Springtime for Hitler

A New Exhibit at the Jewish Museum Produces an Uproar

This spring, the exploration of Third Reich imagery reaches critical mass. Triumph of the Will, the infamous 1934 film made by Hitler's favorite propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl, ends its month-long run in a Chelsea gallery this week. Jake and Dinos Chapman's Holocaust opus, titled Hell—which turned the tables on the old atrocities with a swastika-shaped concentration-camp centerpiece and huge photos of small sculpted Nazis tumbling into mass graves—is still fresh in our minds from P.S.1. So is MacDermott and MacGough's installation at PHAG, which—replete with pink triangles, swastikas, and other loaded symbols—used replicas of dandified Hitler portraits to memorialize gay victims of the Holocaust and link the lethal homophobia of the Third Reich to Nazi homoeroticism. And enough unnerving references to the Hitler years have cropped up in the work of other young artists lately to make one wonder what's provoking this.

Jewish Museum curator Norman Kleeblatt, who organized "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," the already controversial exhibition opening March 17 at the Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Avenue, 423-3200; also see Richard Goldstein's "Managing the Unmanageable," page 42), spotted the trend early. He observed that over the past half a dozen years, Nazi evil emerged as a shared iconography among artists who are a couple of generations removed from those awful times. His tightly focused show of recent works by 13 brave young artists from eight different countries—including Israel, Austria, Poland, and Germany—promises a serious exploration of this phenomenon. Himself the child of a family decimated by the Holocaust, he was also quick to notice that these artists were doing a disturbing about-face. As a catalog text notes, "They turned from what has become a standard focus on the often anonymous victims and instead stared directly at the perpetrators."

MacDermott and MacGough and the Chapman twins, along with David Levinthal and Art Spiegelman, are absent from the exhibition, which features newer and younger artists such as Alain Séchas, Mat Collishaw, Elke Krystufek, Tom Sachs, and Maciej Toporowicz, along with Scottish artist Christine Borland, whose sculpture-by-proxy invites us to imagine the face of Mengele, and Israeli artist Roee Rosen, who lures us into the mind of Eva Braun.

The men we love to hate: a detail of Piotr Ulanski's The Nazis
photo: Adam Reich
The men we love to hate: a detail of Piotr Ulanski's The Nazis

It also includes Polish artist Zbigniew Libera's LEGO Concentration Camp Set, which scandalized Poland a few years back, and Piotr Uklanski's The Nazis, an installation of 123 publicity photos of Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Fiennes, and other actors playing Nazi officers in films, which caused an even bigger scandal in Poland last year. Exhibited in Warsaw at the national gallery, The Nazis provoked one Polish actor—who, pictured in Nazi regalia, was part of Uklanski's piece—to don the costume of an 18th-century Polish patriot and, with TV crew in tow, to destroy the offending image of himself with his prop-room sword. Media madness ensued. Further fueled by the appearance of Maurizio Cattelan's sculpture of the pope (felled by a meteorite) in the next exhibition, members of Poland's parliament, casting anti-Semitic slurs, demanded the museum director's resignation.

Exploring moral ambiguities and role reversals, testing the limits of taste, irony, and representation, the works in the Jewish Museum exhibition raise tough questions about the porous borders between impersonation and collusion, critique and collaboration, oppression and repression, sensationalism and exorcism, and radical evil and radical innocence. Conceptual art that seems to make light of the modern century's heaviest subject raises complicated issues while shattering taboos. Says a museum spokesperson: "We're not doing this to create controversy. If we wanted to do an exhibition to get lines around the block we would just do another Chagall or Pissarro show."

Never mind the impeccable venue. Never mind the Jewish Museum's careful context supporting this show, which will include introductory videos, lectures, panel discussion, films, probing catalog essays, and screenings of films such as The Night Porter and The Damned. Never mind that books, plays, and comedians (from Charlie Chaplin to Roberto Benigni) have been making light of Nazi villains for decades. People who vie for tickets to The Producers reach for their metaphorical revolvers when visual art is involved—art they haven't even looked at. And so once again, with knee-jerk righteousness, those who should know better are attacking a curator, a museum, and an exhibition—sight unseen. Is it "the inexorable complexity of ethics" or our homegrown version of aesthetic intolerance and blind prejudice? If there's anything we ought to have learned from the Nazi experiment, which besmirched the whole notion of the utopian dream, it's that you'd better watch out before you attempt to purify a culture, especially a culture in which evil, the E-word, is the hottest subject around.

March 7-April 20
Roth Horowitz Gallery, 160a East 70th Street, 717-9067

This always surprising, process-oriented artist's first photographs in color were, as usual, made without a camera and involved abrasion, erosion, and a wide range of chemical reactions. (Aletti)

March 7-April 27
Sperone Westwater, 121 Greene Street, second floor, 431-3685

"Marble Floors," a group of photo works in which the Belgian artist used salami, mortadella, and other cold cuts to re-create baroque and Islamic floor patterns. Done before Cloaca, they exude hammy perfection. (Levin)

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