Hello, ‘Gorgeous’: Grit and Glamour In San Francisco

A San Francisco art show brings together a Buddhist deity, Robert Mapplethorpe’s explicit photography, a curtain of golden beads, even a grimy Dior stiletto. What makes all these images, as the show’s title has it, “gorgeous”?

06.20.14 9:45 AM ET

Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s photo of a male prostitute in Las Vegas hangs by a mythical bird-man from central Thailand. The Buddhist deity Simhavaktra Dakini from 17th century China poses in front of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ curtain of golden beads. And a Mark Rothko painting shares gallery space with a Tibetan mandala.

Gorgeous, a show opening at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco June 20 and running through September 14, brings together pieces from that museum (which has the largest collection devoted to Asian art in the Western world) with art from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s collection. The show boasts 72 objects spanning more than 2,000 years, organized into loose groupings such as “Desire,” “Beyond Imperfection” and “Evocation.”

Bringing pieces from the two collections together gives a fresh perspective to them, says Janet Bishop, an SFMOMA curator. She says that seeing Marcel Duchamp’s touchstone of conceptual art, Fountain, in the North Court of the Asian Art Museum is almost as unexpected as it was for people who first saw the urinal displayed as art in 1917. Even pieces she’s seen many times looks new in this context, she says.

“The Rothko is a piece we almost always have on view at SFMOMA,” Bishop said. “It’s usually the anchor piece in a gallery about abstract expressionism. To see that painting with the Tibetan mandala emphasizes different aspects of that piece—its formality, chromatic nature and perfect serenity.”

That’s exactly what the show wants to do—put the emphasis on the viewer and their interpretation of the work. Bishop, who oversees the “SFMOMA On the Go” program, partnering with local institutions while the museum is closed until 2016 for a building expansion, says early in the process of the collaboration with the Asian, two of its curators, Forrest McGill and Allison Harding, came up with the idea of exploring the meaning of gorgeous and it stuck.

“We liked how open it was,” Bishop said. “There was a tremendous sense of possibility.”

Gorgeous gave them an opportunity to take on a serious subject in a fun, exploratory way, McGill says. “If people say, ‘Why did you put that in the show? It’s not gorgeous,’ we’re delighted,” he said. “We want to have that conversation.”

One obvious example McGill gives of a provocative piece would be the photo of a seated, nude man, Bob Love, N.Y.C., by Robert Mapplethorpe. Another piece might cause people to come up short is an elaborate green Burmese Buddhist alms bowl on a stand covered in gold. “If you actually look at it and actually think about it, you start to notice all kinds of things,” he said, gesturing to stand’s base. “It’s very gaudy and it’s very gold and it’s very bejeweled. And it’s anti-materialist, symbolizing a Buddhist begging bowl. But remember, the Buddha was a prince, so it’s like this bowl is a symbol of renouncing worldly things and his embrace of humility.”

For thousands of years, people have had scholarly debates about what constitutes beauty. This show doesn’t want to do that. Beauty is often pristine, Harding says, while the word “gorgeous” contains more the idea of extremes and can include decay.

As an example, she points to a central figure in the exhibition that appears on the poster for the show—an 8-foot by 5-foot enamel on metal painting by Marilyn Minter, Strut, showing a woman’s grimy heel in a Dior stiletto. “The painting is lush and triggers a sensory overload,” Harding said. “It speaks to excess and seduction. It’s grotesque and dirty and even a little dangerous. It’s so much more than simply beautiful.”

With 20th century art, we’ve been taught to be aware of color and shape and form, says Caitlin Haskell, a curator with SFMOMA. With this show, she thinks viewers can apply that to the historical objects from the Asian’s collection as well.

“With modern art in conversation with ancient objects, you don’t have to be quite so concerned with cultural context,” Haskell said. “People can take what they can from 15 minutes with the object rather than 15 minutes with a textbook.”

She encourages visitors not to feel they have to be experts in art to enjoy it or have an opinion. “Don’t try to know it all first,” Haskell said. “Let the objects talk to you. Let them work on you.”