Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 28, 2008
Mark Godfrey Abstraction and the Holocaust New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007. 304 pp.; 40 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780300126761)

This past February, French President Nicolas Sarkozy aroused international controversy by revising the national school curriculum, requiring every fifth-grade student to “adopt” one of the 11,000 French children killed in the Holocaust by learning their story. The plan drew wide-ranging criticism for its pedagogical insensitivity and political opportunism. The terms in which Sarkozy framed his proposal––expressly affirming Judeo-Christian values––were especially inflammatory, given the traditional secularism of French governance and the intensity of ongoing debate around the politics of Islam. Less attention was devoted to a new German program in which middle-school classes will study the Holocaust using The Search, a graphic novel about deportations under the Nazi regime. In contrast with Sarkozy’s initiative, what was newsworthy about this project was its lack of controversy, due to the fact that it was introduced to meet increased interest from students themselves. If these episodes indicate the contemporary importance of memory-politics, they also suggest how extensively political and aesthetic considerations overlap in this arena. The Sarkozy proposal borrows its primary conceit—direct identification with a victim—from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), an institution whose means of address, as critics have noted, is quite close to that of Hollywood epics like Schindler’s List. The Search clearly invokes both Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Hergé’s popular series of Tintin comics. Thus, any attempt to gauge the broader impact of these educational programs clearly must engage their visual, narrative, and affective appeals.

But while such circuits between aesthetics, politics, and memory merit intensive attention, critical interventions will be compromised unless they effectively interrogate the very categories they mobilize. This need stems in part from the paradoxical success of the fields of memory and trauma studies, which have legitimated themselves as subdisciplines by defining their objects in terms that are occasionally subject to conceptual calcification. It is in this context that one can best assess Mark Godfrey’s valuable new study Abstraction and the Holocaust. The book questions received ideas from the outset in its choice of topic: abstract representations of the Holocaust in American art and architecture. Scholarship on abstraction and the Holocaust has typically privileged European production, considering informel painting in the postwar period or later contestations of this legacy in various returns to figuration. In contrast, work on American Holocaust memory has gravitated less toward the fine arts, instead favoring the moving image, the museum, and narrative. Godfrey’s approach breaks not only with these tendencies but also with the aversion that much contemporary criticism displays toward abstraction, owing to its perceived complicity with the exclusions of high modernism.

This is not to say that Godfrey intends a straightforward recuperation of modernist theory. As will become clear, his definition of abstraction does not permit this. Moreover, a central objective of the study is to overturn a key tenet of Clement Greenberg’s influential account of modernism: the view that historical reference is incompatible with abstraction, which is thought to have dialectically eliminated all such “literary” content. Greenberg himself has undergone a certain sublation, earning a dubious immortality as the favorite straw man of later critics. Godfrey’s attitude toward modernism is more nuanced. Eschewing the familiar model of a postmodernist turn, his readings instead register the displacement, transformation, and survival of modernist logics into the present. Though this raises provocative questions about periodization, the book tends not to pursue them explicitly or redefine abstraction more programmatically. Instead, its agenda remains relatively local, and is probably best understood alongside Godfrey’s critical investment in recent historically minded production by artists like Matthew Buckingham and Tacita Dean. In this light, the recovery of a referential abstraction suggests a genealogy for contemporary mnemonic works, positioning them within a larger migration of modernist auto-criticality from specific media to sites, discourses, and practices.

How, then, might abstraction be thought in this expanded field? Godfrey’s approach is to suspend the oppositions that typically structure the category—abstract/figurative and abstract/concrete––by selecting test cases that depict recognizable symbols, patterns, and objects. Instead he offers a definition comprising three overlapping but distinct operations. On this view, abstraction generates contingent, mutable meanings; it creates environments that encourage memory; and it acknowledges the conflicts inherent in representation, particularly regarding limit cases like the Holocaust. By articulating these three functions, Godfrey usefully disentangles the subject of Holocaust depiction from familiar, restrictive debates about unrepresentability. This model also avoids a troubling tendency within trauma studies: to depict historical trauma as a sort of negative sublime, conflating loss and absence while encouraging an alienated mode of aesthetic contemplation. Instead, abstraction is depicted as an active, pragmatic negotiation that inflects conventional forms in order to address the demands of circumstance.

Consistent with this view, Godfrey’s examples embody an expansive pluralism, spanning a wide range of practices from the early postwar period into the recent past. At times, his choices distinctly challenge conventional wisdom. With chapters devoted to Morris Louis, Barnett Newman, and Frank Stella, the book tweaks the sensibilities of anyone who might reflexively dismiss the formalism of such blue-chip modernists. Simultaneously, it means to show how critical celebration of these painters as paragons of modernism overlooked key aspects of their production. This becomes clear in the chapter on Louis’s Charred Journal: Firewritten series of 1951. Rather than view Louis’s process as a heroic, expressive, and solitary confrontation with his medium, Godfrey shows how the artist reflectively elaborated appeals to his audience concerning Jewish history and theology, citing the Nazi book burnings of 1933 and their contemporary echoes in the repression of the McCarthy era.

