Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Puts Light, Space and Women Up Front

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The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla has reopened after a three-year, $105 million renovation.

It’s worth a visit alone for its drop-dead view, which Louis Vuitton took full advantage of for its resort 2022 runway show after party overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

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But what’s inside holds its own against nature’s shock and awe.

Architect Annabelle Selldorf has created an oasis of calm with sandy-looking, board-formed concrete floors and subtle skylights and windows offering glimpses of sun and sea. (She’s also working on the forthcoming renovation of The Frick Museum in New York.)

The expansion has quadrupled the gallery square footage, and let director Kathryn Kanjo flex her curatorial muscles, dedicating more space to female, Chicano and Latinx artists, as well as broadening displays of the museum’s Abstract Expressionist, Pop, Light and Space and contemporary works.

“This institution has always had the respect of the art world because it’s fearless in its programming, it’s always supported younger artists and our neighbor, UC San Diego, is an adventurous school, from Allan Kaprow’s performance art, to feminist art pioneer Eleanor Antin in the ’70s,” says Kanjo of two longtime professors at the school.

The museum’s inaugural show is “Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s,” organized in partnership with the Menil Collection, which focuses on action works — assemblages of paint-filled balloons, kitchen implements, tools, or a Saks Fifth Avenue shirt, shot with a .22 caliber rifle — featuring zaftig Nana sculptures and photography from the experimental French artist who spent her last years in San Diego.

“So much art history is male, I was interested to contribute scholarship and bring together new connections,” Kanjo says, noting that the next three exhibitions at the museum will center around female artists: Alexis Smith, Celia Álvarez Muñoz and Carmen Argote.

Power and control are through lines in the permanent collection, where female artists are well represented.

A walk into the permanent galleries reveals the arresting “Big Ox No. 2,” Miriam Schapiro’s 1968 work made in San Diego. “She came here from New York, was an early teacher in the university art department where she worked with computer scientists to generate a vocabulary for her designs,” Kanjo explains. “She came up with these Ox forms as her constraint, but then she painted in vivid pink, orange and silver. It’s very feminist and feminine and suggestive,” she says of the large abstract painting.

Together with Dorothy Hood’s large-scale “Earth Bolts” with darkened expanse framed by streaks of color conjuring earth and sky, and Helen Frankenthaler’s “Five Color Space” with white emptiness at the center framed by stained color fields at the margins, it becomes clear that female painters in the 1960s were just as bold as their more well-known male contemporaries, like Ellsworth Kelly, whose “Red Blue Green” hangs nearby.

Another gallery spotlights San Diego as a border region, with the reliquary-like 1970 folk art sculpture “El diablo crucificado” (The crucified devil”) by Benjamin Serrano. “He was an important artist working in Tijuana, helping foster the art scene there,” Kanjo explains.

Downstairs, Pop art paintings by Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha and Roy Lichtenstein jockey with the rippling ocean vista for attention.

Ruscha’s inky monochromatic “Ace” from 1962 is a highlight. “His early pieces with a single word are so exciting to me, so tactile and delicious with frosting like paint,” Kanjo says of the graphic-meets-fine artist.

More recent works comment on race, power and identity, including a very La Jolla Cindy Sherman, bronzed and blond, in a tracksuit and tiara, in the 2020 “Untitled” photograph, and the magnificent body-positive Tschabalala Self “Evening” collaged fabric portrait from 2019.

In “No Splash,” from 2013, Jay Lynn Gomez, the contemporary artist from San Bernardino, California, riffs on David Hockney’s “Bigger Splash.” “Only instead of having a young bather diving or Marcia Weisman the art collector walking by in a caftan, he replaces those figures with pool cleaners.”

One of the museum’s most important pieces is Jasper Johns’ first sculpture, from 1958, “Light Bulb 1” a Sculp-metal version of an object that he used over and over. Another is Christo and Jean Claude’s eerily-beautiful “Wrapped Portrait of Jean Claude” from 1963.

With their emphases on place and process, they fit right in with the museum’s dazzling collection of works by Robert Irwin, from early paintings to the 1969 “Untitled” phantasmic floating acrylic wall sculpture. “He’s capturing energy and vibrations,” says Kanjo, before revealing one of the museum’s stars, “1°2°3°4,” a site-conditional work Irwin created in 1997 by cutting three squares into the gallery windows, open to the elements, and creating a new visual and spatial relationship between interior and exterior.”

“Where does the artwork start and end, where does the architecture start and end?” says Kanjo. “It’s the sun and the wind and the sound and it’s also just screamingly beautiful.”

Launch Gallery: A Look at the Grand Reopening Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

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