By Sam Whiting
Updated: March 1, 2015 10:56pm
The first work of art for the new wing of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art arrived before the new wing did.
It is Richard Serra’s “Sequence,” which was set into place recently so that walls and a ceiling could be built around it. After a washing to keep its rust fresh, the 40-foot figure eight will be covered in blankets, and when the expanded museum opens in 2016, the sculpture will be unveiled as the 214-ton greeter for the new Howard Street Gallery.
“The fact that we have a big glass wall on Howard Street means that even if you don’t have time to come in, you can have a glimpse,” says Deputy Museum Director Ruth Berson. “We wanted to integrate the museum with the South of Market landscape and the alleys and streets.”
Serra’s sculpture has been integrated into the expansion plan from the start. Museum officials knew it was coming, on loan from the Fisher family, and figured it into the design, by Snohetta, an architectural firm headquartered in Oslo and New York.
Serra, who grew up in the Outer Sunset but practices in New York, flew out three years ago before the museum closed for renovation. He walked the site and approved the location for “Sequence,” then occupied by a fire station and a business college facing Howard Street.
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Those buildings have since been demolished to make way for the new wing, which is clad in ceramic-coated glass and rises 10 sleek stories behind and to the side of the original five-story brick box, designed by Mario Botta and opened in 1995. The old entryway under the signature oculus will still be there, but the pizzazz will be at the new Howard Street entrance, where the Serra sculpture will butt up to the sidewalk like a ship’s hull as three lanes of traffic roar by, headed west.
“We are very excited about opening up with 'Sequence,’” says Berson. “It is going to be a tremendous draw.”
It’s been a draw already, with each of 12 curvaceous steel plates arriving on its own semitruck bed, to be lifted off by crane and rolled into place, three loads a day for four consecutive days. The 12 plates had been sitting on these 12 trucks at a staging area in Stockton ever since the piece was dismantled and removed from Stanford University in January.
For three years, it sat outside the Cantor Arts Center, the steel slowly shifting from black to shades of bronze and orange in alternating scorching sun and cooling fog. It would have liked more rain to enhance the rusting process, but the rain wouldn’t come.
The people did, though. There is no admission fee at Cantor, and there will be no admission fee to visit “Sequence” inside SFMOMA, where the entire ground floor will be a designated free zone. Anyone can walk through the glass doors to touch and caress or get lost in the interior maze of “Sequence,” then walk upstairs and look down on it.
You won’t pay until you turn your back on “Sequence” and advance to the ticketing station, which gives access to seven floors of new gallery space. Three of these floors are dedicated to the collection of modern and contemporary art built by Gap founders Don and Doris Fisher. Some 1,100 pieces by 185 artists are on long-term loan to SFMOMA, 100 years long. This does not include “Sequence,” which is a separate loan.
Moving and installation of the steel sculpture itself was done by Serra’s own crew of riggers, Budco, based in Hauppauge, N.Y. The crew, led by Joe Vilardi, missed two freezing snowstorms, first when they came out to disassemble “Sequence” at Stanford, then when they returned to assemble and weld it back together at SFMOMA.
Serra, 75, has been following the installation through photos but will not see it until he comes to the grand opening next year.
No one knows when that will be — sometime in 2016 — and no one knows how many years before the glass walls will be removed and the 12 flatbed trucks will arrive to take “Sequence” away, or where it will go from here.
It has already done tours of duty at both the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It doesn’t mind being inside as long as a plant mister is handy, to spritz it up and maintain an even rust.
“It could be an indoor or an outdoor installation,” Berson says. “It might go back to Stanford. I’m sure we will be getting requests for it.”
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter:@samwhitingsf
To watch a short video, go to www.sfgate.com/bayarea/item/Howard-Street-Gallery-37325.php.