Moving Huge Sculpture and Latte Memories

A "before" image from SFMOMA's Instagram of their rooftop sculpture garden and cafe, and below a video documenting how the sculpture Zim Zum I was moved from this location to the CJM.

The worst kept secret here at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) is that before they closed for renovation, a lot of us loved to have coffee and meetings in the rooftop sculpture garden of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).

The two museums flank a public garden in San Francisco's dense cultural district, so it was barely a 5 minute walk there. To gain admission I would flash my badge at their membership desk and be granted a kind of special access reserved for museum workers. The ease of entry felt pretty much like a superpower. We'd purchase some gorgeous coffee in painfully perfect dishware and decide which kind of meeting it would be; a more formal affair to take place at one of the few scattered metal chairs and tables, or a more free-form session which required sitting cross-legged on one of the many wide benches, often pleasantly warmed by the sun.

I'd always angle for the latter, and was drawn to the back left corner near by what seemed plausibly to be the magnetic powers of a giant steel sculpture. The piece was Barnett Newman's Zim Zum I, and there were people interacting with it. Kids took the invitation of being outside to run through the two accordion-shaped sections, and artsy Instagrams were often in progress. Despite being made of tough steel it felt warm and contained, somehow adding to the coziness of the place.

Then came the news that SFMOMA was closing for renovations, and while they were closed their masterpieces would travel to institutions around the Bay Area, beginning with the CJM. I was familiar Newman's paintings, but knew nothing about his sculpture, and certainly not that this one was based on a conceptual deep cut from kabbalah, the concept of tsimtsum. The idea is that God withdrew from the universe in order to make space for humans, and the sculpture refers to this space that was created. So apparently while sipping lattes I had been staring at Jewish theology.

I had to find out how this huge piece was going to make it from one of my secret happy places to the lobby of the CJM, practically our living room. In the video above, filmmaker Paul Donatelli tells the story, and with help from SFMOMA's staff, we documented the movement of these several tons of steel to its temporary home as a part of our collaborative exhibition Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art. Not sure if it's a question of physics or spirituality or both, but when something withdraws, doesn't it have to go somewhere? Of all the places the sculpture could have gone, it feels surreal and fitting to have it here. And I'm sure glad that Wise Sons Deli is opening soon in the same space that Zim Zum I resides, because for some reason I just got a craving for coffee.

About the Author
Kathryn Jaller is New Media Manager at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and someone who likes to make things, teach things, and laugh about things.
See her work at, and follow her at @kholler.

Barnett Newman, Zim Zum I, 1969. Weathering steel. 96 in. x 72 ½ in. x 180 in. Collection SFMOMA, purchase through a gift of Phyllis Wattis. © 2013 The Barnett Newman Foundation/Artists Right Society (ARS), New York.


Popular posts from this blog

“A Gentile’s House”: Lolita and the Holocaust

Cats: The Beat Generation’s Secret Love Affair

Stanley Kubrick: A Jewish Story