Buddha Meets the Kabbalah in San Francisco

Jewish Museum Explores Century of Spirituality

Generation of Watchers: Nam June Paik’s 1989 ‘TV-Buddha,’ currently on display as part of “Beyond Belief” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, cleverly anticipated the social media era.
Courtesy of Contemporary Jewish Museum
Generation of Watchers: Nam June Paik’s 1989 ‘TV-Buddha,’ currently on display as part of “Beyond Belief” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, cleverly anticipated the social media era.

By Menachem Wecker

Published July 03, 2013, issue of July 05, 2013.
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Barnett Newman’s steel sculpture “Zim Zum 1” typically resides on the roof of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It now sits across the street, on the ground floor of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where it is the first piece to confront viewers of the exhibit “Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art.”

Newman’s title references the kabbalistic notion of “retraction,” wherein divine sparks were enclosed in containers called kellipot, Hebrew for “shells,” to make space to contain the world. Walking between the steel “walls” of Newman’s sculpture — which evokes Richard Serra’s “Torqued Ellipses”— the sense of claustrophobia mimics the divine withdrawal.

“Under the tension of that ‘Tzim-Tzum’ that created light and the world, [each person] can experience a total sense of his own personality before the Torah,” reads a quote from Newman featured in a CJM wall text. The quote betrays the awkwardness of the Jewish artist — famous for his “Stations of the Cross” — when it comes to some of the Jewish texts he drew upon.

“Zim Zum 1” has never been lent to any place before, according to James Leventhal, deputy director of development at the CJM. Leventhal led a preview of the exhibit with curator Karen Tsujimoto. “Beyond Belief,” which will be on view from June 28 to October 27, is the first of several exhibits on which SFMOMA is collaborating with area institutions during the two and a half year renovation of its building. “Closed for construction, yet more open than ever” is the museum’s motto.

SFMOMA “precast its net” on its own collection, and presented CJM curators with a large list of works containing spiritual aspects. The curators selected the works they wanted to include. The exhibit is organized in 10 sections: Genesis, Divine Architecture, The Secret Language, Presence, God in the Abstract, The World To Come, Without End, Master of Time, Hidden and Revealed, and Loss and Redemption.

At the entrance to the Genesis section is “TV Buddha” by Korean American artist Nam June Paik, in which a Buddha sits in front of a television set, locked on a channel featuring the Buddha. The Enlightened One watches himself on TV, an image that almost seems to cannily anticipate the social media era.

Many of the other 50-odd artists in the exhibit are not Jewish, and works in “Beyond Belief” have Native American, Christian, Buddhist and Islamic roots. One standout is Beirut-born artist Mona Hatoum’s “Pin Rug,” a mat inspired by an Islamic prayer rug and composed of stainless steel pins — each nearly 2 inches tall — that point upward. Needless to say, the rug would be an uncomfortable one to kneel on and pray, and the piece is also a risky inclusion for a Jewish museum. (Hatoum, after all, was part of the “Imaginary Coordinates” exhibit in Chicago that the Spertus Museum closed early.)


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