SAN FRANCISCO —The Jewish American artist Mark Rothko once said, “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”
Lovers of Rothko’s creations, along with that of other 20th century visionaries like Piet Mondrian, Alberto Giacometti, and Jackson Pollock, will likely say it is more than mere aesthetic sensibilities that draw them to these works. Some people are spiritually moved by modern art, and San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum is hoping even more will be when they view its new “Beyond Belief” exhibition.
“Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art,” on view until October 27, is a collaboration between CJM and its neighbor, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, that explores the connection between spirituality and modern and contemporary art. Closed for expansion, SFMOMA has loaned more than 60 pieces — some popular favorites, some rarely seen, and some completely new acquisitions — from its renowned collection for this show.
The paintings, sculptures, works on paper, photographs, videos, and installations span an entire century, from 1911 to 2011. Arranged thematically according to ten Jewish theological concepts, the exhibition includes 62 pieces by 49 artists, one-quarter of whom are living and nine of whom are Jewish.
“These are beloved works of art that we couldn’t stand to think about being tucked away in storage for the next two years,” said Janet Bishop, SFMOMA curator of painting and sculpture, speaking to the audience at a recent preview showing of the exhibition. “Beyond Belief” is the first of many partnerships planned between SFMOMA and other cultural institutions that will keep its collection on view while SFMOMA’s building is under construction over the next two years.
‘These are beloved works of art that we couldn’t stand to think about being tucked away in storage for the next two years’
“A museum is more than just a building. It’s about the collection, the community, relationships and sharing,” added Neal Benezra, director of SFMOMA, on his excitement about launching “SFMOMA On The Go” in this collaboration with CJM.
It took over a year and seven curators (four from SFMOMA and three from CJM) working closely together to put “Beyond Belief” together.
“The theme is ambitious and provocative,” said Karen Tsujimoto, CJM curator.
CJM writer-in-residence Daniel Schifrin was responsible for developing the Jewish content and framework for the show.
“We were looking for the connections between Jewish ideas of spirituality and modern art, for the interconnections, and also for the frictions,” he explained to a reporter. Intellectually stretched by this exhibition in ways he hadn’t been by others, Schifrin admitted that the endeavor was “murderously hard” at times.
The challenges Schifrin and the others encountered can be attributed in part to the fact that many art professionals remain uncomfortable discussing art in a spiritual context. The exhibition’s opening text panel informs visitors that critics and scholars by and large ignored the religious and spiritual dimensions of great modern artists while they were still alive.
For instance, it was only after abstract expressionist Barnett Newman’s death in 1970 that scholars began to consider the impact of the metaphysical aspects of Judaism on his work. Newman’s “Untitled 1 1970” painting is included in “Beyond Belief,” as is his “Zim Zum I” weathering steel sculpture, whose title refers to the Kabbalistic teaching that God began the process of creation by contracting God’s infinite light.
Schifrin chose to organize “Beyond Belief” according to Jewish theological ideas, beginning with Genesis and ending with Loss and Redemption. Interwoven are Divine Architecture, The Secret Language, Presence, God in the Abstract, The World to Come, Without End, Master of Time, and Hidden and Revealed.
He also used the Jewish Talmudic tradition of questioning and multiple perspectives as a guiding principle.
“We want people to think about Jewish questions and about art,” he remarked. “We want people to ask their own questions, create their own midrashim. Probably more than we would for other exhibitions, we want visitors to argue over the meanings of the works of art.”
‘We want visitors to argue over the meanings of the works of art’
iPads affixed to the wall at the entrance to each doorway in the gallery space encourage this questioning and thought. Preloaded with questions related to spirituality, visitors are encouraged to touch them, just as they might a mezuzah. Schifrin suggested the iPads served as a ritual transition between rooms and the various groupings of artworks.
Even without closely reading all the extensive text panels and labels, visitors will be moved by their encounter with pieces by some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, like Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Kazimir Malevich, Vasiliy Kandinsky, and Paul Klee. There are also absorbing works by contemporary artists such as New York-based sculptor Teresita Fernández, Indian-American printmaker and paper artist Zarina Hashmi (known professionally only by her first name), and Palestinian video and installation artist Mona Hatoum, whose “Pin Rug” evokes a soft prayer rug, but is actually made of countless sharp stainless steel pins.
The artists of Jewish heritage featured in “Beyond Belief” are Helène Aylon, Wallace Berman, Ross Bleckner, Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Alfred Stieglitz.
CJM curatorial associate Jeanne Gerrity not only enjoyed the challenge of bringing together both aesthetically and thematically the show’s eclectic and disparate works, but also uncovering little-known Jewish back-stories to some of them.
She learned that it was the occurrence of the Holocaust that compelled Philip Guston to transition from abstract to more figurative art, such as can be seen in his large “Red Sea; The Swell; Blue Light” triptych from 1975 that hangs near Rothko’s stunning “No. 14, 1960” at the end of the exhibition.
Gerrity spent many hours doing research at SFMOMA’s library, including on New York artist Ross Bleckner’s “Knights not Nights” from 1987. Bleckner has gained acclaim for his works addressing change, loss and memory related to the AIDS crisis. Gerrity discovered that the artist, who uses symbolic imagery rather than direct representation, sometimes uses the Star of David. However, she didn’t read that in a book or journal article on contemporary art.
So, where did she read it?
“In the Forward,” she said, referring to the American Jewish newspaper.