As a part of its "On the Go" series during its multi-year construction hiatus, SFMOMA headed south this month to show off some of its early 20th century paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Coincidentally, the institution also mounted an equally traditional (say, circa 1981) "project" in the affluent Silicon Valley hamlet of Los Altos. Both continue through March of 2014.
Organized by a number of SFMOMA, Cantor and Stanford art professionals and professors, as well as a few Stanford students, the Cantor show, Flesh and Metal: Body and Machine in Early 20th-Century Art, sounds promising, but the inclusion of works that are only concerned with the Flesh alongside those that are preoccupied with Metal turns what should have been a focused exercise into a sweeping grab bag. "Taken together," we're told on the Cantor's website, "the works offer a fresh view of how artists negotiated the terrain between the mechanical and the bodily -- two oppositional yet inextricably bound forces -- to produce a wide range of imagery responding to the complexity of modern experience." Giving definition to "terrain" (putting flesh on the metal, one might say), SFMOMA's site reveals that the show considers how modern artists "reconciled the impersonal world of the mechanical with the uncontrollable realm of the human psyche" to produce "a wide range of" etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
The resulting range is a good deal too wide. While I enjoyed seeing the Margaret Bourke-White photograph of RCA speakers taken in 1935 and the Salvador Dali painting of surreal genitalia from 1928, I'm not sure what the two have in common, nor how either has negotiated or reconciled anything within or beyond their own frames. Should we be impressed that both were executed within the same half-century? Is it really so unusual that one work deals exclusively with machines while the other is focused just as exclusively on flesh? I'm no art professor, but the really interesting thing about artworks that flirt with a concept like "Flesh and Metal" is when those two come together in a single work of art, not when they happen to be included in the same exhibition.
Raoul Ubac, Penthésilée, 1937. Collection SFMOMA, gift of Robert Miller.
You can see the potential of the show in the artworks that actually meet the terms of its title. There is, of course, Alexander Calder, whose clever metal sculpture from 1940 features an s-curve armature, suggesting a playfully abstracted torso. Similarly, there's the smart little Raoul Ubac photograph from 1937, in which the hard machinery secreted within a pair of nudes has been exposed. Right next to that efficient encapsulation of the exhibition's premise is another work from the same year by Hans Bellmer. And I can even see a case being made for the Yves Tanguy from 1939, thanks to the wires connecting the artist's vaguely biomorphic shapes, as if to send positive and negative electrical charges through them, forcing flesh to behave as machine. But don't tell me László Moholy-Nagy's 1923 painting depicting a number of geometric elements presented in isometric projection indicate a nexus of the human and mechanical realms simply because the great man's hand wielded the brush.
Jessica Stockholder, Cross Hatch, 2013; commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, c. Jessica Stockholder; Photo: Ben Marks
Farther south, Project Los Altos: SFMOMA in Silicon Valley, has its own set of problems, although when the artists stuck to their gruel-thin marching orders ("to see what would happen if we invited artists to reflect on Silicon Valley"), the results were better than when they unwittingly found themselves competing for attention with the sculptures littered here and there by the local arts commission. Sometimes I could not tell the two efforts apart.
For example, Jessica Stockholder was given a good deal more real estate than a pedestal to work with; she had the entire intersection of Fourth and State Streets at her disposal. But instead of "reconfiguring" it to heighten the "everyday performances" taking place on its surface, her choppy geometry of industrial shades of blue, pink, yellow and orange is merely dispiriting. As if to call attention to the project's misguided conceit, bleachers have been erected to give the locals a chance to ogle black Teslas and silver BMWs gliding over the mess. Oh wait, I just realized I'm reflecting on how Silicon Valley venture capitalists will fund just about anything. I stand corrected; this piece is brilliant!
Chris Johanson, You Have Seen It Before and I Hope You See It Many More Times, 2013; commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, c. Chris Johanson; Photo: Ben Marks.
Up the street a block or two is Chris Johanson's You Have Seen It Before and I Hope You See It Many More Times, the pretentious title for the parking-lot-facing façade of 242 State Street, which he has painted in a couple shades of purple. Affixed to the building is a wooden, octagonal frame (from recycled sources, we're told) surrounding a sheet of stainless steel that's so highly polished it resembles a mirror. According to the exhibition brochure, the mirror is supposed to offer "a place for reflection and a reframing of the landscapes we observe," which is a pretty fancy way to talk about a parking lot.
Mike Mills, A Mind Forever Voyaging Through Strange Seas of Thought Alone: Silicon Valley Project (still), 2013; commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, c. Mike Mills
Better are Alec Soth's moody, black-and-white photographs of some of the valley's most famous landmarks (the Hewlett-Packard garage in Palo Alto, the Apple garage in Los Altos, the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, Google in Mountain View), which are remarkable for their ordinariness. And I absolutely loved the project by Mike Mills, who has sited his installation, devoted to the valley's past, present and future, in the back of the town's beloved Costume Bank on State Street. You can take home a complete copy of the town's local newspaper published the week Apple was founded in April 1976, fantasize about how glamorous it would be to work in the valley by perusing the unglamorous "costumes" worn by eight members of its current workforce and shake your head at the mixture of insight and naiveté on display in a video of local children talking about the future.
A block or so up State Street, Christian Jankowski also has a video installation, in his case of nine valley movers and shakers pontificating wisely about everything from poetry to social media. I preferred Mills' kids. For all their smarts, Jankowski's experts will always be products of the present. Mills' kids are the future, and that, my friends, is what Silicon Valley is really about.
Flesh and Metal runs through March 16, 2014, at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. For more information visit museum.stanford.edu. Project Los Altos runs through March 2, 2014. For more information visit sfmoma.org.