Drawing Restraint

“I wish we'd smoked pot,” one art student whispered to his companion as the class of San Francisco Art Institute grad students filed into the back entrance of SFMOMA last week. The class (and one tag-along writer) was on a field trip into the very bowels of the museum, where the undisplayed portion of its collection is safeguarded.

A service elevator ferried us into the depths, from which we spilled out into a bright hallway. I assumed we'd be patted down and given a germ-killing chemical bath; instead we were invited to drop off our backpacks and prohibited from bringing pens into the storage vault (an art student graciously swapped his Prismacolor Scholar pencil for my verboten Bic). Then curatorial associate Jill Dawsey, a young woman with a precise, wry manner, beckoned us toward SFMOMA's secret collection.

I expected retina scanners. I expected an imposing, golden bank-vault door with a little porter in a three-piece suit. And, goddamn it, I expected to see Matthew Barney's top-secret love nest, where I could submerge myself in a Jacuzzi of warm Vaseline and then emerge glistening to recline on silken throw pillows, while Tuvan throat singers bleated as Matthew, shirtless, fed me figs and twitched his pecs seductively.

But Dawsey merely opened a door and there we were, with neither pomp nor cavity search, in a large white room illuminated by fluorescent lights. About 50 latticed steel frames, closely spaced and 10 feet tall, lined opposite walls. The 30-odd art students shuffled in, some venturing a peek between the frames. The racks evoked those contraptions that head shops use to display rock posters, except these could be slid noiselessly out into the room. And instead of black-light fractals and anthropomorphic mushrooms, these held millions of dollars' worth of bench-warmer art.

The class was studying the art of the '80s, and painter Gerhard Richter was the amuse-bouche to Dawsey's later presentation on art provocateur Sherrie Levine. Dawsey tugged out a rack near the back wall, and the professor insinuated himself into the three feet of available space behind the frame, inviting students to file in five at a time. He intoned sonorously about the unseen Richter painting, without naming or describing it, and when his discourse lead to “You might recognize this as the cover of … ” 15 grad students on both sides of the rack piped up, “Daydream Nation!”

“Sonic Youth is actually a good way to learn about art,” Dawsey confirmed. “They also used a Mike Kelley as an album cover.”

The iconic Richter in question was 1988's photo-realistic, if gauzy, painting of a lit candle, Candle (Kerze). Once I got up close — in the basement, freed from all the decorum of a normal museum — I was overcome by an urge to smell the painting. But I didn't want to get thrown out before the tour reached Barney's erotic Batcave, so I refrained.

Dawsey pulled out several other racks, revealing more hidden Richters, surrounded by a jumble of styles and periods. A mediocre Monet hung near a large-scale crayon drawing of a dystopian picnic and a medieval-looking oil of a bummed-out Jesus.

Standing before an aching, effaced landscape by Richter, the professor said, “He was painting the end of painting.” Then Dawsey slid the rack back against the wall, the students filed out of the room, and the door shut behind us.

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