Encountering the Spiritual in Contemporary Art is the result of many years of research fueled by my intense interest in the subject, the pursuit of which is ongoing. I initiated this publication by creating an archive of hundreds of works of art based on my own aesthetic preferences, combined with what I believed to be spiritual content. I then set out to study and experience as many of the works in person as possible, by taking advantage of studio visits and developing close, long-term relationships with artists. I owe a tremendous debt to the artists, whose work has enriched my life beyond measure. For me, they raise fundamental philosophical questions: What does it mean to be a human being? How do we want to live? Each work of art poses its own set of questions and I invite readers to consider diverse expressions of the spiritual from around the world.
The spiritual is everywhere evident in contemporary art, yet rarely acknowledged in scholarship or criticism. Indeed, it has been part of a thematic continuum in the Western world since the early twentieth century. Encountering the Spiritual in Contemporary Art addresses the subject in depth for the first time in over three decades and thus begins in the 1980s, where other studies end. It takes inspiration but departs from Maurice Tuchman’s The Spiritual in Modern Art: Abstract Painting, 1890–1985 (1986), a pioneering monumental exhibition on spirituality. Focusing on the impact of Theosophy and mysticism on modern American and European painting, its selections spanned almost a century. Encountering the Spiritual in Contemporary Art significantly broadens the scope of Tuchman’s work to include all kinds of media and art from Western, Eastern, Native American, Australian Aboriginal and African artists. This book also responds to the influential exhibition Magiciens de la terre (1989). Curated by Jean-Hubert Martin, it emphasized globalism by bringing together for the first time art by fifty indigenous non-Western and fifty Western artists, under the rubric of spirituality. Martin paired Non-Western artists—selected through “intuition”—with Western artists based on formal comparisons. Encountering the Spiritual in Contemporary Art, however, seeks to give context and full voice to non-Western and indigenous peoples as well as promote specific cultural understandings of the spiritual. I researched and selected works of art based on consultations with experts and artists who advised on the cultural meanings they express. This book considers the spiritual from many perspectives, and presents art from diverse cultures with equal status. In this way, we seek to move beyond notions of Western and Other.
I provide a definition of the spiritual that is my unique and personal understanding of the term. Readers will agree or disagree with my efforts, yet it is my hope that some will find resonance here. I acknowledge the highly subjective nature of the term “spiritual” and how its manifestation in art is complex, multidimensional, and always evolving.
In this volume, spirituality represents and encompasses a broad spectrum of possibilities. But above all, the idea of transcending the “I” or ego—through any number of means that unite mind, body, and spirit, including a transforming encounter with art—is the single defining feature of spirituality as I employ the term in Encountering the Spiritual in Contemporary Art.
In this publication, I include a substantive introductory chapter followed by an essay on abstract art. I chose to write on Western abstraction because of its long association with the spiritual since the early twentieth century and Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich, and Constantin Brancusi, followed by mid-century examples in the work of some of the Abstract Expressionists such as Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and Barnett Newman. With this book, the opportunity arose to understand selections of spiritual abstract art in our own time.
Six major essays by distinguished scholars focus on art according to cultural affinities. Ladan Akbarnia writes on works associated with Sufism. Mary Jane Jacob considers art related to Buddhism and Taoism. Stephen Gilchrist explains Australian Aboriginal work. Eleanor Heartney analyzes Judeo-Christian influenced art. Karen Kramer illuminates Native American sculptures, paintings, and new media. Karen Milbourne explores African art. These essays are interspersed with my brief thematic discussions of Art-Making as Spiritual Process, Materials/Form/Color, Sources of Inspiration, and The Artist’s Body as Signifier of Spiritual Content, to provide two very different perspectives on this expansive body of work, and in sum, all will expand the knowledge of academic and general audiences.
This volume embraces works that seek to exert a positive force in the world. I exclude art that engages in extreme scenarios, partakes of violence, promotes fear, proselytizes, or is inspired by literal interpretations or fundamentalist religions. I do not include art that is associated with the grotesque, that which is abhorrent, misshapen, or intentionally displeasing. Works that fall into the category of the abject—a tendency to make use of materials that are taboo—or those that do violence to the human body are likewise not represented. Finally, this book omits art that mocks or parodies organized religion.
The contemporary spiritual art in this publication has an effect in the world. It changes minds, broadens understanding, and transforms lives. It is the embodiment of the artists’ spiritual experience, and it means to evoke the same in us. Such works are dynamic agents of the spiritual: they provide a sense of plentitude, a healing place of respite, allow us to see anew as if for the first time, and celebrate our uniqueness and difference as well as our common humanity. The possibilities are endless.
Leesa Fanning is curator of contemporary art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.