Theater & art

Changing the modern-art game: Have you seen what they’ve done in San Francisco?

The Snohetta expansion of the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Henrik Kam, courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The Snohetta expansion of the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s easy enough to make a museum bigger. You hire an architect, you raise money, you build.

It’s harder to make it better. Making it better means acquiring better art. But it also means knowing what to do with that art.

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The revamped San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which opens on May 14 after a three-year closure, is verifiably bigger. It has a new 10-story addition designed by Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta, which almost triples the gallery space.

But it’s also better — to such a degree, and in so many interesting, potentially game-changing ways, that for the next six months museum directors everywhere are going to be driven crazy fielding the same question: “Have you seen what they’ve done in San Francisco?”

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With its black-and-white-striped central cylinder and slanting oculus encased in red brickwork, SFMOMA’s original 1995 Mario Botta building is taut, fortified, symmetrical. It’s quite at odds with the white, asymmetrical, organically pleated façade of the Snohetta addition.

But architects building in congested urban zones can get away with dissonance, and even revel in it. It’s the habitat.

Inside, the interiors are smoothly integrated. The Snohetta expansion’s maple floors, stunning staircases, and beautifully proportioned galleries make it a pleasure to be in.

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In one glass-walled street-level space open free to the public, Richard Serra’s massive rusted-steel sculpture “Sequence” stands at the foot of Roman steps that offer great views onto the work. The museum now has three entrances, six outdoor terraces, and an outdoor wall covered in living plants.

All great. But isn’t every museum expanding these days? The real questions for an ambitious museum are: What art have you got to put in your expansion, and what are you doing with it?

Thanks to an unprecedented arrangement, SFMOMA has something very special to put in its new spaces. It’s called the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection.

The Fishers, who cofounded the Gap clothing stores in 1969, began collecting art in the 1970s. They picked mostly postwar artists they loved and believed important, and acquired their works in depth.

Andy Warhol’s “Triple Elvis.”

The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the SFMOMA

Andy Warhol’s “Triple Elvis.”

Thus, they have remarkable concentrations of work by the three biggest names of postwar German art — Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Anselm Kiefer — and comparable holdings of such canonical Americans as Andy Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Calder, Roy Lichtenstein, Agnes Martin, and Serra.

The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the SFMOMA

Gerhard Richter’s “Stadtbild Madrid.”

SFMOMA doesn’t own the Fisher Collection — which may surprise you, given how much of the new building the Fisher works occupy. Rather, they have it on loan for 100 years.

Under the terms of a contract that took years to thrash out, the museum has the right to treat the Fisher Collection basically as its own — integrating the works into its own collection, lending them out, conserving them, even putting them in storage — so long as it displays the collection together and in its entirety for one year out of every decade.

Is this an outrageous compromise? A dangerous precedent? A blow to the museum’s integrity? Opinions may differ. But the inaugural display, installed by senior curator Gary Garrels, suggests to me that it’s not so much a compromise as a win for the museum, a win for the Fisher family, and a 100-year, wind-powered victory lap for the rest of us.

The Fisher works fill many gaps in SFMOMA’s collection. There are also many points of fruitful overlap. Both will become clearer when the two collections are integrated. In the meantime, the Fisher Collection can be appreciated as the coherent and powerful collection that it is.

I almost wrote “museum quality.” But the Fisher Collection is actually better than most museums’ holdings of art from this era. Few museums today could afford four large rooms of gorgeous Ellsworth Kellys, or seven paintings by Agnes Martin, displayed here in their own hushed, rounded, chapel-like space.

Each room showing the Fisher Collection is devoted either to a single artist or to choice works by two or three artists with meaningful links. Two galleries, for instance, hold a superb array of early and later portraits by Warhol. Two more contain dazzling large-scale paintings and sculptures by Kiefer.

The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the SFMOMA

Roy Lichtenstein’s “Live Ammo (Tzing!).”

The double, triple, and quadruple combinations are just as fine. A spray of Lichtensteins, for instance, shares a large gallery with soft sculptures by fellow Pop artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Early Minimalist works by Frank Stella, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, and Donald Judd occupy another gallery.

This heavily artist-oriented hang makes SFMOMA qualitatively different from other museums. It invites viewers to intuit inner creative compulsions rather than forcing curators’ pet themes or art history clichés down their gullets.

In no way does it foreclose, however, on the possibility of making spicy connections. A room of Warhols, for instance — all but one in silver and gray — is positioned directly below a room of early Richter photo-based portraits in blurry grays.

The inevitable mental comparison makes instantly clear the importance of Warhol to Richter. And yet the difference between Warhol’s shiny silver celebrities and Richter’s portraits of unremarkable people in dead-mouse-gray also speaks volumes. Laborious explanations are redundant.

Other artists who get the royal treatment (three works or more) in the Fisher Collection include Calder, Polke, Serra, Chuck Close, Cy Twombly, Philip Guston, Brice Marden, and Georg Baselitz.

Before the arrival of the Fisher holdings, SFMOMA had a respectable collection with some great highlights: Matisse’s landmark “Woman in a Hat”; Frida Kahlo’s portrait of herself and Diego Rivera; works by celebrated West Coast painters Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn; and fine things by Paul Klee, Georges Braques, Rene Magritte, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Clyfford Still.

All these are back, in a reassuringly familiar but still tangy display in the old galleries. But the new SFMOMA also devotes considerable space to works that have come into the collection since 2009.

Courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Alexander Calder's “Untitled” on view in the museum.

That was when SFMOMA director Neal Benezra launched the quiet phase of a drive to bolster the collection, which he called the “Campaign for Art.” News of the possible arrival of the Fisher Collection broke shortly afterward.

“People in this community could see that there was something exciting happening,” Benezra told me, “and they wanted to be part of it.” Approximately 3,000 works of art poured into the collection, including a 1963 painting by Francis Bacon, a large drawing by Balthus, and wonderful things by Alice Neel, Ruth Asawa, David Smith, Lee Krasner, Pollock, Twombly, Rauschenberg, Johns, Ruscha, Nam June Paik, Cindy Sherman, and Charles Ray.

Also, vast quantities of photography: Almost the entire third floor of the expansion is dedicated to a study center and exhibition space tailored to the museum’s great photography holdings.

Here, and elsewhere, one feels conscious of a concerted effort not only to show the art to the best effect, but to draw in viewers. The wall labels, for instance, are factual and short, but also colorful, and evidently written by real people expressing real responses, not zombie authorities on intellectual autopilot.

A Lee Krasner painting, for instance, “roars with intensity.” (It really does.) A Man Ray photograph shows Marcel Duchamp looking “sculptural and silly — like a human artwork trying hard to keep soapsuds out of his mouth.”

The museum also offers a phone app that tracks where you are, can be synched with your mom or your date, and offers content linked to the works in front of you. Short commentaries by people in non-art fields are part of the deal. An actual magician, for instance, speaks about a Polke painting of a magician. Comedians, composers, actors, and athletes also weigh in.

You can query whether some of this is gimmicky. But overwhelmingly, the innovations in this new incarnation of SFMOMA struck me as smart, serious, and farsighted. They all seemed pegged to three simple premises: Show as much great art as possible. Help people relate to it. Invite them back.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reopening

At San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, May 14. 415-357-4000, www.sfmoma.org

Related:

SFMOMA director Neal Benezra on the museum’s unique approach

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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