By John Held, Jr.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s “On the Go” project got up and went plein air with their placement of eight Mark di Suvero sculptures at Crissy Field. They have now moved it inside with a collaborative effort at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, “Beyond Belief: One Hundred Years of the Spiritual in Art,” in which they have loaned their nearby neighbor more than sixty works from their venerable, now inaccessible, general collection.
With seven curators involved in the show (headed by Karen Tsujimoto of the CJM and Janel Bishop of SFMOMA), this should have been a mess. It is far from that. Their choices are an ably considered mix of art old and new, from artists of differing faiths near and afar, exposing the familiar and the unexpected. There are inspired picks and pairings. And best of all, artist’s works that seemed a bit shopworn in their SFMOMA setting (i. e., Rothko, Pollock), have blossomed in relocation.
In the fifties, Marcel Duchamp gave a talk in which he stated that in the future artists concerned with the spiritual, rather than the commercial aspects of art, would go underground. Nobody typified this as readily as Wallace Berman, a Los Angeles artist, busted for pornography at the Ferus Gallery, who sought sanctuary in Beat era San Francisco for escape and rejuvenation. Noted for his use of Hebrew lettering, he is an easy fit in the exhibition, but it takes a discerning eye to place him in such heady company as Piet Mondrian, Alberto Giacometti, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Paul Klee. Who even knew that SFMOMA owned one of his works, and a good one at that. I never saw head or tail of it in the old digs, and it’s not the only thing they dug up for this show that makes you wonder where and why they hid all these fantastic works for so long.
Berman is not the only artist of local interest to make the cut. I mentioned pairings, and it was gratifying to see former married partners, Jay DeFeo and Wally Heidrek, kitty-corner to one another. Where has this DeFeo been? It is extraordinary, not as heavily slathered, but just as compelling as her masterpiece, “The Rose.” With expanded gallery space in the forthcoming building, I pray that they find a permanent placement for it.
Other locals fit seamlessly into a century’s worth of iconic art with spiritual undertones. San Francisco artist Bruce Conner is represented by two works. Clyfford Still, a professor at California School of the Fine Arts in the late 1940s is included. A seldom seen magnesite sculpture by Adaline Kent, “Presence” (1947) is in the show. Sam Francis, who went to Berkeley (with Jay DeFeo), while Still was teaching across the Bay, frames “the void,” (as does Robert Rauschenberg’s work from 1950, “Mother of God”). And just to round out the locals in the exhibition’s recipe, add Stephen De Staebler, Gordon Onslow Ford and Nathan Oliveira into the mix and stir.
The exhibition includes paintings, photographs, sculpture, textiles installation and video. Most surprising, welcomed, and seldom seen, is a mixed media/installation/video work by Korean artist Nam June Paik, who is represented by his single-channel masterpiece, “TV Buddha” (1989). Perhaps no other artist in the exhibition directly confronts the mix of spirituality and the modern as does this work, which focuses a video camera on a bronze Buddha, gazing at his own image for eternity (or as long as the work is switched on and plugged in).
The hundred years of spirituality manifested in the exhibition begins with a 1911 painting by Franz Marc and concludes with a 2011 assemblage by Zarina. The checklist of artists range from chestnuts like Kazimir Malevich and Vasily Kandinsky to those less familiar such as Heléne Aylon, Lorser Feitelson, Larry Thomas and Janine Antoni. All contribute to the atmosphere the curators attempted to conjure.
I haven’t mentioned the Mark Tobey, which I’d never seen before, – the Barnett Newman, Philip Guston, or Brice Marden. Not to mention the Kiki Smith or Agnes Martin works. Many of these treasures have been in storage for years, suddenly come to light. Stumbling across Rauschenberg’s early (just out of Black Mountain College) and important (a transition between his monochrome works and assemblage) “Mother of God” (can’t get more spiritual than that) is, uh,…a revelation.
There are photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Minor White. Oh, and a Georgia O’Keeffe, and a…I mean what’s the point, it just goes on and on, and all are seen in a new setting which makes them all look like they just rolled into town. If you’ve never set foot in the Contemporary Jewish Museum, this is as good a time as any, made all the more imperative by the equally gratifying, “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg,” on view until September 8th.
“Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art”
Presented by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
at the Contemporary Jewish Museum
736 Mission Street (between Third and Fourth Streets)
June 28-October 27, 2013
For more information visit here.