Contemporary Art in San Francisco: The Art Market Fair

Published by The Culture Trip
Written by JoAnneh Nagler

The Art Market San Francisco International Art Fair is hosted at San Francisco‘s Fort Mason each spring—an exhibit filled with gallery-represented contemporary art, much of which originates in the area. It’s a stunning representation of the contemporary field, and of what artists are up to in the here and now.

Art Appreciator Takes a Nap in front of a Jum Dine Painting / © JoAnneh Nagler
Art Appreciator Takes a Nap in front of a Jum Dine Painting | Courtesy JoAnneh Nagler

Try defining ‘contemporary art’ in a few words, and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a word-based-Rubik’s-cube puzzle. It’s not the least bit easy to define. Technically, contemporary art is art which has been created in the 21st century but it’s really, in the usage of the term, a specialty: a genre of artistry that provokes, breaks boundaries, and visually and experientially innovates.

This past Thursday through Sunday’s Art Market fair was the 5th year running for the exhibit, and for fans of bold color, exquisite shapes, and the formless hues of the abstract, it’s a not-to-be-missed occasion.

Often, contemporary art has no recognizable figures or literal shapes, relying instead on the emotional landscapes of color fields and formlessness to provoke feeling in the viewer. It differs from modern art in that it finds arenas or inventions that have often not yet been expressed by existing artistic styles.

Riita Klint Triptych at Art Vitam © JoAnneh Nagler
Riita Klint Triptych at Art Vitam | Courtesy JoAnneh Nagler

San Francisco has long been a haven for provocative artists—certainly from 1960’s on—and musicians, painters, performance artists, theatre actors, sculptors, writers and creatives of all stripes have flocked to our fair city to find both their voices and their muses. That fact was readily apparent at Art Market San Francisco this past weekend.

The event offers art for sale, plus food and cocktails, with a large majority of the galleries hailing from San Francisco, and others from Miami, New York, Chicago and more who exhibit their eye-catching wares. For a $25.00 entry fee, you can hang out all day, wander the booths, and take in what would take days to view in a normal gallery-hopping excursion. That’s certainly the appeal of the market.

Dizzy Sparks the Zippo by Roy Lerner, at Gallery Sam © JoAnneh Nagler
Dizzy Sparks the Zippo by Roy Lerner, at Gallery Sam | Courtesy JoAnneh Nagler

But there’s much more to viewing art than just looking. Gallery reps here are well-versed in their artists’ methods and mediums, and many have very personal stories to share about individuals artists’ processes.

The Rebecca Hossack Gallery booth featured Phil Shaw’s Bookshelf series—a printmaking process in which the artist designed and crafted an image of each book binding to answer a question that the neighboring book’s title asks. It’s a poke-fun-at-dogma provocation, and it’s incredibly compelling in its simplicity and wit.

The thick, palette-knife applied, painted landscapes of artist Paul Norwood at Stephanie Breitbard Fine Arts redefine the use of brush-as-a-necessity, and his bold color-hemispheres delight the eye and bridge the line between Rothko-abstraction and a traditional landscape. The mysteriously erotic abstracts of Jylian Gustlin’s bodies at the same gallery, created the evocative feeling of watching one’s lover undress, moving in space for his or her beloved.

Chime, by Frank Owen at Nancy Hoffman gallery © JoAnneh Nagler
Chime, by Frank Owen at Nancy Hoffman Gallery | Courtesy JoAnneh Nagler

The abstract entitled ‘Blue Scattered’, by Kenjilo Nanao at Elins Eagles-Smith Gallery, lifted the horizon line form into a rich discovery of blues that asked the question: sky or sea? Soul or space?

The beauty of abstraction and contemporary art is that it doesn’t define an experience for the viewer. It asks the viewer to discover, on his or her own, with soul and heart intact. It moves to the heart before it moves to the brain, and that is its gift: to provoke feeling first, before thought, and then to move past thought, to the discoveries that lie beyond.

The San Francisco Art Market happens each spring at Fort Mason Center. Find details at

JoAnneh Nagler writes travel, books, plays, essays and music, and is the author of the new book How to Be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt, or Your Creative Compass (2016), and the Amazon Top-100 book, The Debt-Free Spending Plan. Find her at: