Halfway Home: Fraenkel Pop-Up

As San Francisco’s major museums reopen, it’s refreshing to encounter the unexpected in a smaller neighborhood gallery.

Out for a walk in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights neighborhood this summer, you might stumble upon an unexpected balm to the traumas of the last year: Fraenkel Pop-Up. Usually housed at 49 Geary Street, a consortium of blue-chip galleries downtown, Fraenkel’s temporary satellite space at 3695 Sacramento Street promotes a more casual experience. The work on view here isn’t a fixed selection, rotating weekly through more than thirty pieces from the gallery’s collection, making each visit a random, unique experience, and encouraging visitors to return.

Established in 1979, Fraenkel Gallery represents an esteemed host of fine art photographers – Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, among them — which the Pop-Up makes accessible. When downtown San Francisco turned into something of a ghost town last year amid the shelter-in-place mandate, Fraenkel’s Geary Street location closed for in-person viewing, though they’ve since reopened by-appointment. No stranger to creating temporary gallery spaces (Fraenkel has an annual presence at several local and international art fairs, postponed last year due to the pandemic), the gallery conceived of the Pop-Up as a way to bring an accessible art experience to the public, no reservations. “It’s the food truck to our fancy restaurant,” says gallery president Frish Brandt.

While food trucks can have a bourgeoise connotation in San Francisco, with destination events like Off the Grid at Fort Mason embodying the spirit of gentrification, it is that very same spirit that has encroached on the arts in recent years. The last decade has seen art galleries disappear from the locations they once dotted throughout the city (in favor of coworking spaces and juice bars), congregating in common areas like the Tenderloin, or shared facilities like Minnesota Street Projects. While these clusters of galleries make for great destinations, they don’t support an increasingly rarified experience: art as a spontaneous encounter. Fraenkel Pop-Up is a welcome, if temporary, reminder of what we’ve been missing.

Appointments aren’t necessary and visitors are encouraged to come as they are. A bowl of dog biscuits, right beside the hand sanitizer pump at the front door, signals an invitation to anyone who might have left home with the intention of heading to the dog park, rather than an art gallery. “We really want the Pop-Up to be a casual, spontaneous experience,” says gallery director Daphne Palmer. “We want you to be able to come [to the Pop-Up] in your exercise clothes and feel comfortable.”

Inside, the Pop-Up has a casual air and feels something like an art collector’s living room, complete with a couch, armchairs, and a small library of art books, encouraging visitors to relax and stay a while. The gallery is a sort of halfway house for viewers, tentatively venturing outdoors once again and perhaps uncertain about committing to an appointment, as well as the gallery staff, who have been working from home for most of the last year. This experience of isolation is also embodied in the works on view.

The morning I visited the Pop-Up, Sugimoto’s Fox Theater, Michigan, 1980, greeted me upon entry. The 3-foot by 4-foot print shows the interior of a movie theater, eerily lit by white screen. This may appear to be the moment just before the film begins, or after it has ended, until we understand that the photograph is actually a long exposure made over the duration of the film’s projection, the apparently blank screen containing within it every single frame of the movie. The extended indoor experience Sugimoto implies is something that feels distant, and Fox Theater makes us think of all the spaces we haven’t inhabited in the last year, trading shared culture for the comfort of glowing screens.

Alec Soth’s photographs enter the spaces where many of us have been confined: closed rooms and urban settings. Nick, Los Angeles, 2017 / printed 2019, shows a young man reclining on a bed, looking out at the viewer from beyond a slightly cracked sliding door. Park Hyatt Hotel, Tokyo (Mirror), 2015 / printed 2018, is an urban landscape taken from high above the city, while a hand (possible the photographer’s) interrupts the picture plane to hold out a small, compact mirror at the horizon line, reflecting back a glimpse of the other half of the city. Both pictures induce a despondent claustrophobia that feels all too familiar.

Richard Misrach’s natural landscapes offer a counterpoint. Untitled (February 14, 2012 6:18PM), 2012, is a 4’ x 6’ print taken up entirely by a placid, blue body of water. At the center floats the distant feminine figure of a lone bather, gazing back at us over her shoulder. Looking at this free-floating character, we immediately feel catharsis. Her position simultaneously offers a literal representation of the emotional desolation of the last year, as well as the freedom and limitlessness that physical confinement makes us crave.

The extended snow day that has been the experience of COVID-19 has left many of us shaken and restless. Even if you feel more comfortable leaving your own home this summer, the experience of going to a gallery or museum is still fraught. The procedural nature of by-appointment exhibitions and timed entries is tedious, necessary precautions that result in an unwelcoming, hurried environment, antithetical to viewing art. The isolation many of us have experienced over the last fourteen months has felt so personal, we forget that it is ultimately a shared experience of estrangement. The true gift that Fraenkel Pop-Up offers is comfort, giving viewers the regrettably foreign experience of encountering art in the wild, while the pieces themselves offer opportunities for both consolation and contemplation alike.

Fraenkel Pop-Up is open Wednesday – Saturday, 11-4, at 3695 Sacramento Street through July 31, 2021.

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