Roz Chast and the Influence of Anxiety

(Published in SF Weekly on May 4, 2017:

Roz Chast is very funny. Everyone who reads her New Yorker cartoons knows this. In fact, that’s all they really knew about Chast until 2014, when she published her graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, which details her stressful childhood and the demanding years she spent caring for her elderly, health-challenged parents. Suddenly, Chast’s fans got to know entirely different sides of her: Chast the worrier; Chast the crier; Chast the screamer; and even (gasp) Chast the hater!

Humor is the memoir’s driving force, but its pull is in the details of Chast and her parents’ stress and suffering. She vividly depicts their physical and mental deterioration and includes multiple up-close drawings of her mom on the precipice of death at age 97. Her dad died at 95 in the throes of pain and dementia. Taking its title from her parents’ denialism, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? won a National Book Critics Circle Award, was named one of the New York Times’ top 10 books for 2014, and has now spawned a touring art exhibit, “Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs,” currently ensconced at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.

“I don’t think it’s much of a secret that we all have parents who get old and die, but I didn’t share that in my cartoons,” Chast tells SF Weekly.

Still, she says, her New Yorker cartoons, which have appeared in the magazine since 1978, have always hinted at the anxieties of her life, since “my life is material.”

“For some people, their cartoons come out of a completely closed cartoon universe, and that works for them and that’s all they really want to do,” she says. “For me, the boundary between my life and the cartoon universe is a lot more porous. I do things from the cartoon universe. I love the end-of-the-world guys, with sticks, but they flow into one another more.”

As she talks, Chast sits in the middle of the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s second-floor exhibit space — on a bright red couch that’s a fill-in for the kind of furniture Chast would sit on with her parents in their longtime Brooklyn apartment. Nearby, under glass, are decades-old mementos from her parents’ home — some of the scores of books, photos, and memorabilia that her parents hoarded away and that Chast documents so funnily in her memoir.

George and Elizabeth Chast, who stuffed things into what their daughter calls a “Crazy Closet,” were low-grade hoarders, and Elizabeth was prone to fits of rage. She constantly berated her husband and their only child, and she basically beat up Roz when she was just four years old. “Hell” is one way that Chast describes her childhood in Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? But the turmoil and dysfunction had a silver lining: It created Roz Chast’s search for an escape, which she found in drawing, words, and humor. (And, eventually, in a new home life in Connecticut with her partner and their two children.)

Without the ugliness in Chast’s childhood, there would be no cartoons like the one Chast drew and wrote for Worth magazine, called “Dumbest Pacts With the Devil Ever,” which includes a panel of an anguished woman in hell with the text, “Traded soul for front-row seats at Bread concert.” (“What was I thinking?” the woman asks as a red devil laughs it up in the nearby flames.) At the exhibit’s opening night, the first guests couldn’t stop laughing as they went from “Dumbest Pacts With the Devil Ever” to the 200 other cartoons on display, which include most of the panels from Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Concentrated in a single exhibit, in which some images are enlarged to life-size, the cartoons accentuate Chast’s instantly recognizable drawing style — including the crazy expressions on characters’ faces, and their often-askew hair — and the turns of phrase that have prompted New Yorker editor David Remnick to call Chast “the magazine’s only certifiable genius.” That genius is usually filtered through the pages without any need for Chast to interact with readers, so Chast’s appearance at the exhibit’s opening night was a rare chance for people to meet the cartoonist face to face. People wanted to hug her. Chast obliged, though earlier in the day — as she met with journalists — she’d joked that talking about her life in public and revealing so much about herself were like psychotherapy, and that, “I think I should have a couch to lie down on.”

Chast says she inherited her love of words from her father, with whom she felt a close connection. Her mom is another story. Even till the end — even as she took care of all her parents’ needs by staying with them, and shopping for them, and driving them places, and arranging for nursing care, and cleaning up for them (including her mother’s incontinence) — she wrestled with their relationship. In Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Chast says she feared her mother, who spent her life commanding people from her perch as a schoolteacher and as a wife and mother.

“When I was growing up,” Chast writes in her book, “one of her favorite argument-enders was: ‘I’m not your friend. I’m your mother.’ If you hear that enough times, it becomes hard to switch gears just because some years have gone by. My mother was no longer my enemy when I grew up, but that didn’t make her my friend.”

