer and waited for the solemn ceremony to begin. The priest advanced, the Mass commenced; I gave myself to God. I was rudely awakened by the priest summoning me--with that boorish, unthinking bias in favour of their own sex that some men had even at the Lord's table--to come up to the altar first, in front of all those charming girls. I felt sure they should have precedence; but I went up, blushing at the unmerited honour, and received the sacrament. As I did so, a chorus of fresh young voices broke into the eucharistic hymn. The sound filled me with a kind of mystical, passionate unrest which I was powerless to hide from the rest of the congregation. I saw Heaven open--a Heaven of love and pure delight, purer and a thousand times lovelier than the one that had so often been described to me. Such is the magic power of true expression, the incomparable beauty of melody that comes from the heart!"
On Saturday night at Davies Hall, during the final, wild Judex crederis movement of the Te Deum, I also saw Heaven open, and would like to thank everyone involved, especially Hector.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Don't Be Shy, Don't Hold Back at SFMOMA

A huge, site-specific fabrication of hair, glue and rope has appeared in SFMOMA's atrium, spelling out nonsense in languages that look real but are in fact invented.

united nations--babel of the millenium was created in 1999 for the museum by Shanghai-born, New York-based artist Wenda Gu in 1999 and paid for by Vicki and Kent Logan, who are being feted on the second floor with a highlights exhibition taken from their massive donation of 330 contemporary artworks to SFMOMA fifteen years ago.

Kent Logan was a New York investment banker with Goldman Sachs, Paine Webber, and Barclays before arriving in San Francisco with his wife Vicki in 1992 as one of the seven partners of Montgomery Securities, one of the major funders of the 1990s Silicon Valley dotcom gold rush. He must have amassed quite a bit of that gold himself because he retired in 2000 in his 50s and moved to Vail, Colorado, where he became a town councilman in 2003.

The Logans built a modernist chateau in Vail adjoined by a 7,500 square foot private museum to exhibit their growing art collection (click here for a 2007 New York Times article about the artworld trend, Museum for My Stuff.) In 2006, they made a fractional gift upon their deaths to the Denver Art Museum, who will be inheriting the childless couple's Vail home, gallery and about $90 million in art and cash for its maintenance. In 2005, the couple bought vacation property at a gated Scottsdale community where they have been scandalizing the neighbors with their modernist golf course home filled with aggressively confrontational modern art (click here for a 2011 Wall Street Journal article with photos).

Though I don't particularly share the Logans' taste in art, at least it is their own taste rather than the product of an army of consultants. In an interview with Kyle McMillan, Kent notes,
"We've had advisers suggest that we look at this, buy that, but we've really ignored them for the most part. So, we've always said that we have to like the work because we're going to live with it, and we don't want to buy something that someone said we should have and then find out we don't like it. You can tell the difference. If I walk into a collector's home, I can tell immediately if there has been an adviser or a consultant at work, because it looks like one from Column A and one from Column B – a trophy type of collection."

I thought the metallic figures above were the latest Oversized Shiny Things from Jeff Koons, but they turned out to be aluminum figures by German artist Thomas Schutte from 1998 called Grosse Geisters (Great Spirits).

The requisite Jeff Koons piece was the goofy 1991 marble sculpture Self Portrait above left, surrounded by pop art samples from Warhol, Ruscha and Gilbert & George.

Though they have moved on to contemporary Japanese and Chinese art, the Logans also collected a lot of young Brits, such as Jenny Saville, whose 1999 painting Hem above is looming over an amused Patrick Vaz.

There is also the requisite Damien Hirst formaldehyde and dead animal sculpture on the floor, something I had only experienced through photos. In the flesh, so to speak, the effect is disturbing and disrespectful. I wanted to steal the piece away and give the creature a decent burial or incineration.