As I watched Christian Marclay's The Clock at SFMOMA last week, I was struck by the transformation of the museum's galleries. I had been told that everything about the viewing space was organized according to the artist's specifications, including the theatre-like curtains on the walls and the spacious arrangement of comfy couches ("We could have fit more, but he wanted everyone to have a good view"). Despite the rare privilege to view what many consider to be the artist's magnum opus in this fastidiously considered environment, I was distracted by, well, the surroundings.
The passage of time intrinsic to the work itself prompted a heightened awareness of its transformation. Hadn't I just been in this same space a few months ago, taking in Jay DeFeo's The Rose? At the thought of DeFeo, memories of other shows over the years came back to me. With every passing minute of The Clock, I became more fixated on my memories in the same space and more aware of just how soon it will all change, yet again, into something wholly new and unfamiliar. A wave of sentimentality flooded over me, just as an image flashed of John Belushi checking his watch at the end of National Lampoon's Animal House, and my own memories of the museum filtered in time with the fractious transitions of The Clock.
I recalled the sublime Magritte exhibition of 2000 and how I was enamored with everything about the show. Remember how the walls of each gallery transitioned to different shades of blue throughout?
René Magritte, Les valeurs personnelles, 1952
A year later I snagged an internship at SFMOMA and was delighted to walk through the stillness of the empty museum each morning. I helped with promotions for the off-site exhibition Revelatory Landscapes, a series of interventions by landscape architects, and my eyes were opened to the possibility of working in public space. Someone suggested I should ask then-director David Ross for a cup of tea and mentorship. When he said yes, I mentioned it to my astonished colleagues, and casually pointed out that it was much easier to connect with him then than it might be in the future. (I had no idea how right I would be -- Ross soon left the museum in a dramatic cloud of contention.)
Sarah Sze, Things Fall Apart, 2001
Remember too the Sol LeWitt in the atrium -- and later, the optical tricks in Kerry James Marshall's mural in the same site. At the thought of the atrium, my memories fast-forward to the lovely Jim Campbell Exploded Views over the entry last year, its images coherent only from the second floor landing.
Other shows rushed to mind: the fragile works of Eva Hesse, Ann Hamilton's indigo blue, William Kentridge's everything, and the fearless Kara Walker. There was a cautionary notice at the entrance of Walker's installation. Would they still do that today, I wonder? I also recall navigating the crowded Frida Kahlo exhibition with my ten-day-old newborn in his covered stroller. What was I thinking, taking such a tiny baby to such a crowded museum? It felt right at the time, despite an awkward attempt to breastfeed in the lobby. I was a little anxious that I would accidentally expose myself to the likes of director Neal Benezra, but I also felt a little defiant. This was my museum after all.
I think too about the shows that were lost on me: Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint (over my head, but, oh, remember that wonderful interactive website for visitor comments), Olafur Eliason (I heard it was amazing, but I missed it altogether during a vomitous first trimester), Brice Marden (it left me cold). I remember profound sorrow after experiencing Doris Salcedo's Atrabiliarios and, again too, after the death of Jeremy Blake, whose piece Winchester had been transformative.
Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios, 1992-2003
All art is a singular, personal experience, fleeting and whole only in that moment. There is no way to replicate the breathless wonder I felt following the directions of Janet Cardiff's The Telephone Call as it steered me up a service stairwell; there is no way to conjure up the thick oil smell that hung in the galleries during the exhibition of Richard Serra's massive, black drawings. I can only recall, not recapture, that moment of champagne-like silliness I experienced when talking with Cindy Sherman about her bicycle rides during preparations for her show -- and wondering out loud if she wore spandex on her jaunts. (We both laughed at the thought, and, no, she doesn't.)
Once, as the museum was beginning preparations to build the Rooftop Garden, I stood with SFMOMA curator of painting and sculpture Janet Bishop, looking up at a red string pulled taut in the air between buildings. She carefully explained how the string represented the architecture yet to come, pointing out where different features would appear. I was awed by this rare intimacy with the curator, which felt like holding a hummingbird in my hand. After that I would look up at the red string, thinking about what had been and what was to come.
As the museum's closing looms forth The Clock counts the hours, summoning memories and revelations in real time. After I emerged from my reverie and gave up my seat to walk through the museum, I marveled at the line of people on the stairwell waiting to see the Marclay. Don't waste this time waiting, I wanted to say to everyone in line, go take it all in before it's gone. There was a metaphor somewhere in that moment, about waiting and watching and keeping time, as it were, but an artwork caught my eye and led me in a new direction.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will close after Sunday, June 2 to undergo a massive, multi-year expansion. Admission is free May 30-June 2, 2013. The museum will be open around the clock from Saturday, June 1 at 10am until Sunday, June 2 at 5:45pm. The newly expanded and redesigned SFMOMA will reopen in early 2016. For more information visit sfmoma.org.
All images courtesy of SFMOMA.