Like Iranian-French humorist Marjane Satrapi’s popular graphic memoir Persepolis, which became a 2007 animated movie, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? could easily be turned into a cinematic vehicle. Chast tells SF Weekly that filmmakers have talked about doing that since her book was first published. And she deliberately wrote Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? after her parents’ deaths. Chast didn’t want them to know that their lives — including their foibles — were on display for anyone to see. But her aunt and daughter are still alive, and they have mixed feelings about Chast outing everything about the family. She says those feelings are a sign that the book, and now the touring exhibit, hit a nerve.

“I was on the phone with my mother’s sister shortly after the book came out, and with my cousin — her daughter — and they were kind of upset by some things,” Chast says. “My cousin said that my mother’s mother didn’t wash clothes for other people — that she cooked for other people. And I remembered that my father’s mother was the one who washed clothes for other people and I thought, ‘Oh, man. I suck. I completely screwed that up.’ And then I thought, ‘Well, all right. She cooked. She didn’t wash clothes.’

“She and my cousin said, ‘We cried at the end,’ ” Chast adds. “But it’s a sad story, you know — for everyone. Sometimes you eat a very good grilled-cheese sandwich. And this is the most wonderful thing! Or you see a great movie. But it’s like that New Yorker cartoon with the Grim Reaper. Everyone knows from the time you’re four years on” about the Grim Reaper.

“It’s not really a happy ending, I hate to tell you,” Chast jokes. “It’s not going to end well — any of this.”

A few minutes after Chast spoke with SF Weekly, the exhibit was officially open, and three middle-aged women perused a cartoon called “The World’s Luckiest Woman” that lists five standards, one of them being, “Daughter doesn’t care what you wear.”

“You look clean and comfortable,” the daughter tells the mom in the cartoon. “Ah-ha,” one of the women said, as if she recognized her own life in the drawings. “Oh, my God,” her friend said, “this is spectacular.” Their talk and their laughter filled the room for everyone to hear. The reference to “God” would have humbled Chast’s parents, who were not religiously adherent. It might have even made them laugh.


On the outskirts of Mexico City: Visiting the Past and Present of Teotihuacan

(Published in SF Weekly on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017:

Located on the outskirts of Mexico’s capital, the ancient pyramid city called Teotihuacan is firmly established in the psyches of the Mexican people — and of the millions of tourists who’ve set foot on the stones and pathways that comprise Teotihuacan’s panoramic vistas. UNESCO calls it a “holy city,” and, like other places in that category — including Jerusalem, Mecca, and Rome — it’s been a scene of unrivaled triumphs, peaceful coexistence, woeful neglect, and unspeakable violence.

The site’s two main pyramids, built some 2,000 years ago, climb upward into the Mexican sky, toward the celestial bodies that Teotihuacan’s people viewed as gods who could determine their fate. By themselves, the pyramids are eye-opening marvels of form and architecture that compare to Egypt’s Pharaonic Pyramids at Giza. The biggest Giza pyramid is about twice as tall, and twice as old, as Teotihuacan’s pyramids. But like their counterparts across Egypt’s dusty plains, Teotihuacan’s ancient structures have always contained hidden artifacts — maybe not in the realm of King Tutankhamun’s mask, whose golden, jeweled face has thrilled art-goers for almost a century, but close to it.

In fact, for art scholars who specialize in Teotihuacan, the recent finds that have emerged from excavations of the ancient Mexican city are nothing short of history-making, because the masks, statues, and other objects have revealed secrets that had been hidden for almost two millennia. At its height, Teotihuacan was the largest urban agglomeration in the Americas — a cosmopolitan city of more than 100,000 people that was multicultural, multilingual, and economically advanced. The city’s very layout — with its open streets and lack of a citadel or other major wartime fortifications — suggests that the rulers fully controlled the entire Valley of Mexico, which gave them domain over a large swath of Mesoamerica, centuries before the better-known Aztecs, whose culture they would strongly influence.

A new exhibit at the de Young Museum, “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire,” which opens Sept. 30, puts 200 objects on display, along with photographs, maps, and other renderings that transport the spirit and culture of Teotihuacan to the museum’s large lower-level gallery. It’s the same gallery that just had “The Summer of Love Experience,” and if there’s any overlap between the two exhibits, it’s this: Teotihuacan embodied an epoch where people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds formed a community that held together not despite their differences but because of them.

Each ethnic group had a role to play in Teotihuacan’s survival, and its leaders reframed the city’s philosophies to be inclusive. For example, the Old Fire God, a pre-Teotihuacan deity with different interpretations, became amalgamated into a new, purposeful figure. “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire” features several Old Fire God sculptures, which were likely used for ceremonial purposes throughout the settlement. Fire was an important element at Teotihuacan, though a massive conflagration — it’s still unclear whether it was deliberate or accidental — ultimately led to its demise in the sixth century, C.E. Despite its decline, the Aztecs looked to Teotihuacan for inspiration on how to rule, and UNESCO celebrates Teotihuacan for its “harmonic” architectural layout and “unique artistic achievement.” Many objects at the de Young are being displayed for the first time ever or the first time in the United States, and their striking appearance speaks partly to the geographical position and importance of Teotihuacan, which is situated between mountains.

“If you look at the topography of this part of the valley as it relates to other parts of Mexico, this is the easiest route to get out and down to the Gulf Coast,” Matthew H. Robb, the de Young’s former curator of the art of the Americas, who organized the exhibit, said as he stood atop the Pyramid of the Moon on a recent Wednesday. “Teotihuacan was well-positioned to coordinate and control some of trade from the Gulf Coast coming into the Valley of Mexico.”

That Wednesday, Robb led a contingent of media and de Young staff on a tour of Teotihuacan’s grounds, which upward of 4 million people visit every year. Teotihuacan is an especially important pilgrimage site for those who trace their ancestry to the peoples who founded it. School kids across Mexico City visit the site as a kind of history lesson — to see first-hand the pyramids and structures that are such an integral part of Mexico’s narrative. Images from Teotihuacan, notably the Pyramid of the Sun, have adorned Mexican currency for generations in the same way that the White House and other civic structures appear on the backs of U.S. denominations.

During the 1968 Summer Olympics, held in Mexico City, the Mexican government made sure that the Olympic torch passed through Teotihuacan, where — amid a wave of celebrants, colored lights, and movie cameras — a runner held the flames aloft as he crested the Moon Pyramid at nighttime and lit a fire at the top.

Pomp and pageantry aside, what the spotlights usually gloss over are the continuing excavations at Teotihuacan. Only about 8 percent of the ancient city has been excavated and researched. Archeologists and diggers regularly discover new spaces, and Robb took a contingent wearing hardhats through a recently found tunnel that goes right under the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. The tunnel walls were lined with pyrite — the mineral the Teotihuacan people used for blades and weapons. The tunnel has also revealed beautiful pendants, vases, and masks that were offerings to the gods, gifts they believed would allow the cycles of earthly existence, like the sun’s daily rise, to continue.

“I talk about them as ‘psychic infrastructure,’ that you need to have these things in order for the city to function,” says Robb, who is now the chief curator of UCLA’s Fowler Museum. “We’re not talking about raw blocks of jade. We’re talking about finished objects.”

And the objects — because their stones or jewels originated from neighboring parts of Mesoamerica — showed Teotihuacan’s early economic reach and pull. “

The shells are referencing the Maya world and referencing Oaxaca [south of Teotihuacan],” Robb says, “so already when this tunnel was established, Teotihuacan was on some level in contact with those places, and it’s important to have those visual references as part of the exhibit. The objects are spectacularly well done. They are not Teotihuacan imitations of Maya style.”

Teotihuacan was founded in the first century BCE. As it expanded, and after the pyramids were built, rulers oversaw human sacrifices to the gods. Many of the dead were captured soldiers who were killed in brutal rituals of beheadings and dismemberment. Archeologists continue to find human skulls and bones in the ground that encircles the city.

Standing atop the pyramids, visitors can see a horizon of small green hilltops that are covered with trees and grass. These hills are likely a series of smaller pyramids or other Teotihuacan structures that have been overgrown with the natural environment. At its zenith in the fourth century, Teotihuacan was almost eight miles square — a city-state with 2,000 apartment compounds that was about one-sixth the size of San Francisco. The site that tourists see today is just a small portion of Teotihuacan’s expanse, but it’s still a breathtaking sight (and site), and a reminder of how much more there is to excavate. Mexican only began seriously uncovering and reconstructing Teotihuacan in the early 1960s.

“All of these structures were essentially covered in dirt and plants,” Robb says, standing atop the Pyramid of the Moon. “That mound over there is another structure that hasn’t been excavated yet, so there’s still an enormous amount of urban infrastructure of the site that we don’t know.”

Robb, a fluent Spanish speaker, is one of the world’s foremost experts on Teotihuacan’s art. And the de Young is an ideal exhibition spot because of its long history of collaboration with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, signing an agreement in 1981 that brokered the return of Teotihuacan murals that a U.S. donor had given the de Young. (The murals had been looted in the 1960s.) Robb calls the agreement, which guaranteed the murals’ conservation, a “landmark instance of patrimony practice for U.S. museums. Most repatriations are not necessarily happening due to cooperation but legal actions.”

