Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A productive layover in San Francisco: Finding Rothko at SFMOMA

When I arrived at SFMOMA, I had no idea where to start. With five floors and only an hour and a half before closing, I had to choose. I picked up the map with exhibition summaries. Then I saw it, a tiny thumbnail. It was a Rothko.

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960

Suddenly I had a mission. Find the Rothko. Ever since I first saw an image of Mark Rothko’s work in an art history book, I wanted to see his work in person. Now I had a chance. I walked briskly up the stairs, found the exhibition, and began wandering through. Surprised by the breadth of SFMOMA’s permanent collection, I saw many things I knew from art history surveys. Henri Matisse’s La Femme au Chapeau greeted visitors to the exhibition. Moholy-Nagy’s artwork hung in the next room. Then, I headed into another era of modern art which included work by Picasso.

As I entered the abstracts, something nagged at the periphery of my vision. I turned to my left, and I saw it. The Rothko. It took up an entire wall, and its allure drew me through a gallery, or two, full of work by Dali, Magritte, and Duchamp. Aware of how ridiculous it all seemed, I felt drawn by the painting. If I tried to ignore it, my curiosity would nag. I would not be able to enjoy anything until I had seen the Rothko.

As the Rothko began to envelop me, I stopped, just outside its grasp, behind the bench and a little off center. Another visitor sat on the bench in front of the painting. Despite surroundings that would normally serve as distractions, the indigo and orange vibrated off the eggplant background. The other visitor became part of the experience. I stepped closer to the painting, observing the feel of the oil paint on canvas. The sheen had been mostly absorbed by the canvas. I felt welcomed and surrounded by the painting. I felt like crying for joy. The painting not only drew me nearer, it pulled emotions out. Afraid that I would interrupt someone else’s experience, I stepped over to the didactic wall panel. The wall panel explained that the painting usually evoked a highly emotional response and even though many people wanted to step back from the painting, it was meant to encompass the viewer. I moved further away and closer to the painting. Observing details. Having a dialogue with the artwork. Wondering at the power of such a seemingly simple idea. In awe of Rothko’s ability to choose colors which resonated so well. I stayed near the painting for nearly ten minutes before I realized that other works of art were on the walls near the Rothko.

Then, the question hit me. As a curator, what would you place next to a painting with such presence? What could possibly let the Rothko speak and at the same time not be completely covered by the Rothko’s voice? To the left of the painting was a Motherwell entitled Elegy to the Spanish Republic. While Rothko's work demanded attention, Motherwell’s painting held its own. Its lack of color sharply contrasted the Rothko, and its size competed well.  To fully observe the it, I had to turn my back on the Rothko, and this served Elegy well. Yet, to the right of Rothko's painting, another painting with abstract shapes and various colors utterly failed at capturing my attention.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic, No. 57, 1957-1960.

After I had taken in the entire gallery installation, I stepped back and began watching others. Statistically museum visitors spend less than 3 seconds per work of art, but this Rothko must have a higher average. The bench placed in front of it signaled that or, perhaps, it encouraged visitors to linger. Whatever the case, the bench enabled me to observe people as they interacted with the artwork. It was amusing. Some were like me and could not pull themselves away. Very few passed up the Rothko. And unlike many works of art where I want to have the whole piece to myself, step into the painting, and not be disturbed, Rothko’s work had such influence over others that watching them encounter the painting became as much a part of the experience as the painting itself.

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960 at SFMOMA 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Beware of buses with plain interiors in Guadalajara

Bus drivers in Guadalajara generally take great pride in suiting up their buses. Fuzzy frames surround the mirrors, black lights, tinted windows, rosaries, and icons of the Virgin Mary or Jesus adorn the bus. While I was surprised at the level of care taken on many buses, I did not think that a bus without such adornments meant anything different until I boarded such a bus.

Image of a typical bus in Guadalajara (borrowed from
As I stepped on, the bus seemed older and the seats were closer together, but the lack of signage and decor did not faze me. The bus flew down the road. Traffic jams abounded, and the driver alternated between slamming on the brake and stomping on the gas. My mind drifted to Ulsan, South Korea, where daily bus rides felt this way, and I thought I would fly through the front window with each stop. Passengers on this bus in Guadalajara made comments. Those seated braced themselves for the jolts using their legs and hands, trying not to crash into the seat or person in front of them. Despite my attempts to brace myself, with every sudden stop, I slid further down the seat and the lack of legroom became painfully clear as my knees hit the seat in front of me. With each jerk, a new series of cries from passengers would arise. The passenger behind me darkly joked that we would all lose our teeth. Some people rubbed their necks. While the bus was initially crowded, it gradually emptied with passengers finding their stops or bailing to find another, hopefully more careful, driver.

As the bus began to empty, and the jolting and traffic jams worsened, a passenger walked up to the front of the bus and shoved his smart phone in front of the driver’s face. This lead to an intense showdown. The driver stopped the bus, threw off his seat belt, jumped up, and yelled at the passenger. He asked for a fight gesturing for the passenger to take his place. From my perspective, without knowing Spanish, I assumed the passenger was drunk and doing something obscene like trying to show the driver a video from YouTube (perhaps of a better driver). While I thought jumping up and screaming was a bit of an extreme reaction, I understood the stress of driving in backed up traffic, and the driver did not having a barrier to protect him from unpredictable passengers as he attempted to maneuver through traffic.  Because of my experiences in Moscow and elsewhere, I had given the driver the benefit of the doubt and assumed that the passenger was in the wrong. Yet, with the help of a friend to translate the sequence of events, I understood the error of my interpretation.

Buses in Mexico generally have a posted phone number to call and let the bus company know how the driver is doing. The driver’s license number is posted as well, so the company can easily identify the driver. This bus not only lacked adornment. Its walls were completely bare. No signage existed. So, one disgruntled, ballsy passenger walked up to the front of the bus and asked the driver if he could take a picture of his license because he could not find the number anywhere. The driver refused to let the passenger get his license number. So the passenger became more insistent and let the driver know that he wanted to place a complaint. The ride was atrocious. At that point the driver blew up. He went into a rage, jumped up, threw off his seat belt  and yelled at the passenger. With body language, he challenged the passenger a fight. He had had a long day with no lunch break and how would the passenger like to be the driver?! “Take a seat! Drive! See if you can do better!” In resolution, the passenger was kicked off the bus. While I was a bit astounded at the occurrence, I am certain this driver was at the cusp of losing his job before this occurrence. Why else would there be no signage posted in the bus? Why else would he explode so easily?

Now, not all disgruntled bus drivers behave in such a manner. In fact, the next day, I commented on how lighthearted our driver was. He was younger and probably newer at the job. He joked with another driver that was driving a bus alongside ours, and while my friend told me he had been complaining to the other driver about how much he hated driving a bus, he did not do a bad job. Yet in the rallying with the other driver, a strange thing happened. At a stoplight, our driver signaled to the other to open his door, and he made another signal for a lighter. Suddenly our driver was smoking. I turned to my friend and asked if that was normal. She shook her head. As we looked around the bus, sure enough, there was a no smoking sign. I just shook my head and laughed. I am certain bus drivers break small rules everywhere, not just in Mexico.

So, should you be afraid of riding a bus in Guadalajara? No. Just be ready for an adventure. According to my friends neither of these experiences were typical for Guadalajara, but if you are searching for adventure, look for a plain bus, not one decked out with fuzzy mirrors and playboy bunny stickers.