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“Beyond Belief” exhibit combines the spiritual and abstract

For centuries, artists depended heavily on commissions from churches and other religious bodies, but modern abstract art opened new avenues of creation in the 19th Century. Pablo Picasso and his contemporaries, for example, worked in cubism, a style that reduced subjects to geometric shapes. But while artists were now free to express themselves abstractly, and beyond the church, the subject of spiritualism remained important, since it, too, is an abstraction.

A quotation by Piet Mondrian, the Dutch abstract painter famed for his simplistic drawings of lines and cubes, addresses this at the entrance to “Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art,” at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM). He states that, “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.”

“Beyond Belief,” which opens tomorrow at the CJM, is the first co-organized exhibit in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s two-year program called “SFMOMA on the Go,” which will take place while the museum undergoes a major building expansion. Mondrian’s statement underlines the purpose of the exhibit: to show the connection between modern art and spirituality, which transcends organized religion.

Works are grouped into ten sections, with interactive screens in each. A question posed in the Master of Time section is “How would you describe your personal belief system?”  My answer caused the next screen to show a painting by Kazimar Malevich titled “Dynamic Suprematism” from 1916. Another question, “How do you grapple with the fleeting nature of time?” led to an audio installation by Gary Hill. As if to emphasize the theme, a gray screen appeared while I was reading the description; “Do you need more time?”

“Art, like religion, can give you an experience of transcendence,” reads a wall text by Alan Lew, a Bay Area Zen rabbi (1943 – 2009), which continues, “But art and religion are not the same thing. Religion makes the experience repeatable. Art brings us the news. It tells us there is something out there we had never before imagined.”

Seven curators from the two institutions cooperated in the creation of this exhibit of works from 1911 – 2011. Many of the pieces are from the SFMOMA collection, both familiar and seldom seen. Some recent acquisitions are being viewed here for the first time.  Explore the exhibit before you go at http://beyondbelief.thecjm.org.

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