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 to the CJM from SFMOMA’s internationally acclaimed collection—ranging from popular favorites to some that have not been seen by the public for many years—and includes paintings, sculpture, works on paper, photographs, video, and installation. The artists represent a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and interests: early twentieth-century visionaries such as Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian; such mid-century innovators as Alberto Giacometti, Philip Guston, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko; leading postwar artists including Bruce Conner, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, and Nam June Paik; and a diverse group of contemporary artists, among them Teresita Fernández, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Shahzia Sikander, Kiki Smith, and Zarina.
Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art is the first in a series of collaborative museum exhibitions that SFMOMA has developed as part of its extensive off-site programming during the two-and-a-half year construction phase of its major expansion project. While its building is temporarily closed for construction from the summer of 2013 to early 2016, SFMOMA will present a dynamic slate of jointly organized and traveling exhibitions; public art displays and site-specific installations; and newly created education programs throughout the Bay Area and beyond.
“The CJM is thrilled to have this opportunity to work with SFMOMA’s extraordinary collection to explore the convergence of art and spirituality in the modern age,” says Karen Tsujimoto, curator at the CJM. “As a museum dedicated to new Jewish perspectives on art, culture, and history, this unique collaboration allows us to examine and reveal surprising ways in which Jewish thought and modern art intersect.”
“We could not be more pleased by the freshness of vision that has resulted from our collaboration with the CJM,” notes Caitlin Haskell, SFMOMA assistant curator of painting and sculpture. “It’s immensely exciting to see the works presented anew, and just around the corner from SFMOMA. Even those who have visited the museum for years won’t have experienced the works quite like this before.”
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.
Prominently featured are several major artists of Jewish heritage including Helène Aylon, Wallace Berman, Ross Bleckner, Helen Frankenthaler, Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Alfred Stieglitz. These artists have traditionally been appreciated for their secular contributions to modern art, while the influence of Judaism or spirituality on their practice has been understated. Stieglitz, for example, declared in a letter to a friend: “Several people feel I have photographed God.” The noted photographer was referring to his new series Equivalents, small black-and-white photographs of cloud formations—a selection of which are included in the exhibition—that found their place in art history as the first example of abstract photography. Likewise, Newman, a celebrated Abstract Expressionist, will be assessed in light of his deep interest in Jewish mysticism. Guston and Rothko similarly acknowledged a spiritual aspect of their paintings—as Rothko once famously remarked, “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” Stunning large-scale examples of both artists’ work are featured in this show.
Many rich religious and biblical 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 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. 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. As Mondrian once explained: “To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual. Thus . . . we find ourselves in the presence of abstract art.”
Visitors are also encouraged to think about the fundamentalist Christian upbringing of seminal post-war artist Robert Rauschenberg in light of his early works, such as Mother of God, ca. 1950. The important influence of Asian spirituality is also considered in several artworks by Sam Francis, Brice Marden, and Agnes Martin, artists who have fully acknowledged the influence of Buddhism in their art. The purity and quiet intensity of these artists’ work might serve as a metaphor for contemplation and communion.
Several media installations and major sculptures are interspersed throughout the gallery including Nam June Paik’s TV Buddha, 1989; Mona Hatoum’s Pin Rug, 1998-99, a prayer rug made of upward pointing pins; and videos by Bill Viola, Daniel Reeves, and Gary Hill which explore birth, death, and renewal.
In addition, a digital exhibition allows the public to explore and interact with many of the works and exhibition themes online at beyondbelief.thecjm.org. It includes artist interviews, additional background information on select works, interactive elements, and more. For families with children ages 4–10, a free “Going Abstract” ArtPack can be checked out with a range of age-appropriate, hands-on activities designed to encourage young children to investigate modern art.
The exhibition is curated by Karen Tsujimoto, curator; Jeanne Gerrity, curatorial associate; and Daniel Schifrin, writer-in-residence, at the CJM; and Janet Bishop, curator of painting and sculpture; Corey Keller, curator of photography; Caitlin Haskell, assistant curator of painting and sculpture; and Peter Samis, associate curator of interpretation, at SFMOMA.
Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art is jointly organized by the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Koret Foundation, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, and the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund are the lead supporters of the exhibition. Osterweis Capital Management is the major sponsor. The Yerba Buena Community Benefit District; John and Marcia Goldman Foundation; Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt, Simcha Foundation; Nellie and Max Levchin; Randee and Joe Seiger; and Lydia and Douglas Shorenstein are supporting sponsors of the exhibition. The Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation, Phyllis Cook, Dorothy R. Saxe, Betty and Jack Schafer, Roselyne Chroman Swig, Marilyn Yolles Waldman and Murry Waldman, and Barbara and Howard Wollner are participating sponsors. Additional support comes from Phyllis Moldaw, Nancy and Steven Oliver, Ruth and Alan Stein, and an Anonymous Donor.
The Koret and Taube Foundations are the Lead Supporters of the CJM’s 2012/13 exhibition season.
