Field Trip: The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco

Today’s post comes from the West Coast where I am accompanying my wife at the BlogHer08 Conference in San Francisco. While she was off attending panels and talks about building community online and the power of female consumers in a Web 2.0 environment, I took a busman’s holiday to the brand-new Contemporary Jewish Museum on Mission Street. Famously designed by Daniel Libeskind on-top of the remains of an early 20th Century Power Substation, the new building is inspired by the Hebrew phrase “L’Chaim.” This is only one of the Hebrew character-driven architectural elements in the building, which also includes a “PaRDeS” wall which draws on elements of the letters which in Kabbalah (we are in California after-all) refer to the four levels of meaning found in holy texts, and a “Yud” gallery which is a diamond-shaped tribute in air and light to that Hebrew letter.

The building is brand-spanking new, and the young staff scurrying about reminds me very much of the energy of the possible that so defined our earlier years at 16th and Q and which still can be felt on our better days. This is an institution that has quite emphatically declared its ambitions in the midst of the cultural cornucopia of San Francisco–across the street from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, down the block from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, adjacent to the Museum for Craft and Folk Art. The goal is clear, to pair what has instantly become an architectural landmark, with a world-class level of exhibition and intellectual stimulation-and to do so while keeping a Jewish context as a curatorial touchstone.

The three exhibits I toured today certainly indicate that they are on the right path. On the first floor is “From the New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig” which reprises the exhibit organized at the Jewish Museum in New York. This was a deft programming move that guarantees a significant non-Jewish audience drawn in both by Steig’s work in The New Yorker and the commercial behemoth that his ogre-with-a-heart-of-gold has spawned. Steig’s career has a depth and variety that lends itself well to a user-friendly introduction to the museum: his concern with social themes coming from his parent’s labor roots, his psychologically complex drawings for the New Yorker along with his more whimsical sketches for the same, his enchanting work for children that never condescends to its audience by acknowledging a dark menace to life that less trusting children’s authors seek to gloss over. It is just Jewish enough without being too Jewish, artistic without being inaccessible, fun without being shallow.

While the Steig show demonstrates that the folks at the CJM know how to give the people what they want, the exhibits on the second floor of the building reveal an ambitious artistic and Jewish agenda. If the Steig show can’t-miss because of its accessibility, then the sound installation, “Aleph-Bet Sound Project” curated by Radical Jewish Music guru John Zorn in the aforementioned “Yud” gallery is its inverse. The high ceiling room is empty save a few benches and sets of speakers suspended from girders up above.  On one wall is a panel and text explaining how Zorn chose experimental musicians to each respond to a Hebrew letter through sound. The results are eclectic and by turns deeply personal, teleological, cacophonous and expressive of an esoteric spirituality. More than the merits of any particular response (which include works by Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, David Greenberger, Erik Friedlander, Chris Brown, Jewlia and Z’ev), is the opportunity to let the various soundscapes wash over you while watching the light play through the yud-shaped skylights.

Straddling the gulf between the easy charm of the Steig show and the empty-space aestheticism of “Aleph-Bet” is the sprawling “In The Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis.” At once historical, contemporary and philosophical, “In The Beginning” surveys the influence of the creation story in graphic art from ancient manuscripts to interactive video installations commissioned specifically for the show, to works by important 20th Century abstract expressionists, to sculpture inspired by the antenna that helped reveal the Big Bang Theory, to installations that advocate for the continuing work of creation and Tikkun Olam. I was unexpectedly engaged by a video that included scientists and theologians responding to the creation story in Genesis and contemplating the push-pull relationship between religion and science. 

I enjoyed the visit tremendously. It is interesting to note, that while Washington seems increasingly populated by $20-a-head edutainment “museums” and wax-statue celebrity shrines, that San Francisco is welcoming an institution where one can consider “first-things,” the basic questions that art seeks to address and accommodate a range of effable and ineffable responses.

%d bloggers like this: