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Bye-Bye, Rothko; Welcome, Mickalene: SFMOMA’s Diversity Perversity (Continued)

Charles Desmarais, art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, mostly admired what he saw last week when taken on a guided tour of the 11 works recently acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as part of its effort to diversify its collection. SFMOMA bought them by using an undisclosed portion of the $42.8 million in proceeds gleaned from its $50.1-million sale at Sotheby’s of an untitled 1960 Rothko—a disposal that I had criticized.

Here’s how Desmarais characterized his overall reaction to the acquisitions:

We have to start somewhere to correct the skewed image that we, through our mainstream institutions, have created of the history of art.

Maybe so. But did the SFMOMA have to do this by selling a work given to it by the artist himself, at the express request of the museum? That’s no way to win artists’ trust. If this Rothko is truly is no longer desired by SFMOMA, it should have given it to another museum that would have been happy to have it. It should have remained in the public domain, as Rothko had intended.

Instead, SFMOMA has monetized this classic Abstract Expressionist work from an iconic series that has stood the test of time…

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Rothko, “Untitled,” 1960, auctioned May 16 at Sotheby’s
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…to accession (among other things) this painting, similarly composed of three (brighter) strips of color, on which the paint has barely dried:

Frank Bowling, “Elder Sun Benjamin,” 2018
Photo: Katherine Du Tiel, © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS

Mine is probably a minority view, but if I never see another one of Mickalene Thomas‘ superficially flashy seductresses, I’ll be a happier museumgoer. Below is the one who caught senior curator Gary Garrels‘ eye. (Judging from the painting above, perhaps he has a thing for blue-yellow-red combinations.)

Mickalene Thomas, “Qusuquzah, une très belle négresse 1,” 2011
Katherine Du Tiel, © Mickalene Thomas, Artists Rights Society, New York

Some works that Garrels chose to acquire didn’t strike me as prime examples by those artists. Desmarais noted that the pale pastel color of the six-foot-high canvas (below) by Alma Thomas was atypical of her work.

“Garrels positively gushed over the painting,” Charles wrote, “but here is a case where greater depth in holdings of a single artist would help us make better sense of the career”:

Alma Thomas, “Cumulus,” 1972
Photo: Katherine Du Tiel, © Estate of Alma Thomas

The same could be said, I think, of another work by an artist who (like Thomas) is African American (in keeping with the emphasis on diversity)—the tenebrous Norman Lewis that SFMOMA has added to its collection:

Norman Lewis, “Twilight,” 1956
Photo: Don Ross, © Estate of Norman Lewis

The Lewises that have most engaged me (including those chosen for a 2014 show at the Jewish Museum, New York, that tellingly paired his works with Lee Krasner‘s) are colorful, complex compositions—the visual equivalents of jazzy syncopation.

The 11 acquisitions that SFMOMA bankrolled with the Rothko windfall (with more purchases yet to come) came from galleries, collectors and artists’ heirs. Although auction was the preferred method of disposal, it was not tapped as a source for acquisitions, because of SFMOMA’s self-described “internal accessions process.” (I requested, but did not receive, further clarification of what this “process” entails.)

I would argue in favor of an “accessions process” focusing on important but overlooked artists from the same era as the work being sold, rather than providing the means to dabble in today’s trendy market for artists whose staying power is yet to be determined. To SFMOMA’s credit, several of its purchases—-including works by Lewis, Leonora Carrington and Lygia Clark—do just that.

SFMOMA’s 11 new acquisitions are scheduled to be displayed in August, so I may eventually get to eyeball them on one of my trips to visit CultureDaughter and family (who live nearby). As Desmarais rightly noted (in reference to the Frank Bowling), it’s not appropriate to judge these works solely on the basis of reproductions.

That principle that should also have been observed by all those non-specialist art critics who debunked the $450-million “Salvator Mundi” (sold at Christie’s as a Leonardo), without having actually seen it. That said, reasonable experts who have examined the painting disagree with each other, so the jury is still out.

Garrels, a curator whom I greatly admire, may reasonably disagree with me, arguing that in today’s cultural and social climate, collection diversification is a more urgent imperative than the preservation of current holdings. I’d like to think that with the generosity of contemporary-art collectors and donors, we could have both.

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