In the beginning: artists respond to genesis

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The Contemporary Jewish Museum inaugurates its new building with a ground-breaking exhibition including new commissions by seven contemporary artists

June 8, 2008 – January 4, 2009
San Francisco, June 2008—An extraordinary collection of historical, modern and contemporary artworks will be on view in the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s inaugural exhibition In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis (June 8, 2008 – January 4, 2009). Exploring the continuing relevance of the story of creation in Genesis Chapter I, the Museum has commissioned new installations by seven significant contemporary artists: Alan Berliner, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Ben Rubin, Matthew Ritchie, Kay Rosen, Shirley Shor, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles. These works, ranging from multi-media and sound installations to computer animations, projections, and wall drawings, are presented in a unique dialogue with a compelling array of historical works, some rarely seen in public, and never before seen together. Featured works include: a rendering of a 6th-century Roman synagogue mosaic; illuminated manuscripts from the Medieval and Renaissance periods; 18th and 19th-century drawings by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo and William Blake; modern and contemporary works by Auguste Rodin, Marc Chagall, Barnett Newman, Jacob Lawrence, and Ann Hamilton. The exhibition will also include three works that respond to Genesis by San Francisco-based artist Tom Marioni. The exhibition will be uniquely designed to create a lively dialogue between the new installations by the contemporary artists and the historical representations of the story of creation.
On June 8, 2008, the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) will open its new, Daniel Libeskind-designed building in the heart of downtown San Francisco’s Yerba Buena cultural district. The Museum’s major inaugural exhibition, In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis, will occupy the Museum’s 7,000-square-foot second floor gallery. “In the Beginning will be the first in a series of exhibitions the Contemporary Jewish Museum plans to develop that will examine the contemporary relevance of Jewish texts from a variety of artistic, cultural, and literary perspectives,” said Director Connie Wolf. “And for all of the obvious reasons, symbolic and otherwise, it made sense to start at the beginning.”

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Artist Commissions: Creating New Commentary

The text of Genesis—the story of the origins of the universe and the creation of humanity—is rich in universal themes related to religion, language, physics, creation, the environment, and ancient literature. Since ancient times, biblical text has been scrutinized, reexamined, and reinterpreted so that it remains meaningful in a changing world. Inspired by this rabbinical practice of adding new commentary to biblical text and the Museum’s mission of looking at tradition through a contemporary lens, the Contemporary Jewish Museum commissioned seven nationally and internationally-recognized artists to create major, site-specific installations for In the Beginning. “In effect, we’ve invited the artists to add their own layers of 21st-century commentary to this longstanding tradition of interpretation,” observed Fred Wasserman, deputy director for programs.
“We wanted to bring together a culturally and ethnically diverse group of artists who work in a variety of media, and all of whom have a particular interest in text, Genesis, and the origins of the universe,” Wasserman noted. The artists selected include New York-based filmmaker and media artist, Alan Berliner; Texas-based painter, textile and installation artist, Trenton Doyle Hancock; New York-based media and sound artist, Ben Rubin; New York-based British painter and installation artist, Matthew Ritchie; Indiana-based painter and installation artist, Kay Rosen; New York-based and Israeli-born new-media artist, Shirley Shor; and New York-based installation and public artist, Mierle Laderman Ukeles.
The commissioned works vary widely in approach and artistic practice, but all are highly engaging and experiential in nature. Ben Rubin will create a sound sculpture/installation that reexamines early scientific efforts to measure the Big Bang in counterpoint to the Genesis narrative. Matthew Ritchie’s visitor-activated multi-media installation will explore the experience and impact of the formation of the universe. Onto a large structure shaped like a water well, Shirley Shor will project text fragments from the Internet in English and Hebrew that consider how Biblical language manifests itself in our everyday language. Alan Berliner is making a large-scale seven-screen “slot machine,” which draws on an extraordinary range of archival film and sound, and invites visitors to “play God” as they question the level of agency each of us has in our own lives. In colorful, psychedelic wallpaper and painting, Trenton Doyle Hancock imagines a new chapter in his ongoing biblically inspired creation story. Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s mystical installation is inspired by Kabbalistic interpretations of creation and will invite visitors to make a commitment to perform an act of tikkun olam (repairing the world). Finally, in her conceptual wall mural, Kay Rosen will mine the text of Genesis Chapter I to critique the way that mankind has degraded the original creation. These bold and provocative new works encourage audiences to rethink assumptions and to consider new ideas about the creation of our world and humankind.
The commissioning process involved both inviting the artists to participate in the long-standing Jewish tradition of interpreting text for its contemporary relevance and to respond to the Museum’s new Daniel Libeskind-designed building (which itself is a response to an historic structure). The artists visited San Francisco for a walkthrough of the new building so that they could respond to the site where their work would be installed. “The Museum then organized a one-day workshop at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where five of the artists met with Biblical scholars, all of whom presented different perspectives on the text of Genesis, Chapter I,” explained Dara Solomon, assistant curator. “The workshop afforded a unique opportunity for the artists to engage with one another and with specialists on the topic of Genesis. This experience strengthened the connections between the text and their installations for In the Beginning.”
Commentary through the Ages
In keeping with the Museum’s commitment to exploring art and ideas, In the Beginning provides visitors with a historical context for appreciating how the understanding of creation—and artistic interpretations of the theme—have changed over time. The exhibition will be uniquely designed to create a lively dialogue between these historical representations of the story of creation and the seven major artist projects commissioned by the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The exhibition will feature several richly illuminated Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts that depict God blessing the earthly orb alongside rare Jewish representations of creation found in Passover Haggadot from 14th-15th century Spain. In the Beginning will investigate the shift to a more dramatic approach to Genesis during the Renaissance with Michelangelo-inspired images of a heavenly God creating the world, followed by atmospheric and dramatic works by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Gustave Doré, and James Tissot, as well as Auguste Rodin’s The Hand of God, from the 18th and 19th centuries. Continuing into the 20th century, the exhibition will explore the various abstract and figurative styles used to depict creation, from the existential questioning of “creation” and “being” found in works by artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Marc Chagall to Barnett Newman’s Onement II, part of a series of paintings in which he explores artistic and universal dualities.
The exhibition design will encourage a dialogue between the artists, time periods, and differing perspectives on the story of creation, as well as a conversation between Museum visitors and the works themselves. With artwork and rare manuscripts drawn from major museum and library collections across the United States, including the National Gallery of Art, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, The Jewish Museum in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, The Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the Bancroft Library, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, together with the seven newly commissioned installations, In the Beginning offers visitors a truly unique opportunity to consider relationships and connections between historic, modern and contemporary works never before seen together in this context.

Genesis Now: Other Perspectives

Continuing the theme of ongoing commentary, the Contemporary Jewish Museum developed the video Genesis Now in which 12 to 15 scientists, theologians, writers, filmmakers, and others respond to the text of Genesis, Chapter I. Directed by renowned Bay Area filmmaker, Pam Rorke Levy, Genesis Now will provide viewers with an understanding of the ongoing quest to understand creation, the origins of the universe, and new beginnings.

In the Beginning is organized by the Contemporary Jewish Museum and co-curated by Director and CEO Connie Wolf; Deputy Director for Programs Fred Wasserman; and Assistant Curator Dara Solomon. The exhibition was designed by Robin Parkinson, principal of the New York-based firm Exhibition Art & Technology.
In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis is generously supported by The Shenson Foundation in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson; Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation; and the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the Consulate General of Israel to the Pacific Northwest, celebrating Israel’s 60th Anniversary. Funding for the video Genesis Now comes from the John Templeton Foundation with additional in-kind support from Pam Rorke Levy.
About the Contemporary Jewish Museum

With the opening of its new building on June 8, 2008, the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) will usher in a new chapter in its 20-plus year history of engaging audiences and artists in exploring contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. The new facility, designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, will be a lively center where people of all ages and backgrounds can gather to experience art, share diverse perspectives, and engage in hands-on activities. Inspired by the Hebrew phrase “L’Chaim” (To Life), the building is a physical embodiment of the CJM’s mission to bring together tradition and innovation in an exploration of the Jewish experience in the 21st century.

Major support for the Contemporary Jewish Museum comes from the Koret and Taube Foundations; Jim Joseph Foundation; Millennium Partners; Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco; Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund; Pacific Gas and Electric Company; Alexander M. and June L. Maisin Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation’s Endowment Fund; Target; The Wallace Foundation; BNY Mellon Wealth Management; Gruber Family Foundation; Fred Levin and Nancy Livingston, The Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson; The Skirball Foundation; Wells Fargo; Wells Fargo Foundation; and The James Irvine Foundation. The Museum is supported by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

For more information about the Contemporary Jewish Museum, visit the Museum’s website



The Contemporary Jewish Museum presents In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis. The first in a series of exhibitions that will explore the contemporary relevance of Jewish text from a variety of artistic, cultural, and literary perspectives. The exhibition features new work by Alan Berliner, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Ben Rubin, Matthew Ritchie, Kay Rosen, Shirley Shor, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles.


June 8, 2008 through January 4, 2009


Contemporary Jewish Museum

736 Mission Street (between Third and Fourth streets)

San Francisco, CA 94103


Open daily (except Wednesday): 11:00 AM - 5:30 PM

Thursday: 1:00 PM - 8:30 PM


Members and children 18 and under, Free; General Admission, $10; Students with a valid ID and Seniors, $8

Groups ticket discount: Groups of 10 or more will receive $1 off the individual ticket price.


Please call (415) 655-7800 or visit


Public Tours are offered Monday, Tuesday, and Friday-Sunday at 11:30 AM and 2:00 PM; and Thursday at 2:00 PM, 5:30 PM, and 7:00 PM. The Museum is closed on Wednesdays.

Private Tours of exhibitions and the Museum’s architecture are available for groups of 10 or more students, teachers, teens, families, and adults. Private Tours for adults are $100; discounted group admission rates also apply. Groups over 20 people require additional tour guides at $75 each. School/Youth Tours are $25 for every 20 students; admission fees are waived for students 18 years and under, and up to three chaperones. When available, hands-on art-making workshops offered in conjunction with School Tours are $50 for every 20 students.

For more tour information contact: or (415) 655-7856.


From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig (June 8, 2008 through September 7, 2008) and John Zorn Presents the Aleph-Bet Sound Project (June 8, 2008 through January 4, 2009).

For media information or visuals, please contact:
Contemporary Jewish Museum Norris Communications

Stacey Silver

(415) 655-7833
Kate Patterson

(415) 655-7835

Wendy Norris

(415) 307-3853
Liam Passmore

(415) 218-1544

736 Mission Street San Francisco, California 94103 telephone 415 655 7800 fax 415 655 7815

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