Friday, June 28, 2013

'Beyond Belief' opens at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

Agnes Martin, Falling Blue, 1963; oil and graphite on canvas; 71 7/8 in. x 72 in. (182.56 cm x 182.88 cm).

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 an expansive exhibition 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; 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. Each piece needs a room by itself as each is so powerful. But, again, it may be the more intimate spaces at the CJM that make the viewer aware of the power of this art.

Teresita Fernández. Fire, 2005

"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.

In Tallus Mater (Madre Tallo/Stem Mother), Mendieta evokes the power of prehistoric fertility goddesses, especially those associated with Mayan and Native American spiritual systems. The ficus, or fig tree, roots with which Mendieta created this sculpture might allude to the Garden of Eden, a primary creation myth in Western monotheism.

Many rich religious stories are translated into complex and provocative works of art, some on display for the first time in years.

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.

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:

Contemporary Jewish Museum: 736 Mission Street (btwn. 3rd and 4th Streets), San Francisco, CA 94103 | Hours: Daily 11am–5pm, Thursdays 1–8pm, Closed Wednesdays | 415.655.7800 |

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