This weekend saw the public opening of The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area at SFMOMA, the city's modern and contemporary art museum. I thought I should pop in and have a look.
SFMOMA is (still) the only museum here I'm a member of. It's downtown, it has a heavy focus on photography (one of my favourite visual forms), and shows some interesting contemporary art. It also features a couple of rooms that tend to be dedicated to design, and it's these that host The Utopian Impulse.
The entrance and first room are dedicated to Buckminster Fuller's work, with a large Dymaxion map - his design for a world map that's based on an unfolded icosahedron (or cubeoctahedron, although those aren't represented here) to minimise the distortions inherent in displaying a sphere on a flat surface - along with Inventions: Twelve Around One, a series of prints by Chuck Byrne that fuse diagrams and sketches with photographs of Fuller and his inventions. There's also a shelf of the designer's¹ books, along with a display table featuring such lesser-known images as one of his Tetrahedral City proposal, a vast polyhedra situated in the San Francisco Bay.
There's not much new here, though, if you're already aware of Fuller's work. The much larger second room is, by contrast, dedicated to the Bay Area artists, designers, architects, and inventors who've been inspired by it. Here you'll find video, models, artworks, and products from the Ant Farm's proposals for a Convention City, Whole Earth Catalogs, the North Face Oval Intention tent, Nicholas de Monchaux's Local Code, the One Laptop Per Child project, and various models and designs for buildings both built and unbuilt.
It's definitely interesting (and slightly overwhelming) to see how this region has developed his ideas, even if some of the connections seem a little tenuous and could do with further explanation. The final (small) corridor, showing interviews and images from the Dymaxion Chronofile projected onto a custom-designed flattened icosahedral screen, helps somewhat to make the links more explicit; one segment I saw featured Stewart Brand and his "why haven't we seen a picture of the whole earth" campaign, for example. It's also, frankly, a rather amazing piece of AV sculpture.
Would I recommend the exhibition? If you're already in San Francisco or plan to be, and especially if you have a friend who can get you into the museum, then yes, it's well worth a look. However, it's small enough that I really can't suggest anyone travel here. It also makes much more of the Bay Area links than it does provide an overview of Buckminster Fuller's work. Comparing it to the photos and description of the Whitney's show in 2008, it's really just an amuse bouche. It's also a shame, because for all that this work is worth looking at, it doesn't fascinate the same way Fuller's designs themselves do.
¹ One of the problems with Buckminster Fuller is finding a word to describe him. The Whitney uses "visionary", which is probably right, but for some reason I can't quite bring myself to write that. "Designer" is perhaps not enough either, but I'm more comfortable with it.↩