Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons seem even further removed from the biblical fray. The wall text accompanying Warhol’s small canvas with 12 electric blue crucifixes screen-printed on a black background suggests that the repetition of the crosses reflects his Campbell’s soup cans, the religious icon serving as a “commodity to buy and sell.” This seems simplistic, because Warhol attended mass several times a week and his work is as obsessed with death as a museum full of Trecento paintings.
Mr. Koons, meanwhile, provides the perfect postmodern consumer response to religion. His 1988 “Christ and the Lamb” is a gaudy golden confection, a gilded frame with mirrors. The shape imitates the silhouette of little Jesus caressing the lamb in “The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne” by Leonardo da Vinci. Both East and West are involved in this commercial critique of art and religion. Despite its reference to Renaissance art and Baroque and Rococo frames, the work resembles an abstract motif from Chinese ceramics or Japanese landscape painting.
There are problems with “biblical art in a secular century,” starting with its white, Eurocentric focus. William H. Johnson’s simple pen-and-ink drawings “Baptism” and “Moses in the Rushes” by Henry Ossawa Tanner, a student of Thomas Eakins, provide examples of black American spirituality, but this exhibition would have could have been much richer if black and Latino art – to begin with – were better represented.
Works by younger artists are also absent, although Ms. Pongracz’s essay in a brochure accompanying the exhibition begins with a lengthy discussion of a JP Munro painting that appeared at the Whitney Biennial in 2006. Her “Vision of St. Eustatius, Master Hunter,” which explores how traditional German Christian sources were appropriated for use on the labels of Jägermeister alcoholic beverages, is reproduced in the brochure but is strangely absent from the exhibition.
And who can say that the last century has been particularly secular? Nietzsche declared God dead in the late 19th century, and atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote “Why I Am Not a Christian” in the 1920s. But for those who witnessed the end of the millennium, with its global rise of fundamentalism , its culture wars pitting art against political-religious forces and its art students devouring the works of avant-garde theorists like Paul Virilio, a practicing Christian, the 20th century hardly felt secular.
It has been said that scholars of classical antiquity reveal more about contemporary culture than about ancient times: than academic articles on homosexuality in fifth-century BC Greece or on the role of women in the Roman Empire reflect the concerns of our own historical moment. The Bible offers a similar opportunity, although omissions in “Biblical Art in a Secular Century” prevent the exhibition from making a compelling argument for the 20th century, whether secular or religious.