I saw the King of Pop. Twice. In 30 days.
I ran into a gold-plated sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee Bubbles twice in a 30 day period. On accident.
This sculpture has long been on my "Art to See In-Person List" purely because it was one of the most ridiculous artworks I'd ever heard of. I knew that there were three copies of it, and I knew one was in New York. I had kinda forgotten about the other two. Living in Portland it didn't seem likely that I was going to run into ol' MJ anytime soon. Turns out the other two copies are in San Francisco and Los Angeles, two cities I recently visited.
Michael's west coast counterparts reside in San Francisdco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and at The Broad. Both of these museums feature modern and contemporary art. It wasn't my plan to visit the two so close in time to one another, though I'm glad I did. It ended up making for a fascinating comparison across collections and institutions. SFMOMA was a visit I conducted alone. My trip to The Broad took place about a month after, and I was accompanied by my sister. She, too, has visited SFMOMA within the last year. Our conversation inspired the compare/contrast which follows.
Give me some context.
SFMOMA is a beloved staple in the Bay Area arts scene. It stands out from other big name offerings in the region for it's collection and focus area. My mom took me there when I was 13 - travelling from Sacramento - simply because it was so different from what else was available. It has continued to grow, immersing itself more into the local community and broadening its collection. Recently the museum reopened to the public following a three year closure for a major reworking of its facilities.
The Broad is shiny and new, and boldly making a name for itself in a saturated art market. It is a private collection turned public. Though small in space, it is jam-packed with immense, immersive art. It is an Instagram darling, with selfies of Kusama's infinity mirror room "The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away" and pictures of visitors peaking out under oversize chairs from "Under the Table" by Robert Therrein dominating its hashtag. The collection focuses on postwar and contemporary art.
Sooo... Two contemporary art museums... do they have similar art? Kind of, yeah...
SFMOMA's collections includes bold sculpture, site-specific installations, exploratory 2D works, and work which challenges the norm. Here is a sample of works which stood out to me:
The Broad's collection includes larger-than-life 3D works, immersive spaces, new takes on trompe l'oeil, and pieces daring you to question their relevance. Here is a sample of works which stood out to me:
- Robert Therrien, Under the Table*
- Kara Walker, African't
- Roy Lichtenstein, Goldfish Bowl
- Sherrie Levine, Fountain (Buddha)* **
- Mark Tansey, Wake*
*Image below. Though all art above is linked!!
**I don't own this image and took it from the linked website.
Mmmkay, so why visit both? Do I need to see the King of Pop twice?
YES! You do. You should always pause to celebrate the late Michael Jackson, the forever great Jackson 5, and the fierce Janet Jackson. But that's not what we're here for...
While the two museums have very similar collections to one another, they are doing very different things in those spaces. My first though in SFMOMA was "Damn, this place is massive and it is jam-packed." Oddly, at The Broad it was "This places is so teeny, but look at the space for this BIG art." At SFMOMA the experience was more cerebral. The museum has an exhaustive collection that details the evolution of modern art. You are constantly questioning what is art, and how do politics, access, environment, and viewers impact it? These questions have always existed, but SFMOMA proves that we've experienced a century of unprecedented art growth and exploration. Extensive labels, a detailed map, and directions to learn more via an iPhone app were everywhere. Between the art and the supporting material, it was clear that this was a building to learn about art. On the opposite spectrum, The Broad lacked detailed labels, with galleries providing a light thematic overview. Rather than talking about the academic history of the works, my sister and I spent more time considering the experience. Specifically, we played with relativity. The Broad's galleries bounce between walls with immense canvases and rooms dominated by 3D works. We spent our time getting close and jumping back, exploring the art in a very physical way. We didn't leave with a deeper understanding of art as an academic concept, but we did develop new or deeper appreciation for the works on view.
Though there are clearly different approaches to sharing art at each institution, there is also a conversation being had. It isn't intentional, but it is there if you choose. At first my sister and I laughed about all the similarities between collections. Then we noticed that the way these pieces are being represented are completely different from one another. For example, at The Broad "Michael Jackson and Bubbles" are one sculpture among several by Koons. At SFMOMA it is celebrated as the epitome of bombastic pop art against a dramatic white backdrop. Something about those different approaches is interesting. So, we talked about it. The same artwork was being used to make two different points in two locations. Similarly, SFMOMA uses Duchamp's "Fountain" to celebrate the artist's contributions to conceptual art; indeed, it is a foundational work for the style. The Broad has a bronzed urinal by Levine, "Fountain (Buddha)," which was created almost 30 years after Duchamp's. This work was done in clear response to the other, and as such resides in an intimate gallery highlighting artists in conversation with each other over time. Again, that is interesting. So, we talked about other work we'd seen doing something similar. It was fun! It made the art come alive in a new way.
In writing this post I recognize how fortunate I am to have been able to visit both these museums in person, and so close in time to one another. While that helps, you can discover a lot of this on your own with a secret tool of mine: THE INTERNET! Each museum has a fantastic, searchable database of their collections online. They were a tremendous resource in rounding out my faulty memory. Have a look and compare what they've got to what you've seen... anywhere. You may find that it's not all that black or white (<-- links to my second fave MJ song!).