Because of the ongoing cooperation, the National Institute of Anthropology and History worked closely with the de Young on “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire,” which will be shown at the Los Angeles County of Museum of Art after its San Francisco run. “Teotihuacan” is an Aztec (or Nahuatl) name that has been translated as “The place where the Gods were created” or “Place of those who have the road of the Gods” or “Place where men become Gods.” The Gods on display at the de Young will stare back at visitors from behind glass, but they were originally out in the open — astride pyramids, in people’s homes, on dirt roads, and in tunnels. The people who made these objects and worshipped them didn’t think these Gods lived in the “ancient world.” Their surroundings were new to them. And for all the Teotihuacans knew, their Gods would help them — and Teotihuacan — live forever.

Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire, Sept. 30 through Feb. 11 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr. $13-$28; 415-750-3600 or


Cubaist Portrait

Habitually detained by Cuban authorities, Tania Bruguera’s art combines performance with activism. She’s even running for president (although she will not win.)

Published in SF Weekly on June 14, 2017:

The Cuban police and officials who have interrogated Tania Bruguera — and who continue to interrogate her whenever she’s on the island — resort to grossly Kafkaesque questioning, which shows how desperate they are to intimidate and discredit the performance artist.

A Cuban native, Bruguera is an internationally acclaimed political artist whose C.V., which stretches back 30 years, includes a Guggenheim fellowship; big exhibits at the Venice Biennale, Tate Modern, and the National Museum Wales; and plaudits from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which called her “one of the foremost figures in contemporary art” when it bought one of her video works.

But authorities say Bruguera isn’t a real artist. They’ve even said this to her face when, via her own Hannah Arendt International Institute of Artivism, she tried to deliver food, mattresses, and money to an area hit hard by Hurricane Matthew.

Essentially, Bruguera is banned from doing art in Cuba. Cuban authorities consider Bruguera persona non grata because her performances — in Havana and elsewhere — have criticized the government’s policies and treatment of its own people, inspiring other Cuban citizens to speak out, too.

“They take over your identity — and decide they can say who you are,” Bruguera tells SF Weekly on a recent afternoon at YBCA, where her new exhibit, “Talking to Power/Hablándole al Poder,” opens Friday, June 16. “They told me [during my detention], ‘You are not an artist.’ We are playing this game where I use art to open spaces of freedom that are otherwise not allowed.

“Because it’s art,” she adds, “there’s this kind of weird loophole. The first thing they want is to take away my artistic [projects]. I cannot show in art exhibitions in Cuba anymore. I cannot enter Cuban museums anymore. They have all these restrictions for me, as a way to put me into this marginal ‘illegal’ position. I told them, ‘The fact you don’t let me do [my art] here doesn’t mean I’m not an artist. Art is not just a geographical condition. It’s my personal identity and what I do.’”
Bruguera is a product of Cuban privilege — the daughter of a Cuban diplomat, Miguel Bruguera, who was stationed in Lebanon, France, and Panama. During her upbringing, Tania Bruguera had firsthand experience with the Cuban government’s propagandistic spin on its Communist revolution and its aftermath in Cuba.

“I was in a position where I was hearing propaganda all the time, and it’s something as an artist that has influenced me,” Bruguera says, adding that she and her father, who died in 2006, had a tense relationship — one not unlike the one that she has with the Cuban government.

“We were not,” she says, “on good terms, let’s say. I think he died believing [in Cuba’s revolution], which was great, though I think he was a little perturbed by how things came at the end.”

Like many Cuban students, Bruguera was forced to attend government rallies as a schoolgirl. And her school forced students to throw eggs at the house of an 11-year-old whose family was leaving Cuba and its revolutionary ways to live abroad. Bruguera refused to toss eggs. Flash forward almost 40 years, and she says that “activism can be when you decide, ‘No, I’m not going to say yes to this.’ ”

If there’s a performance piece that embodies Bruguera’s bravado, it’s Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana version), which she did in 2009 in the patio of Havana’s Wilfredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art. Bruguera set up an elaborate dais where audience members came up and — standing amid a white dove and two soldiers, symbols of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution — repudiated what they said were the revolution’s hypocrisies and double-standards. (Amnesty International has also called out Cuba’s restrictions on free expression and its climate of repression.)

