As SFMOMA Prepares for its Signature Fundraiser, an Interview with Senior Curator Gary Garrels

  • Gary Garrels; photo: © Andrea Lo, courtesy SFMOMA

After being closed to the public for three years, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) re-opens on May 14th in an expansion by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta, nearly tripling its gallery space. As the big day approaches, the museum is gearing up for its highly anticipated annual Modern Ball fundraiser, this year featuring a work by the L.A.-based artist Mark Bradford

Bradford will represent the United States at the 2017 Venice Biennale, making him one of only a handful of black artists in over seventy years to receive this distinction. Often drawing on his own identity in his work, Bradford is known for his installations and large abstract paintings, with their scintillating, almost skin-like surfaces. As he told the New York Times, “The black body is always a heavily politicized body, in America in particular, and so carrying that burden is kind of a birthright for me.”

Artsy spoke about Bradford’s work and SFMOMA’s recent developments with Gary Garrels, the museum’s Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture. 

Artsy: In a nutshell, what does the job of a senior curator become when a museum expands as much as SFMOMA has?

Gary Garrels: [Laughs] Oh, it becomes two or three jobs. It opens up so many possibilities for how we can present works in our collection. We have a much bigger platform in which to develop ideas, to turn a gallery into a “lab,” and to try something new. With the reopening we focused on three aspects: the Pritzker Center for Photography, which is the largest space dedicated to the exhibition, study and interpretation of photography at any art museum in the country; works from the Campaign for Art [a multi-year acquisition effort]; and the Fisher Collection. Here we really wanted to help people understand the character of the collection—Doris and Donald Fisher focused on collecting artists, not “art history” or its movements. They would fall in love with an artist, and then try to collect them in as much depth as possible.

Artsy: SFMOMA was the final venue for Mark Bradford’s traveling, mid-career survey in 2012, it also participates in his Open Studio project, an online education initiative, and now you’re working together again for the museum’s benefit auction. That’s quite a track record of collaboration.   

GG: Well, the reason SFMOMA was the final stop for the exhibition, originally organized by Christopher Bedford at the Wexner Center, is that Mark’s very first solo show was in San Francisco, at a small community-based, artist-run space called the Luggage Store. When I moved to L.A. in 2005, Mark was one of the first artists whose studios I wanted to visit because I knew the work from exhibitions and I really wanted to meet this guy. We’ve maintained and developed a really wonderful relationship since then, and I included him in an exhibition I organized at the Hammer Museum [“Eden’s Edge: Fifteen LA Artists,” 2007]. It’s amazing and marvelous for me to see how Mark continually pushes himself to develop his work. He doesn’t stand still, he doesn’t rest on his laurels, he has a humility, a modesty, but also an intense ambition. He’s constantly pushing himself to keep the art vital and alive.

The work in his last two shows, at the Hammer [“Mark Bradford: Scorched Earth,” 2015] and at Hauser & Wirth gallery in New York [“Be Strong Boquan”] really pushed what he was doing, introducing what I would call a lattice; this linearity—these pulsing, floating circles—are really a different way for him to work. The museum itself acquired a major work out of this Hauser & Wirth show, which is up right now as part of our “Campaign for Art.”

Artsy: SFMOMA’s Modern Ball just launched featuring a painting by Mark Bradford [Untitled Pink (SFMOMA Benefit), 2016], made specially for the benefit auction. Can you describe it?

GG: It’s about 5 feet by 4 feet. It’s a kind of lattice, a web of lines, and lots of these dark areas that are almost like flickering spots. This is typical of Mark’s work—you could read it as a landscape, but it’s also a covering, like a magnification of skin. There’s an organic quality to it. And it’s very alive. Your eye doesn’t settle in one place. Mark has talked about how he aspires to create work that has the same energy and impact as the Abstract Expressionists—to achieve a vitality and intensity of the overall surface, and an overall sense of it being alive and active.

Artsy: I understand that the work is similar to those in the “Scorched Earth” exhibition.

GG: Yes, as well as the show that just closed at Hauser & Wirth. Mark’s mature work has always referenced cultural, political, and social issues, as well as issues of personal identity—how does one see and experience the world as a black person and as a gay man? Mark is not shy about talking about art with relation to issues that are fundamental to our society and our culture—about people being on the margins, the AIDS crisis, the vulnerability of the gay community at that time, and the anger in the black community during the [Los Angeles] race riots [in 1992]. For Mark, urban settings are settings in turmoil, but they are also places of amazing beauty and places where anger is just simmering under the surface. As he says, he likes that his works are “loaded.” They are full of personal experiences and issues of our culture and society.

Artsy: So he is looking back to the AIDS crisis, and the year 1992. Is he also looking back to the artistic legacies of this period as well? I think of the group ACT UP or Felix Gonzalez-Torres, for example, who looked at a lot of the same topics using abstraction.

GG: I think Felix in particular broke open the ability of artists to deal with social issues, cultural issues, and identity issues through the language of abstraction.

Artsy: Twenty years later now, though, how can Bradford really contribute to that legacy?

GG: I would say what Felix and other artists did at that time was to go back and look at the legacy of the ‘60s, especially Minimal Art and Conceptual Art. What Mark has done is to leap back even another decade earlier to the Abstract Expressionists and the Affichistes in Paris, like [Jacques] Villeglé, or [Robert] Rauschenberg, who I think is hugely important. Rauschenberg was a gay man and he brought content into his work; he took things from the street, literally—objects, images from mass media, culture, publications, and so on, and infused—or “loaded up”—an essentially abstract vocabulary with images and issues that were political and cultural. Great artists go back to other great artists. Willem de Kooning always said, “Picasso was the one you had to beat.” Great artists have always looked back to other great artists, and Mark absolutely is part of that way of thinking and working.

Artsy: When you mention Rauschenberg I think of some of Bradford’s earlier works, where he uses end papers from hair salons to make these abstract, quilt-looking works. He’s very involved with his community, too. Can you tell me about that engagement?

GG: Mark set up his studio in the community in which he grew up and in which he lived, and where his mother’s former hair salon was—Leimert Park, a black neighborhood in south central L.A. Right from the get-go he was grounded in the neighborhood, and he wanted to be immersed in it. Art + Practice [an arts and education community center he co-founded] is an extension of that. But the art—and Mark is always very clear about this—is a different thing. The art is about communicating to as wide an audience as possible to think about issues, but also to have an immediate experience that is enlivening and vital and visceral. Mark is not afraid of beauty, but he’s also not afraid of using the artwork as a jumping off point to ask deeper questions.


—Jessica Backus, Director of Artsy Learning and The Art Genome Project



Bidding for SFMOMA’s Modern Ball Auction is open now through May 12 at 4pm PT (7pm ET). Proceeds from the auction support SFMOMA’s exhibitions and education programs, which serve more than 60,000 students, teachers, and families each year.

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