The Masters of the Zeitgeist

How Doris and Donald Fisher transformed SFMOMA—and San Francisco itself—into a global hotspot for contemporary art.

By Jesse Hamlin

Bob Fisher had a pretty good idea of what was in the monumental collection of late 20th-century art built by his parents, Gap founders and philanthropists Doris and Donald Fisher, with its singularly in-depth holdings of works from Ellsworth Kelly, Andy Warhol, Alexander Calder, Agnes Martin, Gerhard Richter and other major artists.

But as familiar as he was with the art—much of which his parents displayed at Gap Inc.’s San Francisco headquarters to inspire the staff—Fisher was stunned when he first walked through the luminous new Fisher Collection galleries in the vastly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art when it opened last May.

“I would’ve been blown away to see one floor, but to see three floors of that art was an awe-inspiring thing,” he says.

Seeing those paintings and sculptures so beautifully installed by chief curator Gary Garrels, and the crowds taking pleasure of them, Fisher felt a sense of pride and “gratitude that we were able to do this with SFMOMA and for art lovers.”

Thanks to a unique partnership between the museum and Doris and the late Don Fisher—a 100-year loan agreement renewable every 25 years thereafter—one of the world’s finest private collections of contemporary art can now be savored by the public, in a venue designed to show those prime works and others in the museum’s collection to optimal effect.

With the Fishers’ extraordinary cache of works by Kelly, Martin, Richard Serra, Anselm Kiefer, Cy Twombly and others—and more gallery space than any museum in the country in which to show them—SFMOMA has been transformed, rising to the top rung of American museums and becoming a magnet for art mavens and tourists internationally. Numbers aren’t available yet, but museum officials say attendance and membership are at record highs.

The expanded SFMOMA, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote, “bumps this widely respected institution into a new league, possibly one of its own.” Dazzled by the depth of the Fisher Collection—only about 260 of the 1,100 works are on view—Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight gushed: “Are there better surveys of Warhol, Richter or Kelly displayed in any museum? No.”

A year after the reopening and multiple visits, Chronicle art critic emeritus Kenneth Baker still raves about the revamped museum. Having looked at mostly digital images of the Fisher Collection for years, he didn’t fully realize its depth and quality, he says. Viewing those works in the flesh, installed so felicitously, was “thrilling” for him.

The Fishers, who trusted their instincts without relying on art advisors, didn’t set out to make and leave such a significant mark on the art community.

“They bought pieces they loved,” says Bob Fisher, who collects photography with his wife, Elizabeth, and has a splendid assortment of Walker Evans’ work.

“They bought one Kelly, lived with it, then saw another Kelly piece that was different. One piece informed the second, which informed the third, and so on. They had a personal and emotional relationship with the artist and with the art. When you have that, you want to be around the art and artist more. All of a sudden they thought, Well, maybe we can build a great collection of Ellsworth’s work.”

When The Gap built its new Folsom Street headquarters in ’95, the Fishers included two large galleries in which to share their collection with employees. (The giant red Claes Oldenburg apple core that graced the entrance to the company cafeteria now greets visitors to SFMOMA’s expansive new Pop Art galleries, but will go back to The Gap.)

“They ended up with 25 to 30 Richters,” says Fisher, who chairs the museum’s board, on which both his parents served. “My father was lucky enough to have that space at The Gap, for which they had to pay rent to the company. That was the rule. Great collectors have to figure out how to accommodate their passion. If they hadn’t had that 25,000 square feet of gallery space, they would’ve stopped when their house was full.”

His parents, he adds, “collected works that were visually pleasing to them. I don’t think they labored a lot over the concept behind what the artist was doing. They lived in a very aesthetic world. They looked at everything in terms of what it looked like and how they felt around it, much less about what it meant to the art world or what art historians would write about it.”

Don Fisher, who died in 2009, was particularly passionate about Calder, the whimsical sculptor whose inventiveness using simple means left the businessman in awe. (That they both went to Lowell High pleased him, too.)

“They fell in love with Calder very early and just wanted to have as much of his work as they could,” says Garrels, the curator, standing amid the Calder mobiles and wall pieces in a gallery dedicated to the artist.

“The thing that distinguished the Fishers is that when they fell in love with an artist, they collected the work in as much depth as possible, to represent the artist as fully as possible across their career. And they tried to get the best work. They really went for quality.”

Something else distinguished the Fishers as collectors: They were equally interested in abstract and figurative art. “That is very unusual,” Garrels says. Another unusual aspect was their approach to Warhol. The Fishers focused on his portraits, but not on Warhol the Pop artist.

“There isn’t really much you could call Pop Art,” says Garrels. He is standing in the 5th floor Warhol gallery containing the classic 1963 “Triple Elvis,” a big black-and-white silkscreen with the thrice-repeated image of Elvis as a gun-slinging cowboy. Visitors from around the world like to be photographed in front of it, striking the King’s pose. Warhol portraits of Brando and Jackie Kennedy are here, too.

Garrels spent two years planning where every object in the new galleries would go, working with Kelly on the installation of the four galleries containing his color-field paintings and shaped canvases, wall sculptures and reliefs—alas, the artist died in 2015 at 92 and never saw the eye-popping end result.

In the Minimalist galleries featuring key works by Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd and others, Garrels hung “Zambezi,” a pioneering Frank Stella black painting from SFMOMA’s collection, to deepen the display. The curators will begin integrating more works from the museum and Fisher collections to tell richer stories.

An intimate octagonal gallery on the fourth floor dedicated to Martin’s subtle meditative abstractions has a chapel-like feel. One work is the shimmering blue 1963 painting “Night Sea,” said to be Doris Fisher’s favorite work. Big monographic galleries focused on Kelly and Brice Marden contain just a few large-scale works, offering an immersive experience.

“Doris encouraged me not to overhang,” Garrels says. “She enjoys a museum where you can focus on each work.”

A year later, he adds, “I still kind of pinch myself walking through these galleries. The Fishers always had three or four Richters at The Gap, but when you see three galleries full of the best pictures Richter made—it took my breath away.”

Bob Fisher recalls the jolt of seeing a group of monumental Expressionist paintings by Kiefer hanging in The Gap’s gallery, which his folks had flown to Tokyo to buy from a bank.

“I thought my father had gone off the deep end,” he recalls. “Here were these mammoth, incredibly powerful pieces. You could only hang them in a museum or a building with huge walls. My dad never did anything too crazy. So I knew then he must’ve been thinking about how these works would look in a museum.”

For Doris, walking through the galleries for the first time was an emotional experience.

“It reminded her of the 30 years they collected together,” says Fisher, who wrote a note with his brothers, Bill and John, that accompanies Richter’s “Two Candles.”

“Perhaps more than any other artwork, ‘Two Candles’ has come to symbolize for us our parents’ deep commitment to art and each other,” they wrote. “They bought the painting in 1989, attracted by its quiet beauty and intimate presence. It was given a place of honor in their home—in a room upstairs where they spent a lot of time.”

Asked how his father might feel seeing his beloved art at SFMOMA, Fisher replies: “My dad always wanted to keep the collection in San Francisco, he wanted to keep it together and he wanted to have it on view for people to enjoy. I think he’d be pleased.”

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