This is a long delayed blog. I thought I might as well write something up about my second trip to SFMOMA, which I very much enjoyed this time around. This morning, I was just contemplating a work by Mark Rothko on my walk to work and this stream of thoughts really prompted me to commit to this blog. After working in marketing for a while now, I think I’ve started to develop an intuition about visual language, even if it’s a faint and amateur one. It’s kind of cool. I’ll break up some of my favorite pieces by the exhibitions that they come from.
Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, Floor 4
I loved the new SFMOMA Edvard Munch exhibit, which is officially titled “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed.” Munch is a Norwegian artist who is most famous for his piece “The Scream.” Unsurprisingly, the internationally renowned piece was not in this exhibit.
Munch paints loosely and vibrantly to capture the wide spectrum of human emotion, that is ever-so ephemeral and constantly changing. The bold colors capture the viewer immediately and the fluid lines linger in the mind. I came out of the exhibition really taken away by this notion of ambiguous boundaries, particularly the fluidity between the seemingly fixed spheres of self and other and life and death. Munch’s stylistic choices serve to intensify the emotional responses to his work. My favorite pieces from the exhibition are “At the Deathbed” and “Eye in Eye.”
- “By the Deathbed” struck a chord in me, since I’ve been affected by it over the last few years. In the piece, people dressed in black hover next to a deathbed as though it were a coffin. We can’t see the face of the dead. The viewers have faces that are either stiff and white or red and sorrowful. The piece is about grief and how the range of emotions that the grieving undergo. Death, as it seems to propose, is the burden of the living.
- In “Eye in Eye,” two lovers are embracing each other (a la Adam and Eve), each so drawn into the other that there are literally no boundaries between them. The piece brings out how the self becomes lost in love, how the self becomes absorbed into the other. Love, as it is portrayed through Munch’s painting, has this romantic, gothic, creepy, dangerous, and entrancing quality to it.
In Character, Floor 2
I came across Nam June Paik, whose work illuminates and weaves together loose strands between modernity, Buddhist tradition, and digital technology. I appreciate how Paik situates the self into the realm of digital media and really considers how the self finds the possibility of meditation and fortifies relationships with others in the digital age. It’s also nice to see an artist call out to Buddhist influences in their art. Contemporary abstract and minimalist art originate from Tantric Buddhist tradition (either directly or indirectly), which doesn’t get as much as a nod from Western art critics or artists. My favorite pieces from Paik include “Zen for TV” and “Self-Portrait, 2005.”
- “Zen for TV” displays a TV placed on its side. There’s a single fluorescent blue line going through the otherwise black screen. Paik comments on how we can peacefully meditate within a world replete with constantly evolving media.
- “Self-Portrait, 2005” plays through flickering images of the artist inside a vintage brown television (dial knobs and all). Over the small screen is a child-like smiley face doodle made with seafoam green and bright oil pastels. The piece is one that touches upon the theme of self-containment within the digital age. It feels relevant in the age of social media today, even if it was made twelve years ago. The artist contains multiple identities. But he maintains a thin, absurdly flippant visage, mask, what have you—the smiley face—to the world. He’s contained within the screen and within the smiley face, which perhaps symbolizes how people duplicate their real selves to match their digital selves.
Open Ended: Painting and Sculpture, Floor 2 (Mark Rothko, “No. 14, 1960.”)
Rothko’s piece No. 14, 1960 has been haunting me. It is abstract art, which isn’t one of my favorite kinds of art. But this is such a gorgeous piece, a really provocative, emotionally powerful piece. It is a painting of a passionate vermillion rectangle above a shorter, cooler royal blue rectangle. They sit upon the canvas, which is painted a rich burgundy color. The overwhelming red and more subdued blue are at odds. They aren’t in a state of balance, which is what makes them so intense to look at.
That said, it is fairly difficult for me to see color blocking as more than just an object. As The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl writes of Rothko, “His pictures are emphatically objects. They are in scale with a viewer’s body, but their color and brushwork have a disembodying effect. You may endorse the artist’s terms for this flustering tension, at a risk of tipping sensation into sentimentality.”
Approaching American Abstraction, Floor 4 (Agnes Martin, “Untitled No. 5”)
Martin considered herself an abstract expressionist and she also cited inspiration from Buddhist ethics and discipline. “Untitled No. 5, 1977” is made from ink, graphite, and gesso on linen canvas. It is intense in its simplicity. Intense in a very subdued and understated way. The faint graphite shows up noticeably on the taupe canvas, but it’s not at all harsh. Simplicity allows viewers to contemplate their relationship with the work and the space around it with acute clarity.
Behind the Scenes
These aren’t pictures from the exhibitions, just some fun images I took during my trip. Enjoy!