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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“The idea that at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, we have a contemporary Palestinian artist while we are looking at issues of spirituality and identity in the 21st century — to have that in the same room as Alberto Giacometti’s ‘Bust of Diego’ and in the same room as an Adolph Gottlieb pictogram,” Leventhal said, “having all of these things communicate with each other, it’s just symphonic.”

The exhibit also features four photos from Alfred Stieglitz’s series “Equivalent” (spanning from 1925 to 1931), which Stieglitz suggested were images of God, and a bronze-and-glass “Lilith” by Kiki Smith, who was influnced by her travels in Israel.

In the secret-language section, the Hebrew (and pseudo-Hebrew) epigraphy is particularly interesting. The inscription in an untitled 1974 sculpture by the California artist Wallace Berman features nonsensical Hebrew “words” on a stone that is surrounded by a metal chain. Viewers can enjoy the calligraphic forms without getting bogged down by the meaning of the incongruous configurations of the letters.

The most interesting work in the show might be a small, untitled Mark Rothko oil-on-paper drawing from 1960 that is just a little more than 14 by 18 inches. The portrait-oriented work recalls Gottlieb’s “Burst” series, with its two cloudlike black forms that look like explosions. Rothko outlined parts of the “bursts” with more controlled ochre strokes. But the bottom of the drawing is the most interesting: Two carefully drawn black forms almost certainly represent the artist’s Hebrew initials, mem resh (M.R.).

It is well known that Rothko attended heder as a child and taught at (and published in the journal of) the Brooklyn Jewish Center. The artist, who was born Marcus Rothkowitz, began using the name Mark Rothko in 1940, but it wasn’t until 1959 that he changed his name legally, according to a CJM wall text. “The motivation behind the change is as enigmatic as his work,” the exhibit text adds. “Various explanations have been offered: An art dealer asked Rothko to change his name; the change signaled a transition in his painting style; the artist decided his name was too cumbersome, too foreign, and that a simpler one would be better for his career.”

If the name change had something to with being less Jewish, perhaps Rothko’s Hebrew signature on a work so soon after adopting the more “American” name signaled at least a little bit of buyer’s remorse.

Menachem Wecker is a Chicago-based writer on art and religion. Find out more about him at http://menachemwecker.com or on Twitter, @mwecker


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