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New York Times
January 29, 2002, Tuesday


CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK; Jewish Museum Show Looks Nazis in the Face 
and Creates a Fuss


Two months before it will open, a contemporary art exhibition that uses
Nazi imagery and was organized by the Jewish Museum is making some tempers
boil. Holocaust survivors and their families have pronounced the show
vulgar and repugnant, while Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the
Anti-Defamation League, recently told a reporter that such an exhibition
was at least premature while survivors were still alive who might be

"Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art" will feature 13 artists:
American, European and Israeli; four of them Jewish; mostly in their late
30's and 40's. The show's idea, the museum says, is to bring together works
using images of Nazis and the Holocaust that focus not on the victims but
on the perpetrators for a change. In so doing, the art is supposed to show
how evil has been trivialized and fetishized and how artists are using
parody and provocation to try to keep the Nazi past alive as an issue for
new generations like their own.

Detractors see it as just another "Sensation," but pushing the buttons of
Jews this time instead of Roman Catholics. "Sensation" was the 1999 show
at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that offended some Catholics, including
former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, because of an image of the Virgin Mary
adorned with elephant dung. This time it's Jews who are asking why the
Jewish Museum, of all places, should present art that offends Jews.
I won't review a show that hasn't taken place, but some questions have come
up and beg for comment now.

The brief descriptions of works in the show that have caused the most
outrage include faux Lego boxes with photographs on the front of Nazi camps
built out of Lego blocks by a Polish artist, Zbigniew Libera. A 1998 work
called "Giftgas Giftset" by the American Tom Sachs includes cardboard
imitation gas canisters festooned with Chanel and Tiffany logos. You may
recall that Mr. Sachs, who has exhibited handmade guns and airplane
toilets, put live 9-millimeter cartridges in a vase for visitors to take
from Mary Boone's gallery during his solo show there in 1999, landing Ms.
Boone, festooned in her own chic sleeveless orange dress and high-heel
shoes, briefly in jail.

Also scheduled to be in "Mirroring Evil" is Alan Schechner's Web-based
work featuring him holding a can of Diet Coke among inmates photographed at
Buchenwald by Margaret Bourke-White. And there will be some collages by an
Austrian artist, Elke Krystufek, of herself nude beside pictures of movie
stars portraying Nazis. They were borrowed from another work in the show by
Piotr Uklanski, an installation of film stills and promotional photographs
of actors like Dirk Bogarde, Clint Eastwood, Max von Sydow and Frank

It has not been lost on officials at the Jewish Museum that sight unseen
the show has probably infuriated some of the people who have helped make
"The Producers" Broadway's hottest ticket. Years ago "Hogan's Heroes,"
set in a World War II P.O.W. camp with comical German guards, was a popular
sitcom. Standards vary. All is not fair in the culture wars. Such is the
burden on a museum tackling touchy work.

Rattled by the firestorm, the museum has lately responded with lists of
Jewish scholars and others it consulted while putting the show together,
including James Young, an expert on Holocaust memorials; Fanya Gottesfeld
Heller, a Holocaust survivor and museum trustee; and Rabbi Irwin Kula of
the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Taking the unusual step of questioning the motives of an institutional
colleague, the museum has even released a statement enumerating the reasons

the exhibition differs from "Sensation." "Sensation," the statement
says, "faced questions about conflicts of interest," "proposed no
curatorial viewpoint," was widely understood as "an effort to increase
attendance and admissions revenue" and "played on the exhibition's
title" to promise "a (supposedly welcome) sense of outrage." "Mirroring
Evil," by contrast, "proposes a complex set of ideas." If the Jewish
Museum were just out to make money, it "could more reliably drive
admissions by mounting another Chagall or Pissarro exhibition," the
statement says. A spokesman for the Brooklyn Museum said it had no comment
in response.

Not that Jewish Museum officials go so far as to say that the art in
"Mirroring Evil" is necessarily good. When I asked Joan Rosenbaum, the
Jewish Museum director, about lending the museum's imprimatur to the work
simply by showing it, the way all art museums implicitly do when they show
anything, she demurred: "This is art with a message, political art, so
we're not talking about aesthetic issues, by and large. It's art that
provokes discussion. We're reporting on this trend, we're interpreting the

She added, "We're endorsing the goals of the work to make us think how
easy it is to put distance between our lives in the present and what
occurred in the past." She endorses the "goals of the work," she said;
she did not say she endorsed the work.