Select Mondays | 12pm | CJM
An exploration of the themes in Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art. Each Wonder Tour is led by a spiritual thought leader and takes place in the gallery with a moderated conversation about one artwork.
Monday, Jul 22
Reverend James R. Blaetter, S.J. on Kiki Smith’s Lilith and a Christian Understanding of Dark Desires
Monday, Aug 19
Meditation teacher Yvonne Rand on the Zen tradition of Agnes Martin
Monday, Sep 23
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan on the Jewish mysticism of Mark Rothko
Shahzia Sikander in Conversation with John Zarobell
Thursday, Aug 1 | 6:30–8pm | CJM
Free with Museum admission
Pakistani-American artist Shahzia Sikander’s drawings are informed by the intricately detailed miniature painting of the Mughal and Persian traditions. Discussing her work included in Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art, Sikander and art historian John Zarobell will examine the “lost in translation” effect of mixing ancient and contemporary.
Philip Guston: A Life Lived
Sunday, Aug 18 | Film 2–3pm; Talk 3:10–4:30pm | CJM
Free with Museum admission
Narrated by the artist, Philip Guston: A Life Lived was filmed as the artist organized his 1980 retrospective at SFMOMA. Mixing footage shot in San Francisco and at the artist’s Woodstock studio, this film captures Guston speaking candidly about his philosophy of painting and life (58 min, 1981). Following the film, poet and art scholar Bill Berkson discusses Guston’s work in the context of the exhibition Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art. Berkson will also share personal stories of a longtime professional and personal relationship with the artist.
Teresita Fernández in Conversation
Sunday, Sep 29 | 2–4pm | CJM
Free for Members; General $15 (includes Museum admission)
MacArthur Genius, and Guggenheim award-winning artist Teresita Fernández, whose sculpture Fire, 2005, is prominently featured in Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art, will talk about her ideas behind incorporating the simulacra of the natural world into her large-scale installations.
Modern Divine: An Interfaith Panel on Art and Spirituality
Sunday, Oct 27 | 3–5pm | CJM
Free with Museum admission
This scholarly discussion will delve into the themes of art and spirituality explored in Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art. Panel moderated by Riess Potterveld, Acting President, Graduate Theological Union; and includes Devin Zuber, Assistant Professor for American Studies, Literature, and Swedenborgian Studies, Pacific School of Religion, GTU; Deena Aranoff, Assistant Professor for Jewish Studies, GTU; and Munir Jiwa, Director and Associate Professor, Center for Islamic Studies, GTU. (See website for panelist bios). Center for the Arts Religion and Education (CARE).
About the Contemporary Jewish Museum
With the opening of its new building on June 8, 2008, the Contemporary Jewish Museum ushered in a new chapter in its twenty-plus year history of engaging audiences and artists in exploring contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. The facility, designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, is a lively center where people of all ages and backgrounds can gather to experience art, share diverse perspectives, and engage in hands-on activities. Inspired by the Hebrew phrase “L’Chaim” (To Life), the building is a physical embodiment of the CJM’s mission to bring together tradition and innovation in an exploration of the Jewish experience in the twenty-first century.
Major support for the Contemporary Jewish Museum comes from the Koret and Taube Foundations, who are the Lead Supporters of the 2012/13 exhibition season. The Museum also thanks the Jim Joseph Foundation for its major support of innovative strategies for educating and engaging audiences in Jewish learning. Additional major support is provided by an Anonymous Donor; Bank of America; Alyse Mason Brill and Nathan Brill; Columbia Foundation; The Covenant Foundation; Suzanne and Elliott Felson; Gaia Fund; Denise Garone and Stuart A. Kogod; The John & Marcia Goldman Foundation; The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund; Walter and Elise Haas Fund; Institute of Museum and Library Services; the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties; Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt; the Alexander M. and June L. Maisin Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund; the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund; Osterweis Capital Management; Alison Gelb Pincus and Mark Pincus; The Skirball Foundation; Ruth and Alan Stein; Roselyne Chroman Swig; Target and Anita and Ronald Wornick.
For more information about the Contemporary Jewish Museum, visit the Museum’s website at thecjm.org.
About the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
As part of the next phase of SFMOMA’s major expansion project, the museum will go beyond its walls and directly into the community with off-site exhibitions throughout the city and region; site-specific and commissioned projects, and new education initiatives that will create fresh ways to experience SFMOMA’s collection and programs. In addition to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, other museum partners include the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University (fall 2013), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (spring 2014); Asian Art Museum (summer 2014); Oakland Museum of California (fall 2014); Museum of the African Diaspora (winter 2015), and Berkeley Art Museum (spring 2015). Throughout this two-and-a-half-year off-site period, SFMOMA will experiment with new ideas, engage in dialogue with a range of cultural partners, and create innovative ways to experience the museum’s collection, bringing the best of these ideas and initiatives back into its newly expanded home.