“This is the furthest in America we can go,” says Jens Hoffmann over coffee at San Francisco’s Tadich Grill, looking out to the city beyond. “There’s always this sense of maybe just falling off into the ocean. California is the edge of the avant-garde.” Parked in the street outside is a platinum Lexus LS 600h L, Hoffmann’s trusty steed in the 80-mile journey up the winding California coast he is about to set off on. It’s a handsome car — with its raked spindle grille, it looks sporty, knowing and a little wry — and ready for the journey ahead.
This is one of Hoffmann’s favorite drives: a short but challenging ride across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the countryside, where the hazards of wildlife, crumbling embankments and low visibility are all part of the charm. Having crossed the bridge, he’ll head to Stinson Beach, onto the forests in Samuel P. Taylor State Park and then farther up to Point Reyes, Tomales Bay and finally Bodega, a quintessentially California small town — the setting for what he calls Alfred Hitchcock’s “sunshine noir,” The Birds.
Just 20 minutes outside San Francisco, you would never know you were anywhere near a metropolis. Here there are cliffs bleached by fog, islands poking out of midmorning mist and highways running through lush vegetation and redwood trees. The LS provides an elegant vantage, surveying the Pacific Coast Highway with a confident silence that absorbs every shock from the road.
The drive north is one Hoffmann has embarked on many times, but this time it holds special potency. For the curator, today’s ride will be a farewell to California.
For the last six years, 38-year-old Hoffmann has been the director of San Francisco’s influential CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, and this is one of his last weekends in the city before embarking on a new position at The Jewish Museum in New York.
A rigorous thinker who announces himself with a crisp European accent and globe-trotting résumé, the curator — or “exhibition maker,” to use his term — is something of an overachiever. Since 1998 he has helmed more than 30 international art exhibitions, including the first Berlin Biennial, as well as hugely important biennials in Shanghai, Istanbul and Lyon. He has worked everywhere from the Guggenheim Museum in New York to London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, and has published widely. Hoffmann has long been interested in the possibilities and appeal of the open road. Two of his recent shows, one of which was part of an annual series drawing from works in the 101 Collection at the Wattis and “On the Road” at Artpace in San Antonio, Texas, were based on drives through the US countryside.
The engine of the LS is fired up outside Tadich Grill. Established in 1849 during the state’s gold rush, the restaurant claims to be California’s oldest. Hoffmann fuels up downtown before driving over the Golden Gate Bridge and heading north. The LS is a pleasure to drive along the cliffs and coasts of California — a smooth, curve-hugging ride, with amenities including climate-controlled seating, analog clock with a GPS function and bamboo detailing across the dashboard and the steering wheel. It’s a sophisticated way to observe the shifts in landscape, where even the mundane elements of suburbia — malls, gas stations, fast-food joints — are made dramatic by the sudden backdrop of mountains and coastline.
“I always do these road trips when I need space in my head,” he says. “I don’t even take a map with me. I just sit in the car and drive around and look for things. One comes across the most surprising things when one is just drifting around the landscape.”
For this farewell tour, getting lost was not an option. The Lexus hybrid comes equipped with a convenient 12.3-inch navigation display. That may not be conducive to aimlessness, but few other vehicles could deal so well with Hoffmann’s wanderlust. “It’s so soft, so quiet, there are no noises,” Hoffmann declares at the wheel. “I feel like I’m in first class on Lufthansa.”
The car might be soothing, but the road isn’t. The trip north is a drive that demands cast-iron nerves and a steel stomach. The switchbacks are sudden, severe and guardrail-free. The LS handles the turns smoothly, without decelerating, the sight lines of its intelligent headlights pinned to the road. The view is more than worth the trouble. The redwoods in Samuel P. Taylor State Park give way to the cold gray marshes outside Point Reyes and then, farther up, breathtaking views near Tomales Bay, where the LS moves calmly through misty escarpments. The car is navigated by its running lights — forged like the Lexus logo’s L, rotated 90 degrees — and strong fog lights. At one of the highway’s turnouts, the Lexus pulls over while Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)” plays on the radio. Hoffmann looks out across to the ocean, almost blanked out by fog. It’s a noir moment — fitting, given he’s headed up the coast to pay tribute to Hitchcock.
Hoffmann is a fan of Hitchcock’s work, feeling a kinship with film directors in general in his role as a curator. “It’s this idea of the author, someone who is in charge of every detail of the creative production,” he explains. “The gallery’s a stage, and the audience can come onstage and participate.”
It's little surprise that Hoffmann’s discourse borrows theatrical terms, because he once attended the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts in Berlin, where he enrolled to become a director. Hoffmann was born in Costa Rica and sent to boarding school in Germany. “It was interesting to live in Berlin at that point — the wall was coming down and you had a sense of the prewar history still existing in East Berlin,” he says. “It was like being within both worlds.” The theater gave him the experience to work on Documenta X in 1997, an important survey of modern and contemporary arts, which, in turn, opened doors in the art world. “There was always an interest in the visual arts. I also felt that discourse in visual arts was more sophisticated than in theater.” By the time Hoffmann arrives in Bodega, the midday sun is out and it’s easily 10 degrees warmer than it was out on the coast. The town doesn’t appear to have changed much since Hitchcock shot there, and the town’s businesses still offer a quaint slice of northern life — a bar, a surf shop and the Bodega General Store, which has the largest collection of The Birds merchandise anywhere. Even those who only have a passing familiarity with the film will remember St. Teresa of Avila Church, whose stark white presence looms over the town in the film. In real life, it’s much the same. The sun strikes it in such a way that it becomes blinding to behold.
About a half hour from the city, the curator cruises along the scenic Panoramic Highway, overlooking cloudy valleys, and into San Francisco. He pulls over and switches the engine off to admire the view, reflecting that his move to New York for the new position won’t be easy. When asked what he’ll miss most about the West Coast, Hoffmann doesn’t equivocate. Even before he cites San Francisco’s laid-back attitude, the absence of social pressures and the relative tranquillity of the city, he delivers an answer that’s apropos for someone whose career hinges on reimagining ways to best view works of art. In this, as in other aspects of his life, he’s meticulous, expressing himself with razor-sharp precision. “The light,” he says.
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