“Cuba is a country surrounded by the sea, and it is also an island walled in by censorship,” said one speaker at the Wilfredo Lam Center, where Bruguera invited every attendee to talk uncensored for one minute. “Internet — and, especially, the blogs — have opened some cracks on the wall of information control. … It is time to jump over the control wall.”

Through loudspeakers, each person’s words were projected on the streets outside the venue, turning the event into a public spectacle. At least one speaker praised the revolution. Bruguera, who was teaching and living in Chicago and flew to Havana for the event, had given everyone in attendance cameras to record the proceedings, which were covered by media around the world.

In December 2014, Bruguera tried repeating Tatlin’s Whisper in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, where Fidel Castro and other Cuban leaders have traditionally held large rallies. Cuban authorities arrested her on the way to the event, prompting a global appeal campaign that put pressure on the government to release Bruguera along with other artists and activists who were detained in the crackdown.

Bruguera was held on and off for eight months before flying back to New York, where she is now doing an art residency. “Talking to Power/Hablándole al Poder,” is a retrospective of Bruguera’s projects that allows her to update them as she pleases.

“Are art projects that are politically and socially inclined able to survive the moment that gave them the need to exist?” asks Bruguera, wearing a swirling ribbon supporting immigrant respect, which each YBCA attendee will also receive. “Here you will see some pieces that have probably died — probably do not make sense anymore — but we’re trying to update them, to ask, ‘If this piece were to be updated, what would be the issues?’ ”

The exhibit also features something unusual for a major metropolitan museum but which fits into Bruguera’s (and YBCA’s) art ethos: an eight-week-long school, called Escuela de Arte Útil (School of Useful Art), that Bruguera and guest instructors will lead and that anyone can attend. The first assignment asks students to “think about a recurrent injustice that affects you, and propose new ways in which the issue could be addressed.”

Bruguera calls her YBCA exhibition and eight-week school “an experiment.” One of her own recent campaigns is called “#YoTambienExijo,” which translates into “I also demand.” That project began on Dec. 17, 2014, after the United States and Cuba announced the resumption of diplomatic relations and the end of the U.S. embargo. That same day, Bruguera wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama, Cuban president Raúl Castro, and Pope Francis (who helped broker the U.S.-Cuba thaw) to go beyond words.

She implored Raúl Castro to implement “a politically transparent process in which we will all be able to participate, and to have the right to hold different opinions without punishment. … As a Cuban, today I demand there be no more privileges or social inequalities. The Cuban Revolution distributed privileges to those in government or deemed trustworthy (read: loyal) by the government. This has not changed.”

She says that Cuban authorities detain her every time she returns to Cuba, and interrogate her for at least six hours at a time — either when she arrives at the airport, when she leaves, or during her stay. When, during her most recent detention, the state police prevented her delivery of food, mattresses, and money, she demanded they inform her of which law “that says I cannot do this.”

Bruguera says she turned the questioning around because “it was my chance to ask questions of the system. I wanted them to recognize that what they were doing was completely illegal and completely stupid.”

Bruguera says she’ll continue to go back to Cuba because “I always have this belief that the work about Cuba should be done in Cuba. Positioning yourself that way puts an ethical element on the project. It’s easier to stay outside of the danger zone and say whatever you want. … And I feel that political art is art that deals with consequences. It’s not really about criticizing; it’s about understanding how to challenge power, and in the process understanding what are the consequences of that.”

Another example of Bruguera’s artistic daring: In October 2016, she announced her candidacy for Cuba’s presidency, which Raúl Castro will relinquish in 2018. By voicing her intentions, Bruguera encouraged other Cubans to run, too. They have no chance at winning — none at all, as the presidency is expected to be given to Miguel Diaz-Canel, First Vice President of the Council of State of Cuba. Still, the point is not to win, but to spotlight Cuba’s lack of democracy.

“Talking to Power/Hablándole al Poder” shouldn’t just be seen as an anti-Cuban government exhibit. Nor should Bruguera be considered just as anti-Cuban government artist. Bruguera essentially creates art and performs against all governments that inhibit free speech. Her universalism is implicit in her art. In practical terms, Bruguera says that she brings an international perspective with her when she visits Cuba, and a Cuban perspective when she’s in the United States and other countries. Her art is multicultural, appealing to anyone who’s lived under a regime — or even a household — where “the rules” apply differently to different classes. Bruguera holds a Cuban passport but now lives and works in the U.S, and the YBCA exhibit coincides with the presidency of Donald Trump, who’s trying to implement anti-immigration policies and other legislation whose venality seems familiar to Bruguera.

Curated by Lucía Sanromán, YBCA’s director of visual arts, and Susie Kantor, a curatorial associate, “Talking to Power/Hablándole al Poder” is Sanromán’s first bona fide project at Yerba Buena, and one that she originated from start to finish. Hired by YBCA in 2015, she tells SF Weeklythat Bruguera fits in well with the museum’s vision to being “a citizen institution, to become a more democratic platform for cultural change. It became very important to invite an artist who does that naturally. She’s a remarkable, conceptual, interesting, challenging artist.”

Bruguera blurs the lines between art and activism. Eliminates them, in fact. If she has to go to jail, then fine. If she has to endure truculent comments and interrogation from police, then fine. For her performance called The Burden of Guilt, which references indigenous Cubans who rebelled against Spanish colonizers, Bruguera ate dirt and hung a dead lamb around her neck. In her performance called Self-sabotage, which centers about Bruguera’s lecture about art and politics, she employed a loaded gun that she held to her head. Whatever it takes to get people thinking beyond their preconceptions — beyond the art world into the “real world” — Bruguera will do it.

“Talking to Power/Hablándole al Poder”
June 16 – Oct. 29 at YBCA, 701 Mission St. $9-$10; 415-978-2700 or


Scream and Shout: Edvard Munch at SFMOMA

Edvard Munch, Sick Mood at Sunset. Despair, 1892. Thielska Galleriet, Stockholm. (Courtesy of SFMOMA)

(Published in SF Weekly on June 29, 2017:

Surrounded at an early age by familial deaths from tuberculosis, an ominous fear that he would be “next,” and the worrisome nature of his religiously conservative father, Edvard Munch was on edge through much of his life. This sense of unease infused his work with a psychological and emotional dimension that reached an apotheosis with The Scream, the 1893 painting that has been embedded in popular culture for generations. Munch was not quite 30 years old when he did his first iteration of The Scream (or Skrik, in Norwegian). But he lived another 50 years, until 1944, and he continued to produce work — lots of work — that is as stellar as The Scream for its raw, painterly portrayal of inner and outer turmoil. Can the average art-goer name one of these later works?

In a word: No.

That may change with “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed,” SFMOMA’s new exhibit that — thanks largely to the museum’s collaboration with Norway’s Munch Museum — looks at the artist’s entire career, leaning heavily on Munch’s post-Scream oeuvre. Taking its title from a self-portrait that Munch did between 1940 and 1943, the show is a revelation for the way it burrows into Munch’s methods of working a canvas and his way of seeing the world.

Throughout his life, Munch had tense relations with women, and his 1925 work Ashes — on exhibit for the first time in the United States — is a compositionally detailed scene of separation and shame. At its center: a voluptuous woman in a forest, whose flaming hair and shirt match the fiery, almost bloody colors behind her, and whose open, white dress melds into the white rocks below her. To her left: A male figure in black, his head turned into his shoulder, covered by his hand. Did she just reject his advances? Tell him he wasn’t good enough? Four years earlier, Munch painted The Artist and His Model, which shows Munch (who would have been in his late 50s) in a bedroom behind a much younger model whose face is burnt-red in color. Munch and the model each look at the viewer in a haze of disquietness. Both paintings suggest relationships that are precarious and dysfunctional — mirroring Munch’s own history.

In 1902, Munch was shot in his left hand while fighting with a former lover, Tulla Larsen, who was distraught over their breakup. Over the next several years, Munch got into numerous public skirmishes with people, some involving weapons. He drank excessively, suffering a nervous breakdown before finally checking himself into a Dutch clinic in 1908. According to Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, art historian Sue Prideaux’s meticulously researched 2007 biography, Munch was diagnosed with alcohol-induced dementia paralytica. The diagnosis and attending help mark an important milestone in Munch’s life, and Prideaux’s book includes a telling drawing of the clinic’s doctor, Daniel Jacobson, and a woman treating a seated Munch. Munch depicts himself content — smiling, even. The caption reads, “Professor Jacobsen passing electricity through the famous painter Edvard Munch, changing his crazy brain with the positive power of masculinity and the negative power of femininity.”

Munch’s “crazy brain” was integral to his art, and Prideaux, whose godmother was painted by Munch, cites a confessional quote that has become an imprimatur of the artist’s life: “For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. Without this anxiety and illness I would have been like a ship without a rudder.”

The Scream is not at SFMOMA. Munch made four versions, and the one owned by the Munch Museum, painted around 1910, is too fragile to travel. (Thieves stole another version in 2004. Still another made headlines in 2012 when billionaire financier Leon Black bought it for $119 million — the most money paid for an auctioned painting up to that point.)

But Munch made many paintings that had Scream-like qualities, with similar haunted figures or blood-sky backdrops and compositions. Several are displayed in “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed” — most notably the 1892 work called Sick Mood at Sunset. Despair. The work has the same perspective as The Scream — two figures in the background, a diagonal walkway, and a bloody sky that crests over a waterway. Instead of a haunted, skeleton-like figure whose hands cup his or her head, a man looks right. His face is featureless, and his downward gaze gives off the impression of someone despondent, in a state of dread and impermanence.

The same year Munch painted his first iteration of The Scream, he painted The Storm, a scene of Norwegian villagers who were huddled against the nighttime ravages of wind and nature’s wrath. The most notable figure, draped in white, has hands cupped against his or her head, à la the figure in The Scream. Almost 50 works — a tiny fraction of Munch’s total output of more than 1,700 paintings — are in the exhibit.

The last time Munch had a major San Francisco exhibit was 1951, when the de Young showed his art, and “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed” owes its origins to SFMOMA’s recent expansion. The museum contracted with the Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta, which led SFMOMA’s top staff to go to Oslo, where the Munch Museum is located, kickstarting SFMOMA’s idea to bring the artist’s work to San Francisco. After its run in San Francisco, “Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed” will go to New York’s Met Breuer (the Metropolitan Museum of Art also co-organized the exhibit) and then to the Munch Museum.

“Ruth Berson [SFMOMA’s deputy director of curatorial affairs] and I were in Oslo with our search committee of the board interviewing Snøhetta, and we popped up with the idea of, ‘I don’t think there’s been a Munch painting shown in San Francisco in many, many, many years, and suppose we can conceive of an exhibition here in San Francisco,’ ” Neal Benezra, SFMOMA’s director, said at the exhibit’s preview.

There remains a dearth of public Munch holdings in the United States. SFMOMA has none of his paintings, while New York’s MOMA has just one: The Storm, which it lent for this exhibit. This has contributed to the impression that Munch’s The Scream was his only seminal work, and “has short-changed us as Americans to understand Munch, and the role he played in 20th-century art,” says Gary Garrels, SFMOMA’s senior curator of painting and sculpture.

Pointing out how Munch influenced later artists like Jasper Johns and Tracey Emin, Garrels adds, “Too often, one work becomes that single icon that becomes a stand-in for the artist’s work itself.”

Besides paintings, Munch made 4,500 watercolors and 18,000 prints. (“He’s really one of the masters of works on paper,” Garrels says.) And he had his own lithographic press, which he used until his death at age 80. Munch painted Self-Portrait: Between the Clock and the Bed after the Nazis had invaded and occupied Norway, when he was 76.

Born into strife, his life finished that way. Unlike the bed in other Munch paintings, the bed in this last self-portrait is tidy and made. The clock has no hands. Munch stands next to it. To his far left is a painting of a nude woman. Munch is alone in the room with his art and himself. This is the life that Munch had seemingly envisioned for the end. He’s not screaming. In fact, his mouth is closed, and everything seems perfectly still — as if time had finally stopped for him.

“Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed”
Through Oct. 9 at SFMOMA, 151 Third Street. $19-$25; 415-357-4000 or


Peabrain-ism and a Love Supreme

The new Leonardo Drew exhibit at the de Young. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco)
On a recent Friday afternoon, the de Young Museum’s atrium — the one that a million art-goers pass through every year — was experiencing a radical metamorphosis. Gone was Gerhard Richter’s giant Strontium that, for a decade, had loomed over the space like an artistic Mount Sinai. In its stead was a sea of reworked detritus — newspapers, wood scraps, bent metal, rocks, you name it — that Leonardo Drew was orchestrating into place not just on the former Richter wall but the two connecting walls that are usually completely empty. Museum staff cordoned off the area while Drew put the last touches on a sculptural creation that’s Drew at his best: funky, provocative, and way open to interpretation.


Questions about race? Sure, that seems to be in Drew’s new piece. America’s political issues? That may also be embedded into the reworked flotsam and jetsam that is Drew’s latest international commission. And ideas of beauty? That’s definitely there, as are references to the de Young’s copper architectural bearings. But here’s the thing: In an interview with SF Weekly, Drew said that anyone’s interpretation of his new art is valid. That’s why he gave the work, as he usually does, a formless title (Number 197). Still, Drew strongly hints to SF Weekly that his de Young commission is designed to mimic the notes on a musical score. Not just any score, but a score that’s frenetic and soulful and alive. Something like A Love Supreme by the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.

