Though catchy, the title Calder to Warhol erroneously suggests that this diverse exhibition is either chronologically bounded by the careers of Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol (1925-1987) or stylistically encompassed by their respective works; it is neither. However, this first exhibition at SFMOMA of the recently incorporated Fisher Collection delivers a representative overview of the impressive 1,100 artworks that GAP founder Donald Fisher and his wife Doris amassed over their many years collecting together. Obviously, not every artist is included, and sadly many of the more recent and challenging acquisitions are omitted. But, the show does effectively summarize both the Fisher's eclectic taste and their unwavering commitment to a number of important artists. This overview does not make the most cohesive show, but it does offer a unique window into Doris and Donald Fisher's personal collecting vision -- a vision that, as the collection is incorporated into SFMOMA's future programming, will almost certainly be replaced by the museum's own institutional narrative.
One thing I particularly like about this exhibition is that it includes works by slightly less well-known artists as well as those thoroughly canonized. In one room a deep red wooden wall sculpture by Robert Therrien unexpectedly complements a mesh, wood, and tar sculpture by Martin Puryear; the colorful dense angularity of the one setting off the dark hollow presence of the other. The show also has not one Jackson Pollack in it, but includes a colossal painting by Lee Krasner. Krasner's piece possesses so much of the energy and effortless dynamism of Pollack's best works that it materially challenges the popular conception of their creative relationship. Krasner's painting hangs across from a wooden Mark di Suervo sculpture that wonderfully echoes and expands on Krasner's organically angular painted flourishes.
Such revelatory surprises exist throughout the show, but the heart of the Fisher's collection, and the core of this Calder to Warhol introductory exhibition, is the work of the artists that Doris and Donald Fisher collected in depth. Reflecting this commitment, many of these artists have received designated galleries for their work. Obviously, these include Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol; but also, Agnes Martin, George Baselitz, Cy Twombly, Ellsworth Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Philip Guston, Richard Serra, Frank Stella, and Chuck Close. Since several core parts of the Fisher's collection overlap SFMOMA's own holdings, several of these galleries feel like déjà vu. The Phillip Guston gallery, in particular, is remarkably similar to the Guston gallery included in the previous SFMOMA Focus On Artists show that this exhibition displaced.
The uppermost floor of the exhibition opens with an assortment of works by Alexander Calder. The subsequent galleries expand various aspects present in Calder's bright, touching, and playful pieces. These galleries include Ellsworth Kelly's colorful paintings, Richard Serra's precarious sculptures, Gerhard Richter's masterful variations, Anselm Kiefer's emotive works, and a smattering of minimalists' structural propositions. The upper floor is, in one way, a treatise on Calder's far-reaching influence. In and of itself, it constitutes a most lovely show.
While there is a tranquil tone on the exhibition's upper floor, it is not without unexpected intersections. The most striking juxtaposes German painters Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter. Richter, a stylistic chameleon is nearly impossible to pin down. His various virtuosic bodies of work are arresting and often quite moving, but remain largely cool and analytical, revealing little of Richter himself. Kiefer, on the other hand, can't help being Kiefer. Both his paintings and his leaden plane sculpture exhibit a consistent visceral materiality and brooding aesthetic. Unlike the more detached works by Richter, Kiefer's pieces all exude his personally felt cultural heartache about the horrors enacted during the Second World War.
The exhibition's lower floor is less unified. Its warren-like galleries are packed with pieces that sometimes enhance each other and sometimes do not. Though diverse, the floor is curiously anchored by the two most heavily represented artists in the exhibition. Surprisingly, these are not Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol, but rather Andy Warhol and Chuck Close, each with two large galleries dedicated to their work. Located next to each other, these four adjoining galleries create a strange dialogue. Three of the galleries -- one of Warhol's and both of Close's -- are filled with large-scale images of individual's faces. This formal similarity is striking and it is entirely unclear from the presented information what significance this connection holds. It could be that Doris and Donald just liked headshot portraits. Or, collecting the work of one artist led them to become interested in the correlating work of the other. The connection remains unclear, but the multiple galleries of oversized and mostly recognizable faces, coupled with Warhol's other full-bodied portraits, create a pervasive tone that makes the non-figurative works included on the lower floor seem out of place.
Though more traditional works dominate the show, it contains a number of notable exceptions. There is an enthralling multi-media William Kentridge installation and another contemporary video work that have each received their own darkened exhibition spaces. A number of sculptures, including Calder's, break refreshingly from tradition, and a few, more conceptually based pieces, like Sophie Calle's text and photographic work "Autobiographical Stories (The Bed)," combine disparate media to great effect.
The artworks of the Fischer Collection, though consistently blue chip, range all over the map. However, taken together the works in this show make a unified sort of sense. Spanning numerous decades, and a host of different styles, the collected works evidence certain consistent predilections. Intensely saturated colors are present throughout, defining works by Calder, Warhol, and Kelly, and surfacing distinctly in pieces by Stella, Close, Baldessari, and Baselitz. Brilliant color is not the only connecting thread. The dull, metallic surfaces in John Chamberlain's surprisingly colorless crumpled steel sculptures strike up an unexpected conversation not only with Richard Serra's balanced metal slabs and Anselm Kiefer's lead plane, but also with the sequential galvanized steel boxes of Donald Judd's wall sculpture. Such connective threads abound and it is a pleasure to note these overlapping thematic trajectories while moving through the exhibition.
The Fisher Collection is a substantial addition to SFMoMA's already impressive holdings. Collectively valued into the hundreds of millions, the collection bolsters areas of the museum's existing collection and adds significant works by artists previously unrepresented. The scale of this addition is nearly unprecedented, and thankfully its 100-year loan comes with fewer strings than the similar deal Eli Broad struck with LACMA in Los Angles. SFMoMA's planned expansion to accommodate the collection is still several years away, but this initial exhibition offers an exciting glimpse at the diverse works that will enrich the museum's programming for years to come.
Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection runs through September 19, 2010 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. For more information visit sfmoma.org.