A Day at CAMP: Thoughts on the Fisher Collection

One of the 1,000+ pieces in the Fisher collection: Chuck Close, “Phyllis,” 1984, pulp paper on canvas

Don Fisher’s proposal for a Contemporary Art Museum at the Presidio (CAMP) has generated substantial uproar since its unveiling last summer.  At the root of the controversy are the 100,000 square-foot building—designed by the Gluckman Mayner Architects to house Fisher’s extensive collection of contemporary art—and its placement on the parade grounds of the Presidio.  

Since the details of the proposal became public, many have weighed in on the value of the collection to the community and the aesthetic costs of the current proposal.  Other than a video of art critic Kenneth Baker touring the collection with Don Fisher, however, there aren’t many details available on the collection itself.

In a move to drum up support for his proposal, Don Fisher hired Ground Floor Public Affairs. In September, the group was conducting guided lunchtime tours of the collection for members of the public. As it turned out, the tour did not cover the whole collection, although there was certainly on view to form an opinion about the value of the collection within a greater art historical context.

The tour congregated in the lobby around Richard Serra’s sky-scraping sculpture “Charlie Brown.” So-named because it was installed on the day Charles Schultz died, the piece has an internal space (characteristic of some Serra works) created by the placement of massively vertical steel slabs. The resulting acoustics make for a wild and child-like experience, as tour members whispered and sometimes felt compelled to shout while inside. Unfortunately, “Charlie Brown” will not be part of the CAMP collection, as it was purchase by the Gap, not by Fisher.  

Six large rooms (and one or two hallways) on the bottom floor of the Gap’s headquarters house the artworks on public view. Overall, it was hard to detect a particular curatorial hand in the collection (and the reason may be because there hasn’t ever been a curator of the collection). American artists figure prominently, although a few of the artists, such as Sean Scully, were born elsewhere and live here, and some—including Richard Long and Gerhard Richter—aren’t American and don’t live here. Not visible were Damien Hirst or Anselm Kiefer, arguably necessary components in any collection of contemporary art. To be fair, however, these artists might be represented in the collection, just not on public view. 

Works are presented in loose chronological order—i.e. Lichtenstein and Stella in the first rooms through Jeff Wall and Sam Taylor in the last room. This organizing principal isn’t so strict as to prevent a meditative pairing of Agnes Martin’s organically-inspired 1950/60 paintings with Richard Long‘s reverent natural stone “Autumn Circle” (1990) on the gallery floor. 

In the aggregate the Fisher collection does a fine job offering up the eminent artists of the last four decades—including Philip Guston, Sol LeWitt, Elizabeth Murray, Bryce Marden, Bill Viola—a solid starter course on contemporary art. What’s more, with many of the artists represented by multiple pieces the depth of the collection provides important glimpses of individual leitmotifs, as well as an overview of the march of artistic movements. Three Sean Scully paintings hanging together brings out the lyrical quality in his structured “bricks” of color technique; a single painting could not do this. Almost an entire room of Chuck Close works clearly demonstrates the artist’s prowess manipulating media in service of “portraiture, redefined.”  The two copies of “Phyllis” hanging side by side illustrate this point well.  The larger (above) is constructed from quarter-sized disks of reconstituted paper pulp; a smaller study has been executed purely with his fingerprints. Both from a distance read with photographic-like clarity. 

There is no doubt that San Francisco would be immeasurably enhanced by a public venue for this collection. But how to deal with its container?

There are loads of fantastic contemporary buildings that fit in, even augment, their surroundings. One need look no farther than to the de Young Museum and California Academy of Sciences for examples of successful parkland museums.  Herzog + de Meuron and Renzo Piano  have managed to conjoin two buildings of radically different design with a neo-classical bandshell in a graceful embrace of their shared plaza. Perhaps we’ve grown accustomed to edifices on those sites, as buildings had been there previously for nearly a century.

By contrast, the Gluckman Mayner big square white glass box plopped on the wide-open (rehabilitated) green of the Presidio parade grounds is austere.  The CAMP building feels self-conscious and alone, like a singleton in desperate need of a sibling.

Fisher’s proposal may ultimately pass the public review process, but this is not a fore-gone conclusion. Under National Park rules, the Presidio Trust must publicly vet the proposal.  As a result it finds itself embroiled in the community agitation; the July BOD meeting is a painful reflection of that. For his part, Don Fisher has threatened to keep the collection private.

One hopes that the benefactor will be persuaded to move the building to one of the less prominent, though no less agreeable, sites suggested. One hopes the historic preservation, YMCA and various other groups fighting the proposal will see that the right modernist design will augment the beauty of the Presidio.  IIf a compromise cannot be reached, we all lose. 

Want to dig deeper?

July 2008 BOD transcript

Tyler Green on the proposal

Corrections & Amplifications—10/25/08

* The Trust does not operate under the National Park’s Organic Act, but under the Presidio Trust Act. All federal agencies must comply with the National Environmental Protection Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, which determine the public process. Neither the state nor the city have any decision-making authority, but clearly it is better to have their support than not. 

* The Y does not oppose the project. 

* The Fisher collection has more than 1,000 pieces, many of which are in the Gap executive offices and various other locations without public access. 

 

 

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2 Responses to “A Day at CAMP: Thoughts on the Fisher Collection”

  1. david bancroft Says:

    You got it right…the glove does not fit, so Fisher must quit ( trying to get his museum sited on the Main Post, the historic and architectually distinct center of the Presidio.) Museums are a municipal, not National Park function. That is why the De Young and Academy of Sciences “work” in the CIty’s Golden Park: Their function and design are not imposed on a National Historic Landmark District.

  2. It strikes me that the Smithsonian complex on the National Mall is a fine example of municipal museums “imposed” on a National Historic Landmark District. In fact, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum provides an interesting precedent for CAMP. In the 1930s, the US government mandated an art museum on the Mall. In 1966 an Act of Congress created the museum and Gordon Bunshaft designed a contemporary building to house Hirshhorn’s contemporary collection.

    This would demonstrate that when communities really want collections of art, they move mountains.

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