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Older, but not necessarily wiser

A 44-year-old art award weakens some of its radical punch.  

 Bonnie Sherk discussing her Portable Parks II with CalTrans officials in 1970. 

Since its debut in 1967, the SECA Art Award, named for the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (founded six years earlier), has become a serious cultural institution around here. Every two years, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art selects one or more Bay Area artists for a special exhibition at the museum. Yet only now, with SFMOMA’s retrospective “Fifty Years of Bay Area Art and the SECA Art Award” opening this month, do we have the chance to assess the program itself. Though there’s plenty to admire, there’s also evidence of a disquieting trend.
The award has always honored accomplished and collectible artists, including standouts like John Meyer, whose 1990 monochromes depict the color of daylight falling across his canvas, and Andrea Higgins, who in 2002 did a series of geometric abstractions patterned after the weaves of First Ladies’ signature outfits. But SECA really made its mark by fostering more experimental work, like Barry McGee’s 1996 career-launching installation, which remixed his street art in a gallery setting, and Bonnie Sherk and Howard Levine’s 1970 Portable Parks I–III, in which the artists put down rolls of grass in unlikely spaces such
as freeway ramps, provoking people to reconsider the infrastructure of their city.
Last year’s four winners include two artists worthy of the former category, including Ruth Laskey, whose abstract weavings were recently exhibited by galleries here and in Europe. But neither of the two more experimental winners is quite at the level of their risk-taking predecessors. Mauricio Ancalmo’s Rube Goldberg–esque machine for generating nostalgia, for example—an old movie projector slowly spinning on a turntable—represents more of a logistical challenge than a conceptual one. And with a few exceptions (such as experimental geographer Trevor Paglen), that’s pretty much been the pattern since McGee. That’s a shame. If the SECA prize is intended to do more for artists than they could do on their own, SFMOMA should simply buy the art of the Meyers and Laskeys for its permanent collection, and reserve the actual award for worthy renegades. DEC. 9–APR. 3, SAN FRANCISCO MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, 151 3RD ST., S.F., 415-357-4000, SFMOMA.ORG