“We had an incident,” Gary Garrels, SFMOMA’s senior curator of painting and sculpture, told me last Friday when I encountered him in the fifth-floor galleries, only minutes after I had interviewed him in his office.
He was answering my query as to why, less than three weeks after the expanded museum had opened, this Warhol room was closed to the public…
…while a “Jackie Triptych” was being installed there:
To my astonishment, Garrels told me that the day before (Thursday), a visitor had bumped into one of the Warhols on view, so the museum was substituting another while the gun-toting Elvis served time in the conservation lab.
When, in response to my query, he told me which Warhol had been jostled, my jaw dropped. The monumental “Triple Elvis [Ferus Type],” almost 10′ wide, is one of the superstars of the extraordinary collection assembled by Doris and the late Donald Fisher. It is designated as one of ten “Director’s Picks” on the museum’s map, distributed to visitors:
Garrels assured me that the damage was minor and said the painting should be back up by the end of this week. When I checked the entry for “Triple Elvis” in the museum’s online catalogue Thursday night, it was still listed as “not on view at this time.”
The veteran curator was showing family members around the museum, so I didn’t question him further. But when I returned to the same gallery three days later, I asked a guard if she knew anything about how the accident had happened. She indicated that she hadn’t been on duty at that time, but had heard that a visitor had tripped and fallen backward into Elvis while posing for a photograph in front of him.
Here’s what the museum’s press office later told me about the incident:
A visitor in our galleries accidentally tripped and brushed the surface of Andy Warhol’s “Triple Elvis.” Conservators assessed it and confirmed contact was minimal. It’s in great shape and we look forward to returning the painting to the gallery very shortly.
Having been party to a triple photo shoot where “Triple Elvis” had formerly been, I can imagine a likely scenario. Here’s a photo I took of a visitor taking a Jackie selfie while another visitor is also photographing the former First Lady:
If you look closely at the bottom of the wall, you can see that there’s a platform jutting out to keep visitors from getting too close to the art. But if your back is to the wall and you’re trying to position yourself for the perfect selfie, you could easily trip on that ledge.
The other thing I noticed during my second visit is that this Duane Hanson “Policeman”—so lifelike that a visitor asked me if he was real—was stationed just outside the scene of the crime, staring directly where “Triple Elvis” had stood:
I asked the museum guard if the “cop” had been in that same spot when the accident occurred, and she said “yes”—an extraordinary instance of art imitating life (or was it the other way around?).
It was the Fisher family’s 100-year loan to SFMOMA of 1,100 works by 185 artists that impelled the museum’s recent expansion. This was an unfortunate start to an unprecedented partnership. We can only hope this will be an isolated incident.