by Sura Wood
Since SFMOMA announced they would be closing their doors for nearly three years during their expansion, there has been speculation about what would happen to their collection and how they would maintain their presence in the city art-scene while they're off the market. A partial answer has arrived with the opening of Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art, a partnering with the Contemporary Jewish Museum (the host venue for the show), and the beginning of a series of pop-up or off-site exhibitions coming down the pike.
The response to this particular outing, despite its subject matter, should be less than ecstatic. Purportedly looking at modern art from 1911 to 2011 through the prism of Jewish thought and broader philosophical and religious questions, Beyond Belief is a grab-bag of art in an array of media and styles, tenuously connected by a nebulous notion of the spiritual, a potent idea which has devolved in the culture at-large into an all-purpose term appropriated by some for their own ends: it can be whatever you want it to be or mean whatever you choose it to mean. In this case it serves as an umbrella for an exhibition that could just as easily have been titled "Miscellaneous," or, "Really good stuff that might otherwise be in storage." And admittedly, there is some really good stuff, such as Mark Rothko's earthy yet sublime painting "No. 14, 1960," a half-dozen pieces by Paul Klee, and the work of other heavy-hitters like Alberto Giacometti, whose fragile, tensile sculptures are a joy to behold in any setting, Piet Mondrian, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Vassily Kandinski and Georgia O'Keeffe, just to name a few. The late Bay Area figurative artist Nathan Oliveira is represented by "Allegorical Drawing" (1960), an exquisite fragment of a winged angel done in ink on a dark background that speaks to existential hope and despair in the shadow of the void. Meanwhile Bay Area rabble-rouser Bruce Conner calls up the celestial, using the illuminated silhouette of his own body to transcend his mortal coil in the photogram "Sound of One Hand Angel" (1974).
In a nod toward CJM's mission, several Jewish artists are included: Barnett Newman, Helene Aylon, Wallace Berman, Alfred Stieglitz, Rothko (an observant Jew who acknowledged experiencing spiritual epiphanies in the act of painting), and Philip Guston. Guston (ne Goldstein) had already moved away from abstraction in favor of the cartoonish style seen in "Red Sea; The Swell; Blue Light" (1975), a triptych in which he illustrates, in his own inimitable way, the Biblical narrative of the Jews' escape from slavery in Egypt and their deliverance from the evil pharaoh, the apocryphal parting of the Red Sea, which splashes across all three panels, and the drowning en masse of the Egyptian soldiers who pursued them.
When artists grapple with spirituality, the specter of death necessarily looms large. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, for example, created "Untitled (America # 1)," a cord of exposed light bulbs, items not known for their long life spans, after his partner died of AIDS. Ross Bleckner addresses the same subject obliquely, wrestling with the cosmos and the ephemeral nature of existence in " Knights not Nights" (1987), a large canvas where shards of crystals stand in for sparkling stars whose glow is muted by a mysterious greenish-black fog threatening to engulf them in the night sky.
Though this is a relatively small exhibit, its 62 works are organized, in some cases it seems arbitrarily, into 10 thematic groups: Genesis, Divine Architecture, the Secret Language, Presence, God in the Abstract, the World to Come, Without End, Matter of Time, Hidden and Revealed, and last but not least, Loss and Redemption. The sheer number of these categories and their lofty headings suggest too many cooks stirring too small a pot. In fact, the whole enterprise suffers from curatorial overload. It feels as though it was conceived during a long evening of wine and art-historical discussion among the seven contributing curators, who have ultimately failed to make a persuasive case, while the premise appears to have sprung from the primary goal: to get the artworks out on display. One senses that a plausible way to link them together came later. If not for the text that accompanies most of the objects, justifies their inclusion and explains their relationship to the overarching concept, it's doubtful one would discern – or accept – the connections to the spiritual asserted by the curators. Despite an abundance of verbiage, there's less here than meets the eye. (Through Oct. 27.)