In an era when organized religion is losing its hold on the industrialized world, it may seem strange that curators would want to reengage with spirituality when considering Western Modernism of the past one hundred years. Stranger still that a museum focused on exploring the contemporary shape of Jewish life would take an interest in exhibiting work by practicing Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and New Age spiritualists in its galleries. Nonetheless, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco has done exactly this with its current collaborative exhibition with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art.
It bears noting that this museum differs from other Jewish museums in the United States, most of which sprung up in the aftermath of the Second World War and are charged with documenting and preserving Jewish traditions for future generations. San Francisco’s is a contemporary Jewish museum, meaning that its mission is to understand Jewish traditions from the perspective of the present rather than the past. Furthermore, the Contemporary Jewish Museum is committed to understanding Judaism in its contemporary context, which helps explain why a show such as this one, which presents artists of differing faiths comparatively, would be appropriate to present here.
Historically, art and spirituality have had a cozy relationship. Nearly every major religion and any number of less popular faiths have used visual art as a means of communicating stories and tenets to congregations and converts in an era when literacy was not widespread. In Europe, religious patronage rivaled that of royalty for most of academic art history, waning somewhat in Northern Europe following the Lutheran schism that brought iconoclasts to power in the church, but with a commensurate revival in the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Only in the later nineteenth century did it become commonplace for artists to claim a purely material motivation for (and reading of) their works, and only in the mid-twentieth century did the notion arise that spiritualism had no place in the avant-garde. Speaking in 2003, Donald Kuspit lamented artists’ turn away from interior life toward what he perceived as a purely commercial externality. His appeal for a return to spiritual values in the avant-garde, the shape of which he attributes to the writings and art of Wassily Kandinsky, has had a clear and significant influence on the seven curators from SFMOMA and the CJM who organized the current show.
Kuspit’s appeal is heartfelt but fundamentally conservative, and the same can be said of Beyond Belief. Rather than articulate a way forward for spiritualism in contemporary art, this show articulates a return to faith-based values of old as a restoration of meaning in an age of crass commercialism. The panoply of faiths is circumscribed within a context that is overwhelmingly white and Eurocentric. Other voices are present but consistently take a backseat to these dominant perspectives. As such, the first work of art one encounters upon entering the galleries, Nam June Paik’s TV Buddha (1989), sets a tone of experimentation, cross-culturalism, and irreverence that the show as a whole cannot fulfill. Paik’s bronze Buddha is art and kitsch at once, serenely regarding himself on a closed-circuit TV as the crowd of onlookers flickers by in the background. Paik’s gesture slyly identifies Western seekers’ insatiable desire for Eastern wisdom as another form of media spectacle while pointing toward the technologically mediated future that has since swept much of Asia. His work is contemporary in many senses—it engages the cultural present, it negotiates with time, and it still feels fresh even though its technology is clearly outdated. Few other works in the exhibition accomplish this trifecta.
The heavyweights of twentieth-century modernist spiritualism are all here: Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevich, Mark Rothko, Alberto Giacometti, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg. Yet little mention is made of the larger cultural movement that sparked this return to metaphysical concerns—namely, the Victorian fascination with the occult that manifested in secret societies such as the Theosophical Society and the Rosicrucian Order and in Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy doctrine. Each of these communities incorporated a universalist approach to faith, culling from Hindu, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian sources as well as early Christian and medieval Jewish ones. Regrettably, the curators miss an opportunity to reflect on these lineages, opting instead to represent the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam far more fully than they do other belief systems. Buddhism informs the works of Western artists such as Ross Bleckner and Bill Viola, but with the exception of Paik, no artist hails from a non-Abrahamic tradition. Even Ana Mendieta’s Tallus Mater/Stem Mother (1982), rooted in that artist’s copious explorations of pre-Christian goddess traditions in Latin America, gets a Biblical reading here. Even more regrettable, the curators chose to include Daniel Reeves’ Sabda (1984), an exoticizing and badly dated video of Tamil Hindu devotees that reinforces primitivist clichés by literally slowing down time, thereby forcing these living people into an “ancient” stereotype even as buses and cars roll past them onscreen.
It should no longer be the case in 2013 that we need to congratulate a museum simply for including artists from the developing world without isolating them with others of shared nationality, and thankfully the exhibition meets this baseline handily. The handful of artists whose origins extend beyond Western Europe and the United States provides some of the show’s highlights. These include Zarina, whose Tasbih (2011) is a scaled-up collection of Muslim prayer beads, strikingly hung adjacent to Mark Rothko’s stunning No. 14, 1960 (1960). Both works incorporate layers of light and dark into surfaces that are both deep and flat and invite close looking. Shazia Sikander’s Sinxay: Narrative as Dissolution #2 (2008) preserves Islam’s location of the divine within text rather than image but takes as its source a seventeenth-century Laotian Buddhist poem. Teresita Fernández’s Fire (2005) is a sculptural installation made from dyed silk threads that resembles a circle of flickering flame. While the wall text articulates fire’s importance as a symbol of the “connection between mortals and gods,” its particular significance as an earthly manifestation of the Divine within Zoroastrianism and Hinduism goes unnoticed. Similarly, Barnett Newman’s massive Zim Zum I (1969) is articulated as referring to a text from Kabbalah tradition in which God withdraws to make space for creation and then expands again to his infinite form. This concept exemplifies Hindu Transcendentalism’s considerable influence on Judeo-Christian mysticism since the early Modern era, a debt that goes unacknowledged here.
The exhibition is at its best when the works are abstract, but its literal tone allows for few transcendent moments. It’s unfortunately clear that little effort has gone into ensuring that the show’s read on spirituality is responsive to the diverse faiths of a contemporary Bay Area audience. Nonetheless, several of SFMOMA’s strongest works are on display in the CJM’s jewel-box museum, allowing for a degree of physical intimacy with the art that has been difficult to achieve in the vaultlike spaces of SFMOMA’s Mario Botta building. Here’s hoping that future collaborations between SFMOMA and other Bay Area museums over the coming three years of SFMOMA’s closure and construction build on this show’s strengths and minimize its weaknesses.
Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through October 27, 2013.