Part of "The Creation" by Ori Sherman, 1986-88
(Photo/The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life)
Part of "The Creation" by Ori Sherman, 1986-88 (Photo/The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life)

Artist Ori Sherman’s full ‘Creation’ series on view at Magnes

One of the last works San Francisco artist Ori Sherman made while dying from AIDS was a series called “The Creation,” about the beginning of the world as described in Genesis. According to his longtime partner, Richard Schwarzenberger, Sherman became increasingly ill while working on the series and felt a sense of urgency to complete it.

“One evening, his temperature over 104, he lay on his bed semi-conscious, his arm swatting imaginary projectiles,” Schwarzenberger writes in a personal essay that he shared with J. At around 4 a.m. the following morning, Schwarzenberger found Sherman hard at work painting the sixth day of creation. “He said, ‘I thought I better work while I can.’”

Now, more than 30 years after his death, Sherman’s entire 18-piece Creation series is on exhibit at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. Though the pieces were donated to the Magnes in 2006 by Charles M. Little, this exhibition, titled “On Twilight: Ori Sherman’s Creation,” marks the first time the entire series is being displayed in its entirety.

“The whole project is an example of visual Torah,” curator Francesco Spagnolo said in an interview. “It’s not just about illustrating the Hebrew Bible. It’s actually about interpreting it and channeling it through the power of visual culture.”

On Sunday, the Magnes will host a free reception featuring a conversation about Sherman and his legacy with Schwarzenberger, Spagnolo, digital art historian Justin Underhill and infectious disease specialist Lisa Danzig.

Born in a religiously observant family in Jerusalem in 1934, Sherman moved to New York City in 1936. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1955, he joined the U.S. Army but was discharged for being gay. He made his way to San Francisco in 1958, and he was “beloved” in the Bay Area for designing ketubahs (Jewish marriage documents) for local couples, Spagnolo said. He also designed picture frames, dreidels, matzah boxes, Kiddush cups, tzedakah boxes, Purim masks and other Jewish ritual objects.

At the time of his death, he was working on picture books for children, Schwarzenberger said.

While living in New York, Sherman studied Hebrew rigorously, and that training is evident in the Creation series. Excerpts from the Book of Genesis, rendered in Hebrew calligraphy, are an integral part of each piece. “The words themselves and their graphic presence are part of the creative process,” Spagnolo said. “The world comes out of the text itself.”

Sherman had a personal connection to the creation story: It was his Bar Mitzvah portion. “It always had a deep meaning for him,” said Schwarzenberger, who lives in San Francisco. “I think the Creation [series] was the culmination of so many cultural and personal connections.”

The Ori Sherman exhibit on display at The Magnes.
The Ori Sherman exhibit on display at The Magnes.

At the Magnes, the multicolored paintings are hung against dark blue walls reminiscent of the earth’s oceans. Animals, plants and mystical symbols surround the Hebrew text. The pieces are not always literal depictions of what’s described in the text. For example, in one of them, Adam and Eve are shown picking fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil together in a “gender-inclusive partnership,” Spagnolo said. (In the Biblical story, it is Eve who picks the forbidden fruit and offers it to Adam.)

In addition, one of two paintings showing the seventh day of creation includes what appears to Spagnolo to be a representation of the HIV virus — or of what Sherman might have thought the virus looked like in the late 1980s before advances in microscopic photography. Spagnolo consulted an epidemiologist and medical anthropologist in an attempt to confirm his suspicion, but he said it is impossible to know for sure.

Long before Sherman became ill, death was a constant theme in his work, according to art historian Leora Lev. “The Shoah and the 20th century AIDS Plague reflect and refract each other in his work, unencompassable losses, the Catastrophe, the Beast, an absence, a gutting, a mourning, a howl,” Lev, who is Sherman’s niece, writes in an essay accompanying the exhibition.

Sherman died in 1988, and Spagnolo said he hopes the exhibit brings renewed interest to his work.

“I hope visitors see how already in the 1980s, at a time of great trauma for the Bay Area community and the world, this artist was able to carry out a unique program of Jewish art that seemed to be unscathed by the prejudice against homosexuality and AIDS,” he said.

J. culture editor Andrew Esensten contributed to this article.

“In Twilight: Ori Sherman’s Creation”

Through Dec. 15. at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. The gallery is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Lauren Hakimi
Lauren Hakimi

Lauren Hakimi is a writer with bylines in the Forward, Alma, Lilith, Bon Appétit, CNN and more. She is also associate editor of New Voices Magazine.