A couple of years ago, at a public forum about "Sensation" in which we
both participated, I recall Ms. Rosenbaum being heatedly asked by someone
in the audience whether she would consider exhibiting art about the
Holocaust that offended Jews. Yes, she replied, if the context was right.
The museum does exhibitions of contentious art supplemented by elaborate
explanatory labels to provide context, she said. The timing was
interesting. The museum had already acquired Mr. Libera's Lego work.
"Mirroring Evil" was already germinating as an exhibition idea.

Its curator is Norman L. Kleeblatt, who put together "Too Jewish" several
years ago, about how young Jewish American artists, generations removed
from the Holocaust, identify themselves as Jewish in their art. Among the
work was part of Elaine Reichek's ersatz re-creation of her childhood
bedroom, with stock Colonial wallpaper discreetly stamped with a Jewish
star and linen hand towels inscribed with J.E.W. The joke was disturbing
because the simple word Jew was provocative in a way WASP would not be.
Jews are not all that assimilated in American society after all, the show
implied. The art wasn't great, but the exhibition was stimulating and

The 53-year-old son of Jewish refugees from Germany and the grandson and
great-grandson of Jews killed in the camps, Mr. Kleeblatt noticed more
recently that artists, Jewish and otherwise, have been producing works that
look at the Nazi period "in a radically different -- indeed disturbing --
way." These artists have "turned from what has become a standard focus on
the often anonymous victims and instead stared directly at the
perpetrators," Mr. Kleeblatt writes in the catalog for "Mirroring Evil."

"More important, they created works in which viewers would encounter the
perpetrators face to face in scenarios in which ethical and moral issues
cannot be easily resolved."

He and Ms. Rosenbaum have lately been stressing that the show will address
those issues, among other ways, through a video of Holocaust survivors
reacting to the art, some of them presumably critically, and in panel
discussions with survivors, artists and Jewish scholars. And then there is
the catalog.

The catalog caused a small stir at a reading at the museum in late
November. This was brought to the attention of a Wall Street Journal
reporter earlier this month; she then got a copy of the catalog and
contacted outraged survivors and Jewish scholars. VoilE0, a controversy.
As if hopefully, "Mirroring Evil" was instantly declared by the media to
be the next "Sensation," the Jewish Museum show fortuitously filling the
void for public scandal suddenly left by the expiration of Mr. Giuliani's
ill-planned decency panel. But "Mirroring Evil" is not "Sensation." The
Jewish Museum is right about that.

Courting trouble will no doubt increase the Jewish Museum's box office,
even if not the way a Chagall show would. Still, there's no debate this
time about withholding public money from the museum. There is no question
of a particular private collector exploiting a public institution. There is
no First Amendment debate. Even outspoken detractors of the show like
Menachem Z. Rosensaft of the International Network of Children of Jewish
Holocaust Survivors, who have threatened boycotts, among other things,
aren't questioning the museum's legal right to do what it wants.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (who resigned as vice chairman of the museum's
board last month to avoid a conflict of interest, which means that, like
other trustees, he was sent information about the show while it was being
planned) announced through a spokesman that while he didn't plan to go to
the exhibition, he wasn't in the business of dictating to museums what they
can or can't display. The mayor was busy in Albany yesterday and his press
office said it did not know whether he had looked at the information while
he was on the board.

When the Whitney Museum of American Art organized "Black Male" a few
years ago, it offended some blacks who thought the art reinforced
stereotypes; they considered the Whitney a white museum exploiting a
hot-button black issue. The Studio Museum in Harlem might be able to deal
with this difficult subject, but not the Whitney.

Maybe that argument constituted another sort of stereotyping, institutional
instead of racial, but it is the argument for the Jewish Museum to present
"Mirroring Evil." Context matters. As Ms. Rosenbaum puts it: "We provide
a context that the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim can't. The
presence of our permanent exhibition, which locates the Holocaust in Jewish
history, and the fact that were are an art museum that interprets Jewish
culture, provides a context that lets us take risks and deal with daring
works. We show this work precisely because we are the Jewish Museum,
because it is part of our mission, which is to look at everything about
Jewish culture that is expressed through art."

So we'll see about "Mirroring Evil" in March. Leafing through the
catalog, I noticed that, by way of providing bona fides for the art, an
essay cites Gerhard Richter, the important German painter. In the 1960's
Richter juxtaposed photographs of tangled corpses from the death camps with
pictures clipped from pornographic magazines as part of his vast compendium
of scavenged images called "Atlas." The juxtaposition seemed to ask:
Where is the line between historical inquiry and obscene gaze? And are
Holocaust images respectable pornography?

The catalog failed to note, however, that "Atlas" is really a kind of
continuing public diary in which Richter reveals the sources that he has
contemplated turning into paintings but does not always use. He ultimately
declined to use the Holocaust. He decided it would be cheap and obvious.


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