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Wroth Over Rothko: SFMOMA’s Distasteful Disposal

More on this here.

What museum director would choose to sell from his institution “an important work completed at the apex of Rothko’s artistic powers, …one of just 19 paintings completed by the artist in 1960″—a year that marked “a critical juncture in the iconic Abstract Expressionist’s career”?

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Neal Benezra, that’s who:

Neal Benezra at Bruce Conner preview, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The hype in this post’s first paragraph comes from Sotheby’s announcement of SFMOMA’s planned disposal of Rothko’s “Untitled,” a painting estimated to sell for $35-50 million at the auction house’s evening contemporary art auction in New York on May 16. It is deemed by the museum to be expendable, because it owns a bigger (arguably better) one from the same year.

Rationalizing this misconceived plan, Benezra said (as quoted in the museum’s press release): “We will sustain our commitment to excellence and innovation by approaching our…collection with the same creativity and future-focus as the artists with whom we work [emphasis added].”

“Future-focus” is hocus-pocus for magically making a high-ticket work by a renowned dead artist disappear.

Behold the work to be sold:

Rothko, “Untitled,” 1960 (69″ x 50″)

And here’s the one that remains at SFMOMA, which I’ve spent long periods gazing upon during my visits to the museum:

Rothko, “No. 14,” 1960 (114 1/2″ x 105 5/8″)

The retained one is a vibrant crowd-pleaser. The one being sold is more somber, less ingratiating. There’s something to be said, though, for getting to know Rothko’s many moods—“tragedy, ecstasy, doom,” in the words of the National Gallery’s wall text for its superb gallery devoted to Mark Rothko: The Classic Paintings.

Being surrounded by Rothko’s force fields cast a spell on me when I covered the 2016 reopening of the Washington museum’s renovated East Building:

One wall in the National Gallery’s Rothko room
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Not shown at SFMOMA since 2002, the Rothko consigned to Sotheby’s was loaned in 2008 to the inaugural New York exhibition of the (now extinct) Haunch of Venison gallery—“Abstract Expressionism: A World Elsewhere,” curated by Ab-Ex expert David Anfam (a show that I wrote about here).

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Attentive CultureGrrl readers already know what I’m going to say about SFMOMA’s shortsighted sacrifice of depth for breadth: Monetizing museum-quality works already in a museum’s collection to bankroll more trendy acquisitions is a reckless plan. (The links in the previous sentence take you to my commentary on three earlier dubious disposals that I’ve railed against—at the Dia Art Foundation, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Baltimore Museum of Art, respectively.)

SFMOMA’s Rothko collection (which you can view here) cannot be said to have great depth: It owns five of his paintings (not counting the one about to be auctioned) and two works on paper. Only two Rothkos are on view now, with another to be installed next week, according to a museum spokesperson.

But don’t listen to me on the subject of why retaining multiple works by key artists is important. Listen to Gary Garrels, the museum’s veteran senior curator of painting and sculpture, whom I interviewed in his office when I visited the museum on assignment almost three years ago.

Here are relevant excerpts from his comments during our wide-ranging conversation:

The idea of monographic galleries has been part of the structure of the collection. The Clyfford Still collection is a cornerstone of our whole collection. Still made a gift of 28 paintings to the museum, so we always have a gallery dedicated to him. We usually change some of those paintings every year.

We have a small gallery dedicated to works by Paul Klee. There is a gallery where it’s just Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg.

We acquired a great group of works from when Ellsworth Kelly was in Paris, so there is always going to be a gallery dedicated to those early Kelly works:

One corner of SFMOMA’s eye-popping Ellsworth Kelly gallery
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here are glimpses of two more single-artist focus galleries that riveted me during my 2016 visit:

SFMOMA’S smile-inducing Agnes Martin gallery
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum
A small segment of SFMOMA’s kinetic Calder gallery
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But back to Garrels and Rothko: No one has been more blindsided by the explosive effect of a critical mass of that Abstract Expressionist’s work than Garrels at the moment when his passion for contemporary art erupted—his life-changing encounter with the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection.

Here’s what he said to me:

When I got out of college, I really was not involved in contemporary art at all. I stopped to visit a friend I had gone to college with in Washington, D.C. He and his family lived very close to Dupont circle and on Saturday morning he asked me if I would like to go to the Phillips Collection.

I walked into the gallery with the four Rothko paintings. I had never encountered pure abstraction like that and I don’t know what it was, but it was just very moving. There was something here that was valuable, that I had never experienced before, and I had absolutely no language for it.

Gary Garrels in his SFMOMA office
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

It’s hard to reconcile his description of that formative experience with his quote in SFMOMA’s press release announcing its Rothko let-go:

SFMOMA is very fortunate to have rich [?] holdings of Mark Rothko, including his undisputed masterpiece “No. 14, 1960.”…The proceeds from the sale [of “Untitled,” 1960] will allow us to make great strides advancing our mission to diversify the collection.

Responding to my request for more details on how the museum hopes to “broadly diversify its collection, enhance its contemporary holdings and address art historical gaps” (in the words of its press release), its spokesperson told me this:

The museum hopes to increase its holdings of art by women, diverse artists and contemporary works.

We’re unlikely to know exactly what that means until specific works are “proposed to our Accessions Committee for review as early as May 29, 2019,” in the words of the press release. Meanwhile Garrels and Janet Bishop, SFMOMA’s painting and sculpture curator, are “creating a focused plan and list of priority acquisitions.”

This disposal resembles many other deaccessions I’ve dissected: It’s an easy way to raise big bucks by a selling work by an artist who has stood the test of time to make more speculative purchases of what’s now in fashion.

That said, there are circumstances specific to this disposal that make it uniquely problematic.

More on that, coming soon.

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