San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art reopens La Jolla site

After a four-year, $105 million renovation and expansion, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) reopened on April 9. The expanded museum features “Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s” as its inaugural exhibit.

Originally founded as the La Jolla Art Center, MCASD has gone through several significant changes and has evolved into an art museum primarily focused on collecting, preserving, exhibiting, and interpreting works of art from 1950 to the present day. It has two sites: the flagship building located in La Jolla and the other in downtown San Diego.

In 2014, MCASD appointed architect Annabelle Selldorf for the expansion, squaring the museum’s gallery space in La Jolla. The new museum has a total area of ​​104,400 square feet, with an addition of 46,400 square feet from four years ago. It is also equipped with two levels of bright galleries, a public park and new oceanfront terraces offering spectacular views of the Pacific coast.

“With the expansion of Selldorf, MCASD’s flagship building is finally scaled to showcase the work it has accumulated over the past decades. High ceilings and natural light allow for inviting presentations of the collection alongside lively and changing exhibits,” said MCASD CEO Kathryn Kanjo.

Currently, MCASD hosts more than 5,600 contemporary art exhibits, of which more than 4,700 works were created after 1950, across various media and genres. These post-WWII works include key pieces by color field painter Ellsworth Kelly, minimalist sculptor Donald Judd and renowned Californian installation artist Robert Irwin. “Red Blue Green” by Ellsworth Kelly Andy Warhol’s Liz Taylor Diptych“, and John Baldessari’s “Terms Most Useful” are some of the notable works collected at MCASD.

The expanded La Jolla building will be renamed in honor of philanthropists Joan and Irwin Jacobs, who donated $20 million in fundraising and donated two additional sculptures (a stainless steel pumpkin with colorful polka dots from Yayoi Kusama and an oversized stack of lead books by Anselm Kiefer) on the occasion of the reopening.

The exhibition of the collection in this new building will feature works rarely exhibited before, including those by John Baldessari, Larry Bell and Sam Gilliam, as well as a 460-page manual on the strength and distinction of each collection.

“Our collection includes some of the greatest artists of the last century who represent diverse geographies, aesthetics, genders, races and often reflect the Museum’s position on the Mexican border. With this extra space, we can constantly showcase these items to curious audiences,” Kanjo said.

The museum’s inaugural exhibition features French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), focusing specifically on her works made in the 1960s. This exhibition is the first to explore her experimental pieces during those 10 years of transformation. Well known in France, Saint Phalle’s accomplishments were, however, largely ignored in America. This special exhibition also marks the first time that many underrepresented European works have been exhibited in the United States.

“While local audiences are familiar with Saint Phalle’s latest fantastical public art, we in Southern California have had less exposure to his radical 1960s work,” explained Jill Dawsey, senior curator at MCASD.

Saint Phalle, in fact, spent his last years in La Jolla before dying. During this period, she created the Sun God Statue as her first outside commission in the United States.

“Saint Phalle had an important relationship with this region. In the early 1960s, she held several shooting sessions in Los Angeles, in what was among the earliest examples of performance art in Southern California,” Dawsey said. “She would eventually settle in San Diego in the 1990s.”

The exhibition presented two of Saint Phalle’s most significant series. One is the “Tirs”, or “shooting paintings”. This work was completed in 1970 and was made while the artist was pulling bags of paint placed on the canvas. “Tirs” was created for the “Feu à Volonté” exhibition at Saint Phalle in Paris in 1961. It was his third exhibition since the opening of Galerie J and symbolized the artist’s entry into the group of new realistic. New Realist artists tended to incorporate everyday objects into artwork through assemblages, collages, and paintings.

“Shooting”, Niki de Saint Phalle

The other series is “Nanas”, the exuberant sculptures of women. These sculptures represent a radical change in the representation of the women of Saint Phalle; instead of portraying women as sad and passive, she made them into energetic and powerful figures. So, she named it “Nanas”, a slightly pejorative French term for girls, especially in reference to naughty young women. Some of these sculptures were created in light of the American Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968) and emphasized how “all women are goddesses, regardless of color”.

“Nanas”, Niki de Saint Phalle

“Many of the fantastical creatures and visionary environments of Saint Phalle cover our landscape and resonate with the community,” Kanjo said. “This rare presentation of a pivotal period in the artist’s career is a gift for our audience and a homecoming for the artist.”

This year, the La Jolla and downtown San Diego sites will feature solo exhibitions by pioneering female artists, from Yolanda López to Alexis Smith. Both are innovative artists and activists, who have contributed greatly to their community and society through their art.

MCASD is now open most days from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets to MCASD are $15 for students, while those 25 or younger can enjoy a free visit.

Photos courtesy of San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art

Christopher S. Washington