The lethal-looking jet fighter, almost 15 feet long and welded together from thick sheets of lead, is too big to be a toy. With its corroded surfaces marked by drips and dings, it looks like an archaeological find from a long-ago battlefield.
It’s “Melancholia,” a 1990s sculpture by the German artist Anselm Kiefer, one of the remarkable works in the sprawling Doris and Donald Fisher Collection now on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The jet fighter incorporates two themes of the collection: the graphic clarity of Pop Art and the heavily worked textures of postwar expressionism.
The Fishers, who founded the Gap Inc. retail chain, built their collection of more than 1,100 works over four decades. They agreed shortly before Donald Fisher’s death last year to house the art at SFMOMA for the next century, after a failed attempt to build a new museum in the city’s Presidio national park. The exhibition is the Fisher Collection’s public debut.
SFMOMA is building a new wing for the works, which will be integrated into the permanent collection and instantly transform it into one of the world’s premier holdings of contemporary art.
When the Fishers collected an artist’s works, they didn’t just sample; they bought them in depth, by the dozen. They acquired 45 pieces by Alexander Calder, for example, and 21 by Andy Warhol.
The current show, organized by senior curator Gary Garrels, features 161 works on the top two floors of the museum, the fourth floor divided between Pop and realist paintings on one side (Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Chuck Close and Ed Ruscha, among others) and abstract works on the other side (Frank Stella, Philip Guston, Sam Francis).
The two rooms of Warhols include splashy works like “Triple Elvis” (1963), in which three images of the rock ‘n’ roller, dressed as a movie cowboy and pointing his six-shooter at the viewer, are silkscreened in black on a 10-foot-wide silver canvas. It’s the sort of piece that looks great on the museum’s simple white walls (or in a Gap Inc. office).
Not all is flash. Along with Lichtenstein’s “Live Ammo (Tzing),” a 1962 comic-book portrait of a soldier with a machine gun, there’s his modest, obviously hand-painted picture of a clunky portable radio, complete with leather carrying strap.
The show makes interesting juxtapositions, bringing together realist portraits and California landscapes by David Hockney, Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Artschwager in one room, for example.
The fifth floor devotes a large gallery to each of five key artists in the collection: Alexander Calder’s rather old-fashioned-looking mobiles, Ellsworth Kelly’s geometrically shaped canvases in flat bright colors, Richard Serra’s massive yet minimalist steel-plate sculptures, and a sampling of two contemporary German expressionists, Gerhard Richter and Kiefer.
The airy top-floor galleries in particular show off the works to their best advantage. The Kellys are given enough breathing room so they really shine. And the Richters, ranging from geometric abstraction through painterly impressionism to photorealism, create a bravura show within the show.
The exhibition concludes with minimalist pieces by Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt and spills out onto the rooftop sculpture garden, with large-scale works by Mark di Suvero, Isamu Noguchi, Calder and others.
After the show closes, and before the museum’s new $480 million wing opens in 2016, one hopes to see plenty of the Fisher trove installed with the permanent collection. Kiefer’s jet fighter, for example, would look great in the rooftop sculpture garden, as if it just came in for a landing.
“Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection” runs through Sept. 19 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St. Information: http://www.sfmoma.org; +1-415-357-4000.
(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)