For a museum that recently closed its building for three years, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is keeping busy.
“Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art,” on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through Oct. 27, is the first major off-site collaboration for the SFMOMA while its expansion is underway.
Co-organized by the SFMOMA and CJM, the show took two years to plan and involves seven curators. Nearly 70 works by giants such as Philip Guston, Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and members of Der Blaue Reiter (Vasily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Paul Klee) are on view in the meditative show, expertly organized by theme.
The exhibit starts with Genesis and moves on to mysticism, death, redemption and the “World to Come,” which draws on the belief in Judaism that life after death is ambiguous and unknown.
Kiki Smith's “Lilith,” a bronze sculpture of a woman crouching — mounted on the wall — is perhaps the most striking piece in the “Genesis” section. Famous for her depictions of women, Smith directly addresses the famous myth from ancient scripture by the title alone. The woman's musculature is powerful, pregnant with strength, and her eyes are eerily painted.
Surrounding works include Robert Rauschenberg's “Mother of God,” Bruce Conner's “Burning Bush,” Lorser Feitelson's “Genesis First Version” and Janine Antoni's “Coddle,” a surreal twist on the traditional Madonna portrait.
As “Beyond Belief” progresses the experience grows more introspective and includes a surprising number of quotes from artists directly addressing spirituality:
Mondrian: “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.”
Ross Bleckner: “I'm very Talmudic … very drawn to the Talmudic tradition of scrutinizing, analyzing, interpreting.”
Bleckner's “Knights not Nights” — a dark but sparkling wax, oil and crystal painting — prompts awe-inspiring reflection. The sheer physicality of the pitch-black, muddy darkness dappled by ghostly hands and spots of light turns the mind toward an infinite unknown.
Ancient cultures used to worship fire and the hearth, and Teresita Fernández's “Fire” is as hypnotic as the element that inspired it. A hovering column fashioned with dyed silk fiber and steel, “Fire” hums with a soothing presence, its warm colors radiating a chameleonic beauty that alters as one moves around it.
While religious art is often associated with figurative imagery depicting deities and saints, and artists are colored as anarchists bucking trends and anti-establishment iconoclasts, “Beyond Belief” takes a splendid curatorial curve. It shows 20th- and 21st-century artists marrying tradition with reinvention, the ancient quest toward the spiritual still relevant, just reimagined.
IF YOU GO
Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art
Where: Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays through Tuesdays; 1 to 8 p.m. Thursdays; closes Oct. 27
Admission: $5 to $12; $5 after 5 p.m. Thursdays, free for ages 18 and under