Beyond Belief

100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art 1911-2011

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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The vibrant and stimulating “Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art” was jointly organized by San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s “SFMOMA on the Go” program. It’s the first of SFMOMA’s collaborative exhibitions with other local museums while SFMOMA’s new building is under construction.

“Beyond Belief” (great title!) explores the relationship between spirituality and modern/ contemporary art. At first, it may be difficult for viewers to see that relationship in artwork by 20th century geniuses such as Alberto Giacometti, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Rauschenberg and Mark Rothko, because their art superficially bares no relationship to spirituality. Yet, a reading of the exhibit’s wall labels may clarify the association. For example, Mondrian explained, “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.”

This thematic and intellectually interesting exhibition of more than 60 pieces of early and lesser-known works from SFMOMA’s collection has been divided into ten sections, organized by subjects that explore universal spiritual themes: Genesis, Divine Architecture, God in the Abstract, The Secret Language, Presence, Master of Time, The World to Come, Without End, Hidden and Revealed, and Loss and Redemption. Sometimes I found myself unable to differentiate the groups and distinguish where one ended and another began. It’s all a bit confusing, but it did not adversely affect my experience.

The Genesis section includes an early collage by Richard Rauschenberg, “Mother of God” (c.1950) with many street maps and a quotation from The Catholic Review: “An invaluable spiritual roadmap . . . As simple and fundamental as life itself.” Raised as a fundamental Christian, Rauschenberg created several other early works with religious titles before he turned to the abstract paintings and collages for which he is best known.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting, “Black Place I, 1944,” stands out in the Divine Architecture group. It depicts her isolated ranch in the Navajo desert near Taos, New Mexico. Yet, even in this bleak setting, O’Keeffe found a “feeling of infinity on the horizon line …”

A good example of art in The Secret Language of God section is Jackson Pollock’s “Guardians of the Secret, 1943.” Before he began to paint his abstract drips and splashes, which were influenced by Jungian and mystical surrealism, Pollock had an interest in Native American rituals and symbols. Unfortunately, the hieroglyphics have never been understood. Is that part of the secret? Perhaps you can figure it out.

Of the nine Jewish artists in the exhibition, Mark Rothko’s stunning “No 19, 1960” is my favorite. At 9.5 feet by 8.75 feet, to be seen at its best, it needs empty space around it. It’s well displayed in this exhibit. Having viewed many Rothko paintings, I never associated them with spiritualism or religion of any kind. Yet, by virtue of this show, I understand the artist better. In acknowledging the spiritual aspect to his art, Rothko said, “…only religion, as the instigator of the arts, can produce a truly ultimate art.” He also wrote that, “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”

“Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art” is an engrossing presentation. Because one’s experience is, in part, an intellectual one, joining a docent tour or carefully reading the wall labels will add greatly to one’s understanding and appreciation of the exhibition. Even without the spiritual component, “Beyond Belief” offers a fresh vision of familiar and lesser-known works from SFMOMA’s collection.

Even though the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s redesigned building by Daniel Libeskind opened to the public in 2008, it is difficult not to think of it as new. The shape and flow of the building itself becomes part of the art installations. As one approaches the building’s entrance, the gleaming benches, softly flowing fountains and angular grassy areas put one in a thoughtful frame of mind. This mental state of quiet contemplation is an apt one when viewing this unique exhibition.

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