Sept. 24 2014 08:42 AM

Epic San Diego Museum of Art exhibition promises a textbook lesson in the evolution of modern works

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“The Liver is the Cock’s Comb” by Arshile Gorky

Ariel Plotek has to decide where the Van Gogh should go. It's the 1888 painting "The Old Mill," done shortly after the artist left a wintry Paris for the warmth of southern France, when he was embracing the interpretive use of color.

The problem is that Plotek has more than 70 works like the Van Gogh, each a masterpiece in its own right. It's one of the challenges facing the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) with the upcoming Gauguin to Warhol: 20th Century Icons from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, opening Saturday, Oct. 4, and running through Jan. 27.

Ariel Plotek
Photo by Susan Myrland

Balboa Park will be the only West Coast site for the traveling exhibition, which presents key works from 150 years of collecting by the New York-based Albright-Knox Art Gallery. It's the first time the museum has loaned a significant portion of its holdings, and San Diego is the second stop on the tour.

"This is a big deal," says Plotek, SDMA's associate curator of modern art. "It's a rare opportunity to see such exemplary pieces, where a Jackson Pollock could be the very best, as is the [Willem] de Kooning, and the [Mark] Rothko, too. It's the sort of collection that would be very hard to assemble today."

Albright-Knox is known for making waves, from the highly contentious 1926 purchase of Pablo Picasso's "La Toilette"—which will be on display at SDMA—to the 2007 decision to sell off hundreds of antiquities, Medieval and Renaissance art in order to buy more contemporary works. Gauguin to Warhol shows the organization's commitment to set the cultural pace. It's a look at how museums change art, transforming the avant-garde into sanctioned blue-chip gems worth millions of dollars.

And it's a rocket ride through art history—the greatest hits from post-impressionism to pop—with instantly recognizable pieces from Salvador Dali, Arshile Gorky, Marc Chagall and Frida Kahlo.

Monumental paintings and sculpture require special accommodations. They travel in small groups, like heads of state, never too many on any one vehicle. SDMA had to rearrange exhibits that had just gone up. Plotek had to choose which pieces would receive prime placement on SDMA's tallest walls and how to lead the viewer from the alluring roundness of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's "Woman Lifting Her Chemise" to Francis Bacon's unsettling "Man with Dog."

Gauguin to Warhol provides a standard by which museums can be judged today—to ask whether directors are taking the same risks and making the same investments as the Albright-Knox leadership did. It's a savvy move for SDMA, kicking off its Balboa Park Centennial programming, and it took a seven-figure check to do it.

Plotek hopes future members will look back at this moment, recalling what it was like to stand before a groundbreaking work of art, take in the details and experience what he calls "the deep satisfaction that I'd rather be nowhere else than in front of these pieces.

"If it can be done, and we've made it happen," he adds, "then it doesn't really get any better."

Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.

More art

Boundaries obliterated: The San Diego Art Institute continues down its revamped path with Beyond Limits: Postglobal Mediations, which opens from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4. Curated by SDAI's new director, Ginger Shulick Porcella, and Brazilian curator Denise Carvalho, it features international artists striving to highlight how "the future of the arts lies on a borderless, multidimensional circuit of experimentation." Through Nov. 15. sandiego-art.org

Architecturally articulate: Rita McBride plays with space in her upcoming exhibition, Public Tilt. Her quizzical architectural installations will fill the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's Downtown location from Friday, Oct. 10, through Feb. 8. One of her pieces, "Arena," a small-scale stadium-like structure with seating surrounding a central stage, will be activated with public programming through the duration of the show. mcasd.org

Jim Salvati's "Polka Dot Dress" will be on view at
Art San Diego.

Onwards, upwards: Art San Diego, the annual contemporary art fair that'll take over the Balboa Park Activity Center from Thursday, Nov. 6, through Sunday, Nov. 9, has joined forces with Redwood Media Group, a veteran in the art-fair world. While much will remain the same (Art Labs and other local tie-ins), expect a wider international reach for exhibitors. art-sandiego.com

Good and small: The experimental Helmuth Projects gallery in Bankers Hill will bring back its very good Object Object! show, which will open from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 1. Dozens of national and international artists will show small works that regular folks can actually afford. helmuth-projects.com

Word play: Tijuana artist Marcos Ramírez Erre will experiment with language in his solo show Playing Series Serious, opening at SDSU's Downtown Gallery from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6. The works will include stylized crosswords, word-search and Sudoku puzzles, plus a large-scale chess game, mazes and more. downtowngallery.sdsu.edu

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