Larry Ellison’s name has been all over the news in San Francisco this summer. Not because of anything to do with his company, Oracle, except indirectly, because the tons of money he made as CEO of that company enabled him to buy a state-of-the-art racing boat; use it to compete in the world’s biggest sailing competition, the America’s Cup; and make sure that the most recent Cup competition, in which Oracle Team USA is defending champion, is taking place on San Francisco Bay.
Many of us have no interest in this rich man’s sport, and frankly, much of the response to the America’s Cup in SF has been kind of meh, maybe or especially because this year, only four countries, and thus boats, are competing. So why am I talking about Larry Ellison at all? It’s because this summer we’re also seeing a fine little exhibition of Ellison-owned art at the Asian Art Museum, in the old Main Library, across from City Hall.
Ellison is wealthy enough not only to have a collection of very good Japanese works (sculpture, paintings, folding screens, hanging scrolls, lacquer and metal work), but to have the former director of the Asian as his private curator. He doesn’t buy anything he doesn’t choose to, of course, but Emily Sano has guided him to some wonderful stuff.
The detail on something like the 16th-century goose-shaped incense burner in bronze, or the 13th-century statue of Standing Shōtoku Taishi at age two, in wood with colors, lacquer, and crystal inlay, is really enchanting. Then there are the kakemono, the Japanese scroll paintings with silk edges, which are mounted on a flexible backing so that they can be rolled up and stored. These are usually displayed against the wall of a home’s tokonoma, an alcove for displaying prized objects. Ellison owns some stunning scrolls, most of those on view dating back to the Edo period (1615-1868).
But the highlight of the 60-some items in this exhibition is the array of absolutely gorgeous paneled screens.
Traditional Japanese homes lacked interior walls, so multi-panel standing screens were used to break up the space and for privacy. And, of course, for centuries their owners saw them only in daylight or by candlelight. The artists were mindful of this when they created their works. The exhibition opens in a small, dimly lit gallery that features a pair of 17th-century paper folding screens depicting storm-sculpted rocks and dramatic swirling waves in ink, light colors, and gold. It is so peaceful just to sit there and dreamily study the screens, but as you’re doing so, you can get a sense of how the original owners took them in: The gallery lighting changes, in a three-minute cycle, from that of pale early morning to bright noon to shadowy dusk and dark and back to morning again. The gold-leaf surfaces soften or intensify the light.
We’re told Ellison favors images of plants and wildlife, as well as of legendary battles and classic romances, all of which are well represented on the screens and scrolls. So you can certainly see examples of the seasonal theme, on screens such as Spring and autumn plants (Edo period, in ink, colors, and gold on silk) and Auspicious pines, bamboo, plum, cranes and turtles (also from the Edo period, in ink, colors, and gold on paper).
Westerners keep works of art on display for years; but the Japanese, perhaps because of their smaller homes and spaces, often exchanged one screen or scroll for another every few months or so, perhaps to reflect the season. They might even display an item for just an evening, to please a particular guest. So this exhibition, like the Japanese and Ellison himself, at his Japanese-inspired estate in Woodside, will rotate in some new work: four different screens as of August 19. You might not be able to see all the screens I’ve mentioned here, but no matter. There’ll be plenty to enjoy.