Modern art often seems as if it’s just going out of its way to bug you.
It was with some trepidation that I visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last weekend. I knew I’d get to see some of my favorite pieces: Things like a whole room full of Paul Klee’s playful drawings, or Matisse’s wrong-on-purpose color choices, or surprises like a face-to-face encounter with Diego Rivera’s painting of a flower carrier that is so good in real life it makes you wish you’d never seen the poster .
But I also knew that around every corner at the SFMOMA is the kind of modern art that’s pure provocation: those vapid Stella canvasses that seem to grow like mold in modern art museums, or the notorious urinal-on-a-pedestal prank by Marcel Duchamp.
Cliches like “my kid could do that” and “that so-called artist was laughing all the way to the bank” are ready to leap out of my mouth when I see a lot of this stuff. The SFMOMA is well curated, so a trip there gives you everything you want and everything you fear when you go to see the modern stuff: there’s always a little something to keep you interested and attracted, and it’s usually followed by something that pokes you in the eye and says “Nyah nyah.”
And on this trip, while weaving through the art by the usual suspects of high modernism, ascetic minimalism, and leftover faddishness, I made a new friend.
This new friend of mine is a 30-foot tall curtain made of silk flowers sewn together with a lot of gaps between them. It’s a piece by sculptor Jim Hodges, entitled “No Betweens.” It really needs to be seen in person, and I can’t imagine what photograph would capture it well enough to suggest its visual power. It hangs from the ceiling in the middle of the room, and is partly transparent. Though its title might indicate a lack of gaps, this giant floral curtain is mostly gaps.
The artist, and apparently a whole gang of friends and family, created it by sewing together thousands of silk flowers. The flowers are only sewn at the little points where their edges touch, leaving lots of spaces between them.
This piece combines provocation and fascination very well: It irritates me because when I go to a big highfalutin’ art museum, I expect to see things made out of marble, oil paint, and other respectable materials. I do not expect to see a room dominated by materials I could buy at my local Michael’s craft store. This gigantic thing is just artificial silk flowers plus thread.
On the other hand, these mundane materials are combined in a really interesting way. Never mind the amazing amount of work and attention to detail that went into it –my kid most certainly could NOT do this, and neither could I, really. Hodges also made great color choices as he went along: the floral screen is brightest and reddest at the top, near the ceiling, and bleaches out to mostly white by the time it reaches the floor. The transition is subtle, natural, and pleasant.
“No Betweens” is a powerful piece of art, and part of its power comes from the tension it produces in the viewer’s mind. Is this thing a colossal waste of time, a wall of silk flowers pieced together meticulously? Or is it the apotheosis of everyday craft materials, showing the potential glory that’s just down the street at the craft store? Is the beautiful pattern of colors a faithful presentation of nature’s way of distributing color, or is it a tongue-in-cheek reference to printed doilies and patterned house dresses? Should I surrender myself to the overwhelming sensuous impression of a 30-foot diaphanous waterfall of flower petals, or keep my guard up and narrow my eyes at a campy over-use of cheap color? I found I couldn’t completely throw my heart into any particular option, but I had to keep looking at the curtain of flowers and gaps.
That’s good art. Go see it if you’re in San Francisco sometime.