The easiest way to play our newest parlor game with SFMOMA would be to pick Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) and be done with it. It’s an obvious, obviously self-conscious synthetic-rubber-drawn, line-in-the-
sand paper line of demarcation between the abstract expressionists and the whippersnappers who would re-make contemporary and American art.
Erased de Kooning Drawing is an important piece, a gee-whiz, he did what?! moment, but it’s a better story than it is something to look at. As a contemporary collection-starting piece it’s a little flat. (And who wants to introduce contemporary art with that much wall text?)
So as a nod to SFMOMA’s exceptional photography collection, I’d open the museum’s contemporary collection with two sets of photographs, rotated in and out as photographs must be.
First, last year SFMOMA acquired a suite of photographs of atomic tests conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission in the Nevada desert in 1957. They are alternately dramatic and hum-drum, an apt metaphor for the flare-up and cool-down cycles of the Cold War. [Image above.]
Next, SFMOMA owns a photographic series called Death of a Valley. Produced by Californians Dorothea Lange and Pirkle Jones, the pictures chronicle the state-mandated destruction of an agricultural valley and its communities so that California Gov. Earl Warren could build a dam, thus helping to satisfy booming post-war California’s endless lust for water and power. You might say that the creation of the resulting reservoir, Lake Berryessa, enabled California’s two most prominent industries: agriculture and entertainment. (Yes, really.) [Image: House Being Moved, 1956, Pirkle Jones.]
The two groups of work say a lot about how the United States has (ab)used the West, the land and even the people. (The fallout from those 1957 tests was significant. And this Jones picture is particularly haunting.) Today the photographs look a little bit nostalgic, but so what? At the time of the AEC tests, our nation was focused on the ability to destroy an enemy, and so, in the name of self-preservation, we destroyed. Artists ever since — from Richard Misrach to Robert Smithson to Matthew Barney — have mined our post-war mindset.
Runners-up: Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting, 1951. Another way of erasing the past to start anew. Robert Gober, Newspaper(s), 1992. Gober used the power of art to spotlight social inequality and institutionalized discrimination. Hans Haacke Blue Sail, 1964-65. So much is possible!… and then you see that the sail is weighted in place. Mel Ramos’ Miss Grapefruit Festival, 1964. It is post-war California.