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Staff Picks: Resonant Art for the Year of Shelter-in-Place

Dorothea Tanning, Self-Portrait, 1944; collection SFMOMA, purchase, by exchange, through a fractional gift of Shirley Ross Davis; © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn; photo: Katherine Du Tiel

An Te Liu, Cloud, 2008; Collection SFMOMA, Purchase through gifts of anonymous donors; © An Te Liu
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Last Breath, 2012; motor, bellows, Plexiglas, digital display, custom circuitry, Arduino processor, respiration tubing, paper bag, and HD video with sound on screen, 23 5/8 x 10 13/16 x 9 1/16 in. (60 x 27.5 x 23 cm); collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; installation view, SFMOMA, 2017; © Rafael Lozano-Hemmer; photo: Katherine Du Tiel
Richard Mayhew, Overture, 2001; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, gift of the Joyner/Giuffrida Collection; © Richard Mayhew; photo: Katherine Du Tiel, courtesy SFMOMA
Paulina Olowska, A Portrait of the Artist—Indoors, 2012; collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Paulina Olowska

When Dorothea Tanning was asked how artists in the new millennium respond to tragedy, the artist, then in her nineties, kept her answer brief. “Art has always been the raft onto which we climb to save our sanity,” she said in 2002. “I don’t see a different purpose for it now.”

Tanning’s response seems appropriate as we bid farewell to a blustery year, one marked by isolation and distance from the people and things we love. Below you’ll find an eclectic selection of artworks, including Tanning’s own Self-Portrait (1944), that staff members across the museum found to be meaningful amid 2020’s challenges.

The reasons for their inclusion are varied. Some familiar works evoked a new charge, like An Te Liu’s Cloud (2008), an installation comprised of dozens of domestic air purification devices clad in plastic shells. “It’s all about air—more specifically, the air indoors vs. the air outdoors,” said Daryl McCurdy, curatorial assistant in architecture and design. Meanwhile, Andrea Nitsche-Krupp, assistant curator of media arts, selected Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Last Breath (2012), a mechanical sculpture designed to store and circulate the breath of a departed loved one — in this case, late experimental composer Pauline Oliveros. “I’ve been thinking about this work from two sides: one, the obvious and unsettling connection to the current horrific pandemic traveling by breath, resisted by ventilators,” she said. “The second, the work of Oliveros, who proposed ‘deep listening’ as a means of expanded consciousness towards humanitarian purposes, specifically healing.”

Others found comfort or a sense of escape in their favorite works. Laila Dreidame, associate director of foundation and government giving, turned to Paulina Olowska’s painting A Portrait of the Artist – Indoors (2012). “The subtle movement and flow of energy between the objects in this artwork awakens my senses,” Dreidame said. “It is a soft breath released from her lips, a gentle rock of the parasol, and a knowing stare from a cat — a visually musical compilation of life.” Meanwhile, the grassy pasture and pink sky in Richard Mayhew’s Overture (2001) offered a respite for Janet Ozzard, managing editor. “I feel like I step into a greener, kinder, quieter world, and realize that, even though I’ve been working from home and seeing fewer people, my head is even noisier than it was before COVID-19,” she said. “I take a deep breath and feel my jaw unclench and my shoulders drop.”

Browse the collection below and click on an artwork to learn more about it. As we move through the waning days of 2020, we’ll be sharing more about the selections on social media. We’d also love to hear from you about artworks or other forms of creative expression that you found apt or meaningful in 2020. As always, tag us @sfmoma.