Re­lo­cated gallery opens with buoy­ant ‘The Hu­man Form’

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Charles Des­marais

The recon­ceived Berggruen Gallery re­opens near SFMOMA this week with an ex­hi­bi­tion on a tried and true sub­ject — “The Hu­man Form.” Ex­pect to be buoyed by the dis­play.

The ea­gerly awaited, re­lo­cated and recon­ceived Berggruen Gallery opens this week with an ex­hi­bi­tion on a tried-and-true theme. “The Hu­man Form” may be pa­perthin con­cep­tu­ally, with the in­tel­lec­tual weight of a high school es­say. Sen­su­ously, though, it’s a show that will buoy you up and float you away.

At last count, there were 66 works in the show, by 36 artists; four days be­fore open­ing, the num­bers were still shift­ing slightly as staff adapted to the new space. All

are su­perb ex­am­ples of their type: one or an­other for­mal vari­a­tions on im­ages of the body. For­get the the­sis — as an ex­hi­bi­tion, it’s lit­tle more than a cat­a­log of types and cat­e­gories. Taken in­di­vid­u­ally, how­ever, vir­tu­ally ev­ery work is a mu­se­um­wor­thy ex­am­ple.

Gal­leries are pri­vate af­fairs, and the best such busi­nesses are usu­ally re­flec­tions of the owner’s per­son­al­ity. John Berggruen and his wife and part­ner, Gretchen, are per­son­al­i­ties worth re­flect­ing. They are the em­bod­i­ment of the idea of taste, and the new space and the works in­side it have a rare, quiet el­e­gance that seems out of a by­gone time.

And if there is a name syn­ony­mous with “art gallery” in San Fran­cisco, it is the Berggruen Gallery. Start­ing with a small shop sell­ing prints in 1970, its founder quickly be­came the Bay Area’s most prom­i­nent art dealer. Af­ter more than four decades, he re­mains at the top of a small group of gal­lerists here with an in­ter­na­tional pro­file and a cen­tral role in the San Fran­cisco art mar­ket.

The gallery an­nounced in 2015 that it would leave its long­time home on Grant Av­enue. Later, an Oc­to­ber 2016 open­ing was set. As such things go, it is re­mark­able that the project is a mere three months late. It opens Fri­day, Jan. 13, in the midst of the city’s fre­netic art fair sea­son.

The new space, a stone’s throw from the San Fran­cisco Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art, oc­cu­pies an en­tire build­ing of 10,000 square feet at the cor­ner of Howard and Hawthorne streets. The his­toric brick struc­ture was gut­ted and opened up, un­der the guid­ance of ar­chi­tect Jen­nifer Weiss, to take ad­van­tage of am­ple day­light. The Berggru­ens have ex­pressed some con­cern that the mul­ti­ple win­dows, re­tained to meet his­toric preservation guide­lines, re­duce wall space for hang­ing art. But the win­dows are an im­por­tant part of what makes the new gallery dis­tinc­tive. They also moder­ate the “white box” ef­fect of mod­ern art spa­ces: The win­dowed rooms help one imag­ine what Berggruen works might look like in your home.

The in­au­gu­ral show is in­tro­duced by an ex­tra­or­di­nary work by Ge­orge Condo, “Ab­stracted Fig­ures” (2011). A room­ful of peo­ple — an art open­ing is sug­gested, though some fig­ures are nude — is de­scribed in Condo’s car­toon­ish sig­na­ture style, against a loose pat­tern of what I think of as 1950s color. If you don’t know Berggruen, let the pic­ture be your in­tro­duc­tion. It’s part Mad mag­a­zine, part “Mad Men,” and it sets a tone of stylish­ness with­out tak­ing it­self too se­ri­ously.

The works on view range in date over 100plus years. An in­tense wa­ter­color by Pablo Pi­casso, “Le Nu Jaune,” was made in the same year (1907) and in the same style as the artist’s fa­mous “Les De­moi­selles d’Avi­gnon.” That pic­ture alone would be worth the visit, but also on hand is the clas­sic Cu­bist “Femme as­sise,” an im­por­tant small Pi­casso draw­ing from 1912.

