During his lifetime, Gap founder Donald Fisher was rightfully heralded as a visionary and an entrepreneur of the highest caliber - someone who turned a single store on San Francisco's outskirts into a billion-dollar operation that, under the "Gap," "Old Navy" and other retail names, employs more than 100,000 people and sells valued clothing to millions around the world. Fisher also had his detractors, especially among hard-core liberals, who said the Gap's use of cheap factories abroad - and Fisher's relatively conservative politics - undermined the retailer's reputation for items of good value. In May of 2009, four months before Fisher passed away from cancer, one critic bashed the Gap founder's formidable art collection, saying it symbolized corporations' stranglehold over the world's art market. What does Fisher's art collection say about him and corporate America?
This is one of the questions that inevitably arises at the dramatic exhibit opening Friday at SFMOMA. "Calder to Warhol: Introducing the Fisher Collection" offers a stunning taste of Donald and Doris Fisher's 1,100-plus holdings. For more than 30 years, the Warhols, Calders, and other priceless art that Fisher and his wife collected were only available to a select audience: Those who knew the Fishers, or those who were invited to the Gap's headquarters, where much of the art resided. Three years ago, Donald Fisher campaigned to house the work at a new museum he would build in the Presidio, but when opponents derailed those plans, Fisher worked out an agreement with SFMOMA to bring the collection there. Eventually, a new building will hold the artwork. For now, the museum's top two floors are devoted to a portion of the lifelong collection, which - for its depth and historical importance - is as valuable as any private collection known in the world. All told, the paintings, sculptures, prints and other items owned by the Fisher family may be worth in excess of $1 billion.
Strolling through "Calder to Warhol" is like entering a Shangri-la. Everywhere you look there's another work of overwhelming beauty and imagination. Warhol's Triple Elvis is in the same vicinity as Roy Lichtenstein's Figures with Sunset, which is close to Chuck Close's Roy I, which is a short walk to Gerhard Richter's Abstraktes Bild (Abstract Picture), which is down the way from a slew of Alexander Calder mobile-like works that hang from the air, waiting to twirl with the slightest touch. (During the media preview, several attendees tried blowing air onto the Calder pieces, smiling as they did so.)
The Fishers collected a cross-section of abstract and figurative art, concentrating on particular artists' whole body of work. Scores of Warhols are represented. Likewise for Calder and other artists who are well-known to art aficionados. What surprised me were the range of paintings and photos that showed images of suffering or despair. The French photographer Sophie Calle, for example, has a piece in the collection, Autobiographical Stories (The Bed), which shows a bed in a alleyway, next to a caption from a person, which reads: "It was my bed. The one in which I slept until I was seventeen. Then my mother put it in a room she rented out. On the 7th of October 1979, the tenant lay down on it and set himself on fire. He died. The firemen threw the bed out the window. It was there, in the courtyard of the building, for nine days."
It's a dark, contemplative picture - one that wouldn't be associated with Donald Fisher - and it's a short distance from a series of brooding paintings by German artist Georg Baselitz. One of Baselitz' works, a self-portrait called Das letzle Selbsbildnis II (The Last Self-Portrait II)
, shows a man upside down. The apparently naked man has a harrowing look on his face. Imagine The Scream
, only that figure is topsy-turvy in a reddish-black hell, and you have Das letzle Selbsbildnis II (The Last Self-Portrait II).
Fisher was a complex man. In an interview that's in the exhibit's catalogue, Donald Fisher said he and his partner didn't buy work that was "too tough in terms of content." SFMOMA curator Gary Garrels told me that Baselitz's appeal for Fisher was its underlying theme of renewal - that Baselitz' work, done in the aftermath of World War II, wrestled with Germans' coming-to-terms with their past and their future. Still, "Calder to Warhol" will shock visitors for its breadth of work. Who would have thought that Fisher would love a photo, Jeff Wall's Tattoos and Shadows
, which shows three young, tattooed people hanging out in a garden?
Fisher was a lucky man. He had the wealth to buy most anything he wanted. And he had the smarts to know what he wanted. He and Doris Fisher would visit artists' studios, get to know them, identify with their output. In a video that's shown at the exhibit, Fisher talks about his philosophy of art, saying that his understanding of clothing was artistic in its way - and that collecting art was not much of a stretch. He also says that museums tend to be elitist. Fisher could have kept this billion-dollar collection to himself and his loved ones. By having it put in the public eye, he is giving back to the world, just like he donated tens of millions of dollars to the cause of education.
In Fisher's case, the rich really did get richer. He got richer. His corporation got richer. His collection got richer. And now it's on display South of Market in San Francisco, where people can judge for themselves the value of this remarkable collection.
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