Exhibition Press Release


Treasures Of Modern Art: The Legacy Of Phyllis Wattis At SFMOMA Major Exhibition To Highlight Gifts That Shaped SFMOMA Collection

Exhibition dates: January 30 - June 24, 2003

Release date: December 20, 2002

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) presents Treasures of Modern Art: The Legacy of Phyllis Wattis at SFMOMA, on view from January 30 through June 24, 2003. This special exhibition will highlight and celebrate works of art acquired by SFMOMA due to the vision and generosity of devoted trustee and patron, Phyllis Wattis, who passed away in June 2002 at the age of 97. The exhibition will feature more than 80 of her most important gifts—including works by Robert Rauschenberg, Piet Mondrian, René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Barnett Newman, among others—offering a unique look at the lasting impact Wattis had on SFMOMA. It will focus on works acquired between the years 1995 and 2002, the most significant period of Wattis's philanthropic activity. Treasures of Modern Art: The Legacy of Phyllis Wattis at SFMOMA is an exclusive SFMOMA presentation; the exhibition is co-organized by Madeleine Grynsztejn, the Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, and John S. Weber, the Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Programs.

Wattis received national recognition late in life as her gifts of major works of contemporary and modern art helped transform the Museum's permanent collection. Leading the way for SFMOMA's unprecedented acquisition campaign of the late 1990s, Wattis worked closely with SFMOMA's curatorial staff to acquire works that would have an immediate impact on the collection and its significance in the art world. Wattis keyed her donations to the collection's gaps and needs, always asking the SFMOMA curatorial staff whether a proposed acquisition was of such importance that it could, in and of itself, spark a museum visit. In Wattis's words, taking a cue from the Michelin travel guides, she wanted to bring artworks to SFMOMA that would rank as "Four Stars, Worth a Detour."

"SFMOMA owes a great debt to Phyllis Wattis. Her gifts have come to occupy key places in the art historical narrative the Museum presents," states Grynsztejn. "The caliber of the more than 80 works in this exhibition speaks to Mrs. Wattis's belief that the Museum's collection should be built around masterpieces, and we're excited by the opportunity to see them all together. Phyllis was one of those rare individuals whose vision made a difference to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and to the cultural life of San Francisco."

The following are among the most significant works featured in the exhibition:

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, 1917/1964, one of the 20th century's most iconic and controversial works of art, is a cornerstone of SFMOMA's permanent collection. An edition produced in 1964 by the artist and the Milanese scholar/collector Arturo Schwartz after the destroyed 1917 original, Fountain is the first of Duchamp's "ready-made" objects to enter the SFMOMA collection.

Red Liz, 1963 (also titled Liz No. 6), by Andy Warhol, is a classic early portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, painted in lavender, black and turquoise against a stunning red background. It is among the signature portraits Warhol created of such celebrities as Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

Les Valeurs personnelles (Personal Values), 1952, a painting from René Magritte's mid-career, displays the signature style of the artist in one of his most extraordinary and refined images. Les valeurs personelles is one of the artist's seminal works and includes many of the objects we associate with Magritte: the cloud-filled sky, the goblet, the box-like interior space with a crack in the ceiling. The painting creates the sensation that we are standing in an ambiguous space that is both open and confining, creating a sense of radical change in scale that represents one of the most potent aspects of Magritte's works.

The donation of 14 iconic works by Robert Rauschenberg, purchased by Wattis directly from the artist, made SFMOMA a destination point for lovers of postwar art. Included among those gifted are Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953; Automobile Tire Print, 1953; and an accompanying group of key early paintings, sculptures and photographs. These works give SFMOMA an unmatched range and depth in Rauschenberg's work. Wattis developed a friendship with the artist during this period and they remained in contact until her death.

"The Patron Saint of San Francisco Arts"

Phyllis Cannon Wattis, a great granddaughter of Brigham Young, was born in 1905 in Salt Lake City, Utah. She was the daughter of a sugar company executive and the third of six children. Raised in Salt Lake City, she started college at the University of Utah and moved in 1927 to attend UC Berkeley, where she graduated with a degree in economics. Following graduation, she returned to Salt Lake City and met Paul Wattis, whose father was a founder of the Utah Construction Company. They were married in 1934 and three years later moved to San Francisco, where they raised two children. Wattis became interested in art relatively late in life. Though she first visited SFMOMA in the 1940s, it wasn't until 1964, while visiting an international art exhibition called Documenta in Kassel, Germany, that her interest in modern art developed.

In 1958 the couple established the Paul L. and Phyllis Wattis Foundation to formalize their philanthropic activities, which were aimed at educational, artistic and scientific Bay Area institutions. After 30 years, Phyllis Wattis dissolved the organization and promptly gave $26 million to several Bay Area institutions, including $5 million to SFMOMA's New Building Campaign.

Wattis served as a Trustee of SFMOMA beginning in 1973 and was elected a Lifetime Trustee in 1988.

SFMOMA's Department of Education will present a variety of programs and public lectures to further enhance visitors' experience of the exhibition. John Weber, the exhibition co-curator, will present a Free Tuesday program, "Four Stars, Worth a Detour", providing behind-the-scenes background on Wattis's collecting on behalf of SFMOMA, on Tuesday, March 4, at noon in the Phyllis Wattis Theater. Sidra Stitch, art historian, curator and author, will present an Art and Conversation program, Discovering Connections: Paris and the Wattis Exhibition, on Friday, March 28, at 12:30 p.m. in the Koret Visitor Education Center. In this slide presentation, Stitch, author of the art-Sites art book/travel guide series, takes the audience on a unique tour of Paris by linking specific works in the Wattis exhibition to Parisian museums, galleries, buildings and other art-related sites. The presentation is free with Museum admission. Additional program information is available on the Museum's Web site at www.sfmoma.org.

Treasures of Modern Art: The Legacy of Phyllis Wattis at SFMOMA is organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Media Sponsors: The San Francisco Chronicle, SF Gate.com, and KQED Public Broadcasting

Media Contacts

  • Sandra Farish Sloan, 415/357-4174,
  • Lauren Howard, 415/357-4176,
  • Libby Garrison, 415/357-4177,

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151 Third Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

Founded in 1935 as the first West Coast museum devoted to modern and contemporary art, SFMOMA is currently undergoing a major expansion project to open in 2016 that will significantly enhance gallery, education, and public spaces, enabling the museum to better showcase more of its expanded permanent collection. While the museum is temporarily closed for construction, from June 3, 2013 to early 2016, SFMOMA will be “on the go” with an extensive array of off-site programming across the Bay Area, including collaborative and traveling museum exhibitions, major outdoor projects and commissioned installations, and new education initiatives.

Visit our Web site at www.sfmoma.org or call 415.357.4000 for more information.

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