Last Sunday, SFMOMA invited people to attend the second floor galleries of the museum for free in order to temporarily escape the smoky, polluted air enveloping the Bay Area from the Butte County wildfires.
The Beijing level air quality was an accidental environmental complement to a new exhibition that opened last weekend, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World. Filling the entire 7th floor of the museum, the exhibit is devoted to experimental art created in that country in the two decades after the Tiananmen Square massacre, which is referenced in a huge, surreal painting in the opening gallery.
Based on a famous photo from the massacre of a rickshaw driver furiously pedaling wounded protesters to possible safety, the 2001 New Beijing by Wang Xingwei replaces the wounded men with penguins, which is simultaneously funny and horrifying.
The exhibit is organized around five or six categories, which were evanescent enough that I don't remember any of their names. Some of the art was interesting enough on its own terms that stuffing it into overarching themes seemed a little silly.
Kindly posing for "scale" purposes was Rachel, the Fog City Notes blogger, who is a perfect companion for a museum visit since she has strong, independent opinions, loves art, and is funny besides. It was wonderful seeing the 1993 Avant-Garde by Bay Area based Hung Liu, who immigrated from China to California in 1984.
We also loved the skewed painting by Zhao Bandi from 1991, Young Zhang.
If there was any one detail that stood out in the exhibit, it was the cigarettes being smoked by every other person.
This included the workers in a stunning set of photos by Liu Zheng.
The best title belonged to the bizarrely funny 2000 collage by Yu Youhan, What Is It That Makes This Home So Modern, So Appealing?
The title of Yu Hong's work is too long to reproduce, but it was fun watching museumgoers being stared at by one of its subjects.
One gallery is dedicated to video and conceptual art which probably has more resonance if you can speak Chinese and know something about the country's culture, past and present.
For the unitiated, a lot of the work was simply bewildering, but the show is interesting enough that I plan on returning before the exhibit closes in February.
The great discovery of the afternoon was on the third floor, where a large photo exhibit by Louis Stettner (1922-2016) has recently been installed. After working as a military photographer during World War Two, he split his time between New York where he was born and Paris, where he was a student and collaborator with Brassai, whose own exhibit will be opening this weekend on the other half of the third floor. I had never heard of Stettner before, but his work is extraordinary, in the tradition of Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Robert Capa.
SFMOMA is encoring their free second floor admission policy this weekend as an air pollution refuge, but it's worth paying for admission or buying a membership for the China and Brassai/Stettner exhibits alone.