Recent Acquisitions: A Decade Later, SFMOMA Gets What It Wants

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Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.

When Janet Bishop first hung Marget Kilgallen's Untitled on the second floor gallery of SFMOMA, the work was on loan, but the curator of painting and sculpture hoped it would become a permanent part of the collection. For nearly a decade, the museum has sought a substantial work by Kilgallen (1967-2001), one of the most important artists to emerge from the Mission School. Kilgallen was a prolific artist, but her body of work is limited: She died of cancer at the age of 33. An acclaimed artist at the time, interest in her work has not waned on a local or international level.

Bishop first spotted the piece in Widely Unknown at Deitch Projects, a group show that served as a kind of memorial to Kilgallen not long after she died. "I love the potency of the figures, their graphic clarity, the quirky palette," she wrote in an e-mail.

Measuring 11 x 23 feet, the work holds its own from a distance, but an up-close viewing reveals important details, like the little sprout under the male figure, and the dotted palette to the left of the tree. A man and a woman dominate the work, and though it is not a traditional portrait, Bishop assumes the couple is Kilgallen and the artist Barry McGee. The two were married, and it isn't hard to place them in the work, to see "that the two of them were in it together."

It is difficult to consider Untitled, a central element in Kilgallen's M.F.A. show at Stanford in the spring of 2001, without acknowledging the heartbreaking circumstances surrounding it. Kilgallen was seven months pregnant when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In order to bring the pregnancy to term, she delayed chemotherapy. Her daughter was born on June 7, 2001, and in the next ten days she started treatment and received her master's degree. She died on June 26.

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Barry McGee, Untitled, 1996; dimensions variable; mixed media; Collection SFMOMA, Ruth Nash Fund and Louis Vuitton N. A. purchase; © Barry McGee

SFMOMA already owned Low, a modest piece by Kilgallen that was donated after Lisa and John Miller learned of the museum's interest. When Bishop learned that Untitled was available for purchase, she successfully lobbied the acquisitions committee in her favor. Untitled strengthens the museum's collection of Mission School artists, and speaks to them with varying levels of specificity. Among the 325 drawings and photographs which make up McGee's Untitled, above, is a school picture of Kilgallen as a young child.

What was the Mission School, and furthermore, did it even exist? In the catalog for McGee's excellent mid-career retrospective at BAM, MOCFA curator Natasha Boas asked that very question, which I in turn posed to Bishop. She acknowledges it wasn't a school in "the strictest sense," but the term serves as a convenient signifier, invoking an art movement centered in the Mission during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Mission School artists were considered scrappy, known for embracing non-traditional artistic materials, and Kilgallen often used cast-off house paint in her work.

Untitled can be seen at SFMOMA through November 2012.

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San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

151 3rd St., San Francisco, CA

Category: General

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