Featuring works by Giorgio de Chirico, Alexander Rodchenko, Constantin Brancusi, Berenice Abbott, Man Ray, and others, Flesh and Metal considers how modern painters, photographers, and sculptors reconciled the impersonal world of the mechanical with the uncontrollable realm of the human psyche, producing a wide range of imagery responding to the complexity of modern experience.
There was a reception for SFMOMA members at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University tonight. I was given an invitation during my orientation, so I asked Jeans if she wanted to go and check it out with me. Any excuse to dress up and look at art, right?
Flesh and Metal is an extremely well-curated collection. Each piece tied into the story told by the curators - and there were some pretty significant works on display! Whether you consider it to be a blight or a blessing on the art world, all agree that Marcel Duchamp's Fountain revolutionized the definition of art and its role in society, and the little ceramic urinal was sitting prominently at the center of the exhibition. Three kings of distorting reality on canvas - Picasso, Braque, and Dalí - hung on the walls of the gallery. On the other end of the room, the stark machinery captured in black and white by Albert Renger-Patzsch and Charles Sheeler contrasted with Man Ray's dreamy Rayograph series.
When I go to shows like this, the reaction to the art always comes in a one-two punch. The first immediate, visceral reaction comes down to personal taste, and is often quite negative. "Oh, that is ugly" or "Wow, I hate this". I think for a lot of people, this is where engagement with art ends. They either like or don't like the aesthetics of a work, and once they've decided to love or hate it they move on. There are times when this level of engagement is appropriate, even perfect. If you want to buy a painting for your home, why waste time learning about the artist's message or the virtuosity of his technique when you think the piece is hideous and you would never buy it? Listen to that gut reaction!
But sometimes it's worth it to stop and consider a piece further, pushing through that first reaction to look again. The second reaction is what I think of as the intellectual reaction, because that's the time that I try to consider what the artist is saying in the work. In a lot of contemporary art, this requires an outside source to explain it, whether it's through an artist's statement written on a plaque or a gallery docent talking through the artist's process. It's the art historian providing context or a fellow artist explaining the difficulty of the technique. Many times there has been a piece that my gut reaction rejects, but through the intellectual reaction I can at least understand and appreciate the work.
It was difficult to give the work time for thought and consideration because the reception was very successful, which means stuffed to the brim with people squeezing past each other to see everything. Jeans and I ended up spending more time in the museum's other galleries where the Cantor's permanent collection is displayed, because it was so darn difficult to fight into decent viewing positions for Flesh and Metal.
For me, the highlight of the evening had nothing to do with the exhibition. It was a real treat to walk through Richard Serra's Sequence at night. The shadows were deep and cut sharp lines against the metal as the stars twinkled overhead. I spent a lot of time considering this gargantuan sculpture when I was at SJSU, but seeing it in darkness was almost like seeing it for the first time again.