A 1929 work by Fran­cis Pi­cabia, “Trans­parence (vis­age et fleurs),” gives a sense of what all the New York hub­bub is about, where the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art’s Pi­cabia show is on view through March 19. When I stud­ied art his­tory, the artist was a Dadaist who did some other stuff. This mys­te­ri­ous paint­ing gives a hint as to why MoMA de­cided to fo­cus, at last, on the larger body of work.

At the other end of the time frame, the ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes works made since 2012 by Michaël Bor­re­mans, a painter of enig­matic, hy­per­re­al­ist por­traits; and San Fran­cisco fa­vorites Chris Jo­han­son and Barry McGee.

As a whole, the ex­hi­bi­tion is light on works by women and artists of color, but the 21st cen­tury se­lec­tion is nicely di­verse, with strong ex­am­ples by well-re­garded artists like Ce­cily Brown, Elizabeth Pey­ton, Martin Puryear, Kiki Smith, Adri­ana Vare­jão, Kara Walker and Ke­hinde Wi­ley. Nick Cave’s 2005 “Sound­suit” is a strik­ing mashup of African cos­tume tra­di­tions and richly dec­o­ra­tive Euro­pean em­broi­dery. Vir­tu­ally all the artists in­cluded are well known, but the gallery does take a chance on the young James Crosby, a 2016 UCLA grad­u­ate who has hand-fash­ioned what ap­pear to be haz­mat hoods, lined with the Dutch fab­rics as­so­ci­ated with women in some African coun­tries. They might be pro­tec­tion from the poi­sonous at­mos­phere, par­tic­u­larly for peo­ple of African her­itage, of our cur­rent po­lit­i­cal mo­ment.

A large part of the ex­hi­bi­tion is de­voted to artists as­so­ci­ated with the gallery’s suc­cess over its life­time. An ex­am­ple of one of the great­est of Matisse sculp­tures, “Large Seated Nude” (1922-29), is cur­rently in the col­lec­tion of the Nasher Sculp­ture Cen­ter in Dal­las. (It was en route when I toured the show in ad­vance of the open­ing, but I have seen it at the Nasher.) It once be­longed to John Berggruen’s fa­ther, Heinz, a fa­mous art col­lec­tor who do­nated a mu­seum-full of mod­ern art to Ger­many.

It is hard to think about the mar­ket for such tow­er­ing San Fran­cisco tal­ents as Richard Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliveira, David Park and Wayne Thiebaud with­out rec­og­niz­ing their strong part­ner­ship with Berggruen, and their works are well rep­re­sented here. To the gallery’s credit, how­ever, the ex­hi­bi­tion demon­strates the breadth of its in­ter­ests, se­cure in the knowl­edge that its depth is well known.

A small work by Tom Sachs called “Man,” made just last year, is placed at the end of the gallery on the top floor — at the end of the ex­hi­bi­tion. Though cast in bronze, it looks like a carved piece of scrap wood, left over from a safety bar­rier. It is pa­thetic, in the way of much great art. It has that touch of wry hu­mor seen in the Ge­orge Condo work at the en­trance and that char­ac­ter­izes many Berggruen Gallery choices. Its place­ment sug­gests some­thing about a fu­ture for the gallery — that the open­ing show is as much a clo­sure of a pe­riod in its rich his­tory.

Ge­orge Condo / Artist Rights So­ci­ety

Berggruen Gallery

Ge­orge Condo’s ex­tra­or­di­nary work “Ab­stracted Fig­ures” (2011) in­tro­duces the show in Berggruen Gallery’s new site.

Liz Hafalia / The Chron­i­cle

Gretchen (left) and John Berggruen amid prepa­ra­tions Thurs­day for their gallery’s in­au­gu­ral ex­hibit, “The Hu­man Form.”

Berggruen Gallery

Nathan Oliveira’s “Cobalt Dancer” (2001) is part of the in­au­gu­ral show at the new space of the Berggruen Gallery.

Berggruen Gallery

Richard Diebenkorn, “Woman with News­pa­per” (1960), is in­cluded in the wide-rang­ing show.

Liz Hafalia / The Chron­i­cle

The gallery, at Howard and Hawthorne streets, is just a stone’s throw from the new SFMOMA.

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