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Greg S. Flood


Art Writing

'Fifty Years of Bay Area Art: The SECA Awards' at SFMoMA

A 50-year retrospective of SECA exhibits is a difficult task for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) to undertake. We are talking about 50 years of art in the Bay Area, with every movement that has happened and in every medium that has been explored as a part of it. I applaud assistant curators Alison Gass and Tanya Zimbardo for undertaking this daunting task. Fifty-year-old SECA (Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art) is an auxiliary group of SFMoMA. The museum, and its curators, wanted to celebrate the contribution that SECA has made to the museum and showcase how it has supported artists in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Walking through the galleries I was delighted by the number of artists I did know and the number that I did not. There are those I expected, like Hung Liu, Anne Appleby, Leslie Shows, Mel Henderson, and Trevor Paglen among many others. The revelations include Wayne E. Campbell, Jim Pomeroy, David Jones, and Cornelia Schulz. I had never heard of Wayne E. Campbell or of the famous exhibition he created with his grant award. I was impressed by both the piece and the history behind the exhibition of it. With the other three artists, I was surprised because I did not know they had won the award.

Every artist represented in the show had one work of art displayed, with the exception of Rosana Castrillo Díaz and Nayland Blake. I assume that the curators were attempting to be fair in their display of work and as inclusive as possible given the space they had. But, for some unknown reason the rule was either bent for these two artists. The one-piece rule limits the viewer’s understanding of the work by some of the lesser known artists. If the museum had given more room to this exhibition, allowing multiple works by each artist, it would have provided a richer context for the viewer.

Ms. Gass and Ms. Zimbardo set about arranging the works around the themes ‘Place’ (both urban and landscape), ‘Minimalism’, ‘Abstraction’, ‘Personal Mythology’, and the rise of ‘Digital Media’ in the arts. These themes suffice for the artworks and artists that fit into them, but they do not encompass a number of works that have been segregated into a small gallery on the far side of the show or, in the case of Barry McGee, tucked away in the education room.

In this small gallery the viewer will find the afore mentioned works by Wayne E. Campbell, Rosana Castrillo Díaz and Cornelia Schulz. One will also find works by David Jones, William T. Wiley, and Terry Fox there. This little gallery has no curatorial context like the others and, packed as it is with works, it made me call into question the overall organization of the show and wonder if a simple historical organization would have been a better choice.

The selection of works also seemed to be a bit of a challenge for the curators. The show is a mixture of works created at the time the artists won the award and some that were done years, if not a decade or more afterwards. Most of the pieces were pulled from the permanent collection of the museum, with a handful lent from private collections or other institutions. While some pieces are excellent examples of works by the artist, like those by William Allan, Bonnie Ora Sherk and Howard Levine, and Kota Ezawa, I was disappointed by the selections of work by Josephine Taylor, David Best, David Jones, and Cornelia Schulz.

These latter artists are represented by small works that lack the power conveyed in their larger works. In the case of Ms. Taylor, Mr. Jones, and Mr. Best the museum has larger works it could have shown in a more generously allotted space. If the museum did not have an important work in its collection from one or more artists perhaps it could have borrowed pieces from other collections around the Bay Area, as was done for Cornelia Schulz. The fact that more works were not borrowed reveals the budgetary constraints the museum put on the show, and implicitly reveals the historic collecting habits of the museum.

Lastly, the one artwork that made me pause as I was surveying the exhibition was by William T. Wiley. I like Mr. Wiley’s work a great deal and know a good amount about his career, but nowhere had I ever stumbled across his winning the SECA award. I researched it to make sure, and it turns out that he never did. This puzzled me a great deal and after some digging around I was able to locate the answer in the press release put out by the museum.

While SECA was founded in 1961, it began giving out the Artist Grant Awards in 1967. In the years before the grant was given out, SECA organized ten survey exhibitions of work by cutting edge bay area artists. These shows toured nationally and included works by such artist as William T. Wiley, Peter Voulkos, and Nathan Oliveira. There are numerous works by Nathan Oliveira and Peter Voulkos in the permanent collection of the museum. The efforts of the SECA group would have been better recognized if some of these works could have been included.

These early exhibitions seem to have been historically eclipsed by the Grant Award, since the Grant is what most people now think of when the topic of SECA is brought into conversation. The title ‘Fifty Years of Bay Area Art: The SECA Awards,’ specifically refers to the SECA Grant Award, which does not turn 50 until 2017. The published purpose of the show is to showcase the full history of the SECA group up to today. The exhibition provides little or no information about the historic activities of the SECA Group, with the exception of the lone Wiley work, whose presence leaves the viewer to puzzle over its inclusion.

Since the SECA Group turned 50 in 2011, this retrospective exhibition could have made light of these early efforts in a more effective manner. To only include the work of one artist that was a part of the early shows, and not fully explain why he was included is a seeming half measure. It reveals the confusing omission of this piece of SECA history from the exhibition and the supporting educational materials.

'Fifty Years of Bay Area Art: The SECA Awards' is a major effort by SFMoMA to showcase the one regular support mechanism the museum has for Bay Area artists. The curators of the show are not entirely to blame for the way the show turned out. The budgetary constraints on the museum, the historic collecting habits of the museum, and the amount of space they were given for the show, set the deck against them. That said, the focus of the show could have been clearer, the presentation and supporting materials more thorough in revealing the history of the SECA Group, and the organization of works in the galleries could have been better. The 50th anniversary of the SECA Grant Award will happen 2017, and thus there will be another opportunity to celebrate.

At this moment SFMoMA is showing more artwork by artists for whom the bay area is or has been home than at any time in the last decade, and probably much longer. With the 2010 SECA Award exhibition, the SECA retrospective, the Richard Serra retrospective, the installation of Jim Campbell in the atrium, the addition of individual works throughout the permanent collection galleries, and a gallery devoted to art of the Bay Area near the end of the permanent collection, this is a great moment to visit SFMoMA and see what this region has achieved in the last 70 years. Let us hope that it is not an aberration.

‘Fifty Years of Bay Area Art: The SECA Awards’ is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until April 3, 2012. The museum is located at 151 Third Street, San Francisco, CA 94103. Hours: Mon. – Tues. 11 – 5:45, Closed Wed., Thurs. 11 – 8:45, Fri. – Sun. 11- 5:45. (415) 357-4000.

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