From Genesis to Shrek to music for the Hebrew alphabet, the first exhibits in the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s new building are unusual, imaginative and noteworthy: “In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis,” “From the New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig” and John Zorn’s “Aleph-Bet Sound Project” will be on view Sunday when the 24-year-old institution celebrates the grand opening of its new facility with special programs and free admission.
The bold structure, on Mission Street between Market Street and Yerba Buena Gardens, was designed by Daniel Libeskind. Its most striking feature, a huge blue cube resting on its corner, is the venue for Zorn’s music project, for which the MacArthur Fellow has commissioned sound and music based on letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
The structure itself — with a 65-foot ceiling, walls converging at striking angles and 36 diamond-shaped windows providing the light — channels the Hebrew “yud,” the letter used in writing the name of Adonai or God (or, properly, G-d). The official name for the cube is the “Stephen and Maribelle Leavitt Yud Gallery.”
Zorn, 54, is best known for integration of jazz, klezmer, improvised and contemporary music. His sound project aims at linking the alphabetic symbols found throughout Libeskind’s architecture with the new museum’s mission of “rethinking tradition.”
Zorn’s mandate is to assist musicians as they embrace the Kabbalistic principle that the ancient Hebrew alphabet is a spiritual tool full of hidden meaning and harmony.
Participating composers — Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Erik Friedlander, David Greenberger, Z’EV, Terry Riley, Alvin Curran, Christina Kubisch, Marina Rosenfeld, Rez Mesinai and Jewlia — are all invited to perform their music live at the museum.
“In the Beginning” exhibits the multimedia and sound-installation works of seven artists — Alan Berliner, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Ben Rubin, Matthew Ritchie, Kay Rosen, Shirley Shor and Mierle Laderman Ukeles — “in dialogue” with historical, rarely displayed works about Genesis.
There are illuminated manuscripts from the Medieval and Renaissance periods; 18th- and 19th-century drawings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and William Blake; modern and contemporary works by Auguste Rodin, Marc Chagall, Barnett Newman, Jacob Lawrence, Ann Hamilton and Tom Marioni.
Co-curators for the exhibit, which runs through Jan. 4, 2009, are museum director Connie Wolf, deputy director Fred Wasserman and assistant curator Dara Solomon.
The late William Steig was the most famous cartoonist at the New Yorker for three-quarters of a century, creator of more than 100 covers. His retrospective, which runs through Sept. 7, comes from The Jewish Museum in New York City.
Among the many cartoons and drawings for children’s books such as “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” “Doctor De Soto” and “Amos & Boris,” the most attention-getting ones may well be Steig’s “Shrek” illustrations.
Donkey is pretty much like in the box-office blowout film series, but Shrek himself is quite different: the original has little or none of the charm apparent in Mike Myers’ voice characterization. Steig’s Shrek is pretty much just a ogre.
In the Contemporary’s exhibit, original “Shrek” drawings and movie stills are displayed side by side, their juxtaposition creating a clear picture of Hollywood’s reinterpretation.
IF YOU GO
Contemporary Jewish Museum
Where: 736 Mission St. (near Third Street), San Francisco
When: Opens June 8; 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily except closed Wednesdays and 1 to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays
Tickets: $8 to $10
Conctact: (415) 655-7800 or www.thecjm.org