This discussion invites questions about how Greenberg’s exclusion of putatively “literary” work like the Journals reflected specific political constraints perceived by Partisan Review contributors and their ilk. Public figures on the Jewish left faced an array of pressures: to integrate into the New York cultural establishment, to renounce the uncritical Zionism that Greenberg termed “Jewish chauvinism,” and to negotiate the realignment and persecution of the American left. Such demands were partly responsible for Newman’s unwillingness to be viewed as solely a Jewish artist, which Godfrey links to the artist’s peculiar decision to transpose Holocaust memory into the idiom of the Christian Passion in his Stations of the Cross series (1958–66). If autonomous abstraction promised a means of skirting such dilemmas, this nevertheless came at a cost. As Godfrey astutely notes, the critical reception of Stella’s Polish Village paintings (1971–74) entirely missed their references to the names and architecture of destroyed Polish synagogues.

Godfrey’s plastic, capacious definition of abstraction also enables him to consider work that might easily have been overlooked, like Beryl Korot’s little-known video installation Dachau 1974 (1975). As Godfrey concedes, video might seem incompatible with his approach, given its default status as representational. Against this, he adeptly schematizes the installation’s internal logic and reflection on its own means of representation. Both abstraction and video are thus figured not as mediums or forms but as modes of encountering an audience. This usefully departs from longstanding, influential, and fundamentally misconceived diagnoses of video as narcissistic or amnesiac. Instead, it shows that video can indeed have an ethical vocation, deriving in part from the format’s ability to deliver intensively mediated communication with a high degree of perceived immediacy.

In this case, Korot’s piece scrutinized concentration camp memorialization, soliciting vicarious modes of identification, only to deny them. (An interesting parallel here would have been the analogous EXIT/Dachau project undertaken in 1972 by the German Jochen Gerz.) While this discussion is generative, it is hampered by its assumptions that video can straightforwardly depict or enable the processes of recollection. The relation between memory and mnemotechnics is more problematic than this, given the recursive relation between these agencies and their respective limitations. This oversight speaks to a larger problem with Godfrey’s argument, which is essentially about memory yet largely scants psychoanalytic accounts of the subject (the index contains thirteen entries for Fried, but none for Freud). One wonders, for example, what Godfrey’s account of mnemonic abstraction might have gained by considering the abstract character of memory itself: its formation and revision through condensation, displacement, and repression.

Despite this lapse, Godfrey’s research successfully underscores the crucial significance of public memory in chapters detailing three large-scale commissions: Louis Kahn’s planned Memorial to the Six Million Jewish Martyrs (1966–72); works by Joel Shapiro, Richard Serra, Ellsworth Kelly, and Sol LeWitt designed for the USHMM; and Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (1997–2005). These examples have much to contribute to our understanding of the recent and ongoing debates surrounding the memorialization of the September 11 attacks and the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site. One lesson of Kahn’s failed proposal for New York City’s first Holocaust memorial is that public memory inevitably overlaps with theological modes of identification. Kahn’s characteristically austere design was repeatedly compromised by demands for ritual spaces and more symbolic references to religious tradition. If Kahn’s critics denied the compatibility of abstraction with Holocaust memory, tastes had clearly changed by the 1990s, when the USHMM was inaugurated. Instead of defending abstraction, artists instead began to voice reservations about its instrumentalization. Godfrey addresses such concerns in explaining how the works in the museum inevitably assume the character of memorial art, only to disrupt some of the institution’s more questionable tendencies.

The book’s concluding discussion of the Eisenman memorial ventures a similar reading, but encounters difficulties. One is the architect’s explicit repudiation of abstraction. While this is plausibly cast as a terminological discrepancy, the ensuing account of the memorial’s abstract character sidesteps the key question of its relation to the complex history of Holocaust memory and counter-memory in Germany. This missed opportunity speaks to a more extensive limitation of Godfrey’s approach. Though the discussion does register certain relations between politics and memory, it insufficiently accounts for the politics of memory––the ways in which various mnemonic practices are themselves sites for the formation, consolidation, and contestation of hegemonic structures of affect. This results in a somewhat attenuated sense of the singular, overdetermined, and highly contingent position of the Holocaust in American public life.

Readers might finish the book impressed but left with unanswered questions: How was cultural production implicated in the ascendance of Holocaust memory to a form of civil religion? In what ways did it register the effects of this transformation or respond to shifts in American foