Co-organized by the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), “Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art” is conceived as a journey into the connections between spirituality and modern and contemporary art. Spanning the years from 1911 to 2011, the exhibition features more than sixty works on loan from SFMOMA.
The exhibit benefits from the more intimate space at the CJM; smaller works like those by Klee and Kandinsky have been lost in SFMOMA’s larger galleries. But three pieces in particular – Philip Guston’s”Red Sea; The Swell; Blue LIght,” Rothko’s ‘No 14″ and Teresite Fernandez, “Fire” needed more space than the museum can provide. Each piece needs a room by itself as each is so powerful. But, again, the smaller spaces at the CJM allow the viewer a more intimate viewing experience.
“Beyond Belief” is divided into ten sections, organized under headings that examine widely held spiritual ideas, many of which closely parallel or are rooted in Jewish religious thought—such as the Bible’s original creation story and the bias against literal depictions of God. The exhibition begins, aptly, with Genesis and wends its way through different sections that reveal how artists have addressed diverse spiritual ideas, such as the invisible presence of God, death, redemption, mystical writing, and the understanding of God as a divine architect.
Many rich religious stories are translated into complex and provocative works of art as seen in Bruce Conner’s ink drawing Burning Bush, 1962; Alfred Jensen’s painting Expulsion from Eden, 1958; and Kiki Smith’s haunting sculpture Lilith, 1994. The section titled ‘God in the Abstract’ is devoted to the work of early twentieth-century European artists such as Paul Klee, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian. Collectively, these modern masters sought to communicate a sense of spirituality in their austerely abstract work, which is often composed of little more than vertical and horizontal lines in geometric compositions.
The show requires an open mind to other dimensions of spirituality. There is a lot of wall text and some have found the organization confusing, but a thoughtful and contemplative approach will allow the deeper meanings to emerge.
While perhaps the museum overreaches in their attempt to bring together the aesthetic and the spiritual, the presentation of artists who affirmed the transcendental in art yields much in the way of both enjoyment and enlightenment. In a decade which has seen art reduced to cow parts in formaldehyde, any attempt to break away from the crass commercialism and expensive emptiness is commendable.
The museum has created an interactive website to help visitors explore the exhibit in more depth: http://beyondbelief.thecjm.org
Contemporary Jewish Museum. 736 Mission Street (btwn. 3rd and 4th Streets), San Francisco, CA 94103. 415.655.7800. firstname.lastname@example.org
Teresita Fernández. Fire, 2005
Beyond Belief is an expansive exhibition exploring the spiritual dimensions of modern art, especially as seen through the lens of Jewish theological concepts.
Paul Klee. Ein Genius
The exhibition features forty-eight internationally-known artists whose work—painting, sculpture, photography, video, and installation art—are all drawn from SFMOMA’s outstanding collection.
Helen Lundberg. Oracle
Helen Lundeberg’s mysterious painting Oracle—a Greek word meaning either a prophet or the physical shrine where a divine voice emanates—evokes a host of natural forms.
Franz Marc. Gerbige
The exhibition has a capacious reach, exploring spiritual dimensions well beyond Judaism. The section titled ̳God in the Abstract‘ is devoted to the work of early twentieth-century European artists such as Paul Klee, Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian
Yet many art professionals remain uncomfortable discussing art in the context of spirituality. Even when celebrated artists such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko described their work in spiritual terms, many art historians and critics of the time were disinclined to explore the work’s religious underpinnings.
Wally Hedrick. Orb of Power. 1962
Even Albert Einstein once hailed the impulse to move beyond reason: “The deepest and most sublime feeling of which we are capable is the experience of the mystical. . . . If a person has lost the capacity to experience this sensation, the capacity for wonderment and reverence, then his soul is already dead.”