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Issue 112 January-February 2008 RSS

How to Respond

Art History

A new book by Mark Godfrey examines how American abstract artists reacted to the Holocaust

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Introducing Abstraction and the Holocaust, Mark Godfrey considers what the reader might be given to expect of his book. Its title suggests a kind of polemic: that only abstract art can adequately respond to the Holocaust, an event that, in its ungraspable horror, could be considered beyond representation. No such polemic, however, is offered. Instead, this attentive and exhaustively researched book is ‘the history of abstraction in the United States’ and, in particular, an exploration of how American abstract artists have responded to the fact of the Nazi genocide.

It is important to emphasize the book’s repeated self-identification as art history rather than theory. Godfrey is careful not to delve too deeply into the murky waters of philosophical reflection on the consequences for art of the Holocaust. Godfrey examines how abstract artists have addressed the Holocaust and whether their works represent the best kind of response to it. One consequence of this insistence on a historical rather than theoretical perspective is that the book’s central category – abstraction – is ‘considered in a very expansive way’. This expansiveness allows for a significant breadth of reference and, in particular, enables Godfrey to consider forms that might initially not seem to be amenable to consideration under the rubric of abstraction. Thus, alongside accounts of painting, sculpture and architecture, he also considers Beryl Korot’s video installation Dachau 1974 (1974) and Susan Hiller’s multimedia work The J. Street Project (2002–5). Godfrey’s justifications for the inclusion of Korot and Hiller are cogently argued. Korot is seen to work in a tradition of abstract video art that emerged around the time of the completion of Dachau 1974, and Hiller’s photographs of street signs in Germany that include the word Jude (‘Jew’) are shown, in an argument that brings the apparent banality of German highways and byways into the orbit of abstraction, both ‘to emphasize and empty away the implications of the street names’.

If Godfrey’s book is a history, it is an importantly revisionist one, extending and modifying the understanding of ‘abstraction’ with which it works. Historical argument and reinterpretation are backed up here by many hours of research. Godfrey tracks down esoteric sources for artists’ work, is skilled at imagining his way into the often dully pragmatic process of the commissioning of art works and usefully deploys interviews with, for example, Peter Eisenman, the architect behind the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which opened to the public in 2005 in Berlin.

This wealth of information is not simply amassed; it is scrupulously attended to. In particular, the main strengths of this book are Godfrey’s powers of attention and, in places, of imagination or even speculation. Not only does he carefully deploy the historical, institutional and biographical context of the works that he considers, but he is also an accomplished commentator on the works themselves. At its best this attention becomes a kind of imagination. So, for example, the chapter on Barnett Newman’s cycle of 16 paintings ‘The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani’ (1958–66) begins by exploring the works in ‘the contingent circumstances of their first exhibition’ in the Guggenheim between April and June 1966 in order to imagine the ways in which the original viewer of these paintings would have been urged by them to ask a number of pressing questions about this European tragedy. Perhaps the best instance of Godfrey’s attention-cum-imagination, though, is his consideration of Louis I. Kahn’s proposal for a Memorial for the Six Million Jewish Martyrs (1966–72). Not only does Godfrey amply document the debates about this memorial, but, more impressively, he also imagines himself into the experience of being faced with, and surrounded by, the nine pillars of glass that were to make up this work. Imagining an experience might easily wheel off into implausible fantasy, but Godfrey’s chapter on Kahn’s monument is an engaging and persuasive evocation of a work that would have disturbed the very contours of normal experience itself.

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One might begin to wonder at this stage of the book – if not already, in the theoretically informed introduction and in the chapters on Morris Louis, Barnett Newman and Frank Stella – whether Godfrey’s guardedness about the theoretical ambitions of this book isn’t misplaced modesty. The attempt in the introduction, even as Theodor Adorno and Jean-François Lyotard are being invoked, to drive a wedge between Godfrey’s own perspective as an art historian and a philosophical perspective does set up something of a false opposition. Adorno intended Friedrich Schlegel’s apophthegm that ‘philosophy of art usually forgets one of two things: either the philosophy or the art’ as the epigraph for his unfinished Aesthetic Theory. Godfrey’s book, at its best, forgets neither; he is adept at correcting philosophical or theoretical opinion from the point of view of sustained experience of specific art works. Thus, for example, Fredric Jameson’s statement that video art excludes memory is corrected through close consideration of Korot’s work. Art historians (perhaps including Godfrey himself) might wish to take this as the triumph of particularizing art history over generalizing theory, but the best theory does not float above history – it is bound to it.

In fact, Godfrey is not shy of working with and adapting categories that invite philosophical reflection. This is especially the case with abstraction itself. The initial insistence on the expansiveness with which the term is to be deployed throughout the book might be thought to render it somewhat fuzzy. However, Godfrey manages to tread the lines demarcating abstraction from that which it is abstracted from. This is especially the case in his consideration of the commissions in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.. What is crucial to these works is their power to question – even to subvert – the monumental form of the museum itself. Thus, while Joel Shapiro’s two-part sculpture Loss and Regeneration (1993) is open to a number of figurative readings, these readings are precarious, taking on figurative allusiveness in order to ‘recast’ it. Indeed, this argument is central to Godfrey’s view of abstract art. Such art is not empty or non-signifying but has a specific relation to historical reality and to its particular setting. Moreover, abstract work invokes or invites numerous – but always precarious – significations.

This book does what it sets out to do: it provides a genuinely informative account of the way that American abstract artists have confronted the Holocaust. While the book’s main contribution is art-historical and, despite a number of important philosophical questions that are left acutely open-ended, it goes further than its self-imposed historical task. Abstraction and the Holocaust revises the concept of ‘abstraction’ and thus makes an important contribution to reflection on the nature of art in the wake of catastrophe.

Ross Wilson

Ross Wilson is Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow in the Faculty of English, Cambridge University, and a Fellow of Emmanuel College. He is the author of Subjective Universality in Kant’s Aesthetics (Lang, 2007) and of Theodor Adorno (Routledge, 2008).


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First published in
Issue 112, January-February 2008

by Ross Wilson

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