Beyond Belief at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

With the closure of SFMOMA until 2016, their collection has expanded beyond the gallery and out into a variety of San Francisco venues and locations. Beyond Belief is their second off-site exhibition; a result of a collaboration between SFMOMA and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The subtitle “100 years of the Spiritual in Art” is a good indication of what a mixed bag this exhibition is. A wide ranging selection from MOMA’s vaults of all and any pieces that could be linked in some sense to the spiritual. Or religion. Or any grand existential emotions such as loss, redemption, presence, time, the hidden and revealed.

Mark Rothko, Contemporary Jewish Museum

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960, 1960; oil on canvas, 114 1/2 in. x 105 5/8 in. (290.83 cm x 268.29 cm); Collection SFMOMA

These are just some of the headings under which the exhibition is divided, there are ten of them, each attempting in some way to connect with issues pertinent to Judaism or religious faith. It is a valid attempt, and the pure power and beauty of some of the artworks is what keeps the whole thing from disintegrating into a chaotic jumble of themes and styles. Any exhibition that includes Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Agnes Martin, Philip Guston, Nam June Paik, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Wassily Kandinsky,  and Jackson Pollock is worth the money but rather than simply being a presentation of some of MOMA’s best works, it tries too hard to confine all that varied majesty, punch and reflection, into a narrow set of questions surrounding the Jewish faith.

Jackson Pollock, Contemporary Jewish Museum

Jackson Pollock, Guardians of the Secret, 1943; oil on canvas, 48 3/8 in. x 75 3/8 in. (122.89 cm x 191.47 cm); Collection SFMOMA

Pollock’s Guardians of the Secret, is one such example. No doubt that there is a hidden code in this painting, a symbolic set of referents and referrals, but the lengthy wall text tries to forceful steer your thoughts towards a predefined conclusion. “To whom is this secret accessible?” it asks, “to what extent is art reliant on guardians, authorities to explain and interpret?”. Whatever your own experience of affect when contemplating this painting, the text repeatedly reminds you that this is a Spiritual (meaning religious) exhibition, and that the thoughts and reflections you are supposed to be having must be spiritual ones in turn. There is far too much emphasis on the directions here; each piece has its own accompanying text with a set of questions and points that make ties to Judaism, be they self-evident, as in Wallace Berman’s Untitled sculpture, Hebrew letters written on stone and surrounded by a thick black chain, to the more humorous: Mona Hatoum’s Pin Rug a prayer mat of pins which calls to mind the bed of nails from common magic shows, to the tenuous: Clyfford Still’s Untitled (formerly self portrait)  is grouped under the heading Presence, its connection to the Spiritual by its ability to create an emotional connection with the viewer.

Clyfford Still, Contemporary Jewish Museum

Clyfford Still, Untitled [formerly Self-Portrait], 1945; oil on canvas, 70 7/8 in. x 42 in. (180.04 cm x 106.68 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Gift of Peggy Guggenheim

I pads are also mounted alongside the artworks, with a series of questions prompting visitors to record their own answers and thoughts about the issues posed so overtly by the wall texts: “What brings you comfort in times of loss?”, “All creative acts are an attempt at immortality. Do you believe this?”, and “Which image best represents ‘the world to come’?” All this questioning an explanation rather gets in the way of any actual spiritual experience to be gained from actual contemplation of the works themselves and the continual ties to religious faith seems to undermine the purpose of spirituality in art, which is psychological, ungraspable and can only hope to provide us with the a visualization of all that cannot be put into words, perhaps best summed up by Rothko: “Art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.” Beyond Belief would make a much more powerful impression if it sat back and let the art do the talking.

Wallace Berman, Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

Wallace Berman, Untitled (400.300.50), 1974; stone, metal, and acrylic, 5 3/4 in. x 7 5/8 in. x 7 5/8 in. (14.61 cm x 19.37 cm x 19.37 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Purchase through a gift from Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Crocker

Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Art: Highlights from SFMOMA’s collection on view until October 27th at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. (415) 655-7800.

Teresita Fernandez, Contemporary Jewish Museum

Teresita Fernandez, Fire, 2005; silk yarn, steel armature, and epoxy, 96 in. x 144 in. (243.84 cm x 365.76 )
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

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by Leslie Allen Spillane
in Focus on the American West

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