"Bruce Conner: It's All True," the retrospective previously seen at New York's Museum of Modern Art, opened at SFMOMA in October, and it had us pinching ourselves and saying, "Yes, a major artist lived here, one with a New York imprimatur." Conner's iconoclasm—his disregard of, perhaps a manipulation of, his ideas about the market—inspires us still, and makes us feel guilty at the same time, and these mixed emotions are complicated further by the sheer pleasure and marvel of how many things he excelled at—collage, sculpture, film and video, painting, the silver gelatin photograms of his "Angels" series (1975). Surely the range of this work, we tell ourselves, from the pervy creepiness of "Black Dahlia" to the trance-inducing hypnosis of image in his film Valse Triste (1977) reveals a humanist, a master of emotion as well as of form. Anyway, he's ours and we deal with him. The SFMOMA also gave us the first museum exhibition of the LA-based street photographer Anthony Hernandez (b. 1947), curated in-house by Erin O'Toole. Hernandez has nearly fifty years of remarkable, exciting work behind him, and the layout of his retrospective was similar to that of Conner's, with each room unveiling a different body of work. Open through January 1, it is a great crowd-pleaser of a show; you can feel the joy of seeing something totally unexpected translate into a heightened sense of movement; the ballet of moving this close to the extra-large photos, then stepping back far away enough to get the proverbial big picture.
In the margins a handful of foundations—half public, half private—curate the most interesting exhibitions. The Wattis Institute, in a new Mission building, gave us hit after hit. The late Ellen Cantor got her day with "Cinderella Syndrome," an exhibition of videos and drawings. Her film works, rarely seen in the Bay Area, played to mesmerized audiences at screenings in January and February. Laura Owens came up from LA to turn the Wattis into a wallpaper showroom in which, it was said, ten paintings lived; though I never found one, she seemed to have conquered the somewhat cool and difficult space in a new way. The hat trick continued with senior Bay Area conceptual artist Howard Fried, reviving his "Derelict" series (1974–83) with a gargantuan new Derelict V, a coffee cup so big you could have fit forty people in it, resting on a massive tabletop as sleek as sin. As Alice found when she went underground, there's no thrill like going into a tiny door into a space where things are bigger than they are in one's natural life.
Of commercial gallery shows, my favorite was Peter Young's first show in San Francisco, "Elliptical Paintings." This was at Gallery Wendi Norris, at the quaint corner of Jessie and Annie Streets downtown. The paintings, from the 1990s, vibrate with festive energy, abstraction shading into a vista of pleasure, control, poetry and magic just like the simple ellipse on which all are based. A Matisse confetti, a Nell Blaine organic vegetative shape, a happy-go-lucky, expressive love of color that's almost kitschy, like the work of Disney artist Mary Blair—whatever the roots, the pictures dazzle under their own strange sun.