In 2011, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition called How Wine Became Modern. This unique exhibition spanned many disciplines and mediums, exploring transformations in the visual and material culture of wine over the past three decades, paying special attention to the role that design has played in its transformation. There were galleries dedicated to terroir, to winery design, to little-discussed additives used in the wine-making process, to art inspired by wine and grapes.
The underlying question, according to curator Henry Urbach: “What’s all the fuss about wine? How has it gone from something agricultural and comestible to being a cultural position?”
SFMOMA’s How Wine Became Modern exhibit demonstrated how wine is such an integral part of how we live. There was a wall displaying paint colors that either use the word wine or are wine-inspired colors. One of the cooler installations was a wall of wine, showing a wide range of label art. The exhibit covered winery architecture, wine glass design, including some that are totally impractical, and all sorts of publications on wine — magazines, comics, books and TV shows. There was even a clip from the infamous 60 Minutes report from 1991 that resveratrol in red wine is good for your heart…the so called “French Paradox” and caused a mad rush on red wine sales and helped push us into a stronger wine culture.
More details about this wonderfully wine culture exhibit from a recent Dwell Magazine interview with Henry Urbach, SFMOMA curator:
Q. What prompted you to create this exhibit?
Two years ago I was wondering why there was so much new activity with wine. There were new wineries designed by architects, a new interest in wine labels. Why wine? What was it about it that provoked all this interest?
Q. What did you find?
Wine is something we need. It stands for rootedness, a real experience, a safe pleasure.What does it mean that wine is now modern?
Wine became modern when it became self-conscious and self-aware, when it determined its own representation in culture. It became modern when it moved beyond viticulture and agriculture and became part of culture.
Q. There’s been a lot of talk about how this show is a big departure from typical museum exhibits, since it’s not just paintings or just sculptures or just architecture.
You’re going to see things that have not been on the checklist of what you’ve seen here before. The question was, How do you exhibit wine in a museum, especially in a museum where people come to see art. We also wanted to know how to do it in Northern California without it becoming a local exhibit. I didn’t want it to be Ra! Ra! California!.
Q. Did you have a reference or precedent for how to stage this?
We worked on the show with Diller Scofidio + Renfro; it is an unusual architecture firm—they’ve done projects like the High Line—and has an interesting exhibition practice. In 1997, they did an exhibit at the Canadian Center for Architecture called The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life. The show took something as old and ubiquitous as a lawn and made it interesting. Wine, which is as ordinary as a fermented grape, has become this whole bigger thing.
Q. You included several pieces by French artist Nicolas Boulard, one of which is titled Shades of Wood and comprises 12 bottles of chardonnay, each with blocks of oak in them increasing in number according to the Fibonacci sequence in which each subsequent number is the sum of the two prior. This piece seems to get at the heart of what you were trying to achieve in the exhibition.
I was always trying to walk this edge of art and wine, thinking of wine as an allegory for art. The work navigates between painting and wine, between sculpture and wine.
Q. What was the most difficult part of putting this exhibition together? Taking a subject that’s popular and not doing a dumbed-down approach. A dumbed-down approach would have been only celebratory. This is more ambivalent; it’s critical and celebratory. It’s not just, This is the best winery and the best stemware, or Here’s 500 years of corkscrews. The actual instillations were also challenging: How do you prepare a grapevine for display at a gallery? How do you get soil from around the world into the country to talk about terroir?
Q. You devote quite a large section of the exhibition space to wineries designed by prominent architects. Why was this?
We wanted to address the phenomenon of the designer winery. It’s become a thing, something you do. But why are these architects doing wineries and not dairy farms? It’s because the clients are interesting, the budgets are generous, and the landscapes are beautiful.
Q. What was your favorite winery that you visited while researching the exhibit?
Bodegas Baigorri by Iñaki Aspiazu Iza Architecture Studio. It’s not very well known, but it was really, really beautiful. It sinks into the earth and disappears into the landscape.