“You realize key notes and music and how they’re arranged — you can compose,” Drew says, waving his hands as he scans Number 197. “I compose. I could have given you something very serene. But — boom, I’m going to punch you in the face.”

Based in Brooklyn, Drew often shows work at San Francisco’s Anthony Meier Fine Arts gallery, but his de Young exhibit is his largest S.F. venue to date, so more people will discover art that seems like it emerged organically from the environment and the streets — as if Drew picked up items he found on the beach and in parklands and dumps, and tweaked them ever so.

Not so. Like a scientist in the lab, Drew spends months cultivating objects in his studio — cutting, scraping, plastering, painting, and affixing until he finds the right combinations. He’ll reuse his former sculptures.

 “I can point to things and say, ‘That was a piece I had.’ I can even show you images of what these things were before,” Drew says. “You keep adding layers. Accumulated dust on the piece is an additive. People are like, ‘I can blow that off.’ And I say, ‘Don’t do that!’ This is like the layering of history — like the Grand Canyon.”

In the week before the opening of Number 197, the de Young set up a live camera to let website visitors peer in on Drew’s progress. Drew says he didn’t know about the art voyeurism until three days into the installation. Not that he would have behaved differently. Drew is one of the art world’s most gregarious figures — “I’m a people person!” — with an easy laugh that makes strangers feel completely at ease.

In his mid-50s, he can look back at his life — including his mostly fatherless upbringing in a housing project in Bridgeport, Conn., where he lived across from a landfill; his graduation from the Cooper Union with a BA in fine arts; and a career of important commissions and exhibits, including at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden — and say that he’s found an international fan base that appreciates the background and the intensity he brings to his work.

“When I was at the Hirshshorn, there was a security guard there who was running off and telling everyone what my piece meant,” Drew says. “I asked him, ‘Where did you get all that information?’ And he said, ‘From the artist!’ And I kept asking him questions. And he said, ‘You’re the artist, huh?’ I had a friend with me, and he told me, ‘You have to stop him because he’s going all over the place.’ And I said, ‘We’re learning stuff now. Just let him run.’ And I ended up coming out of there saying (about the guard’s ideas), ‘I hadn’t thought of that.’ ”

At the de Young, Drew met with a group of docents who wanted to know everything about Number 197 so they could convey it to visitors. “They wanted to know how I was seeing the work,” Drew says, “and I said, ‘Let’s stop that shit right now. What you want to do is tell me what you’re seeing.’ And it was all over the place — and it was poetic and beautiful.”

Drew has previously referred to the Bridgeport landfill from his childhood as being akin to “God’s mouth” for its wide spectrum of objects and discarded items. More recently, Drew has spent weeks in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen working with porcelain, a material he had never really focused on. Artisans have been working with porcelain in Jingdezhen for a more than a millennium, and Drew’s first experiments there failed and shattered. He stuck with it, helped by an interpreter who was present from morning to night.

“You can never run from yourself — it’s there,” Drew says. “You start out with this base, and then — boom — it branches off into a number of directions. If an artist is open to digest new things, the possibilities are endless, as big as your imagination. If you have this little pea-brain, you stay in ‘peabrain-ism.’ ”

A week after Drew spoke with SF Weekly, the de Young’s atrium barriers were gone, the exhibit officially opened, and people were milling around Number 197, taking pictures with their cameras. Drew was gone, but his work was making a statement for him — even though he almost quit the project. He says the de Young’s administrators decided they didn’t want him using all three of the atrium’s walls after all. At one point, Drew says he told them they should return Richter’s Strontium to the atrium.

“There was a time,” Drew reveals, “when I had to 86 the show because they had approached me about doing the space, and then said, ‘You’re going to focus on this wall.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to do anything like that. Let’s cancel the show. I quit.’ It’s a perfect three-point perspective. I said, ‘If you’re a museum, act like a museum. These walls are for hanging stuff. You’ll fix them later.’ And they said, ‘Oh, no — there will be holes in the walls.’ I said, ‘That’s what museums do. You’re supposed to get holes in your walls. And then you fix them.’ ”

Drew’s laugh filled the atrium as he spoke, just like his art did — cascading here and there in every direction. It was a beautiful thing to witness, and it was in keeping with Drew’s demanding approach, which he applies to himself.

“Institutions should be challenged,” he says. “And artists should be challenged. Every time.”

“Leonardo Drew: Number 197,” through Oct. 19 at the de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. Free; 415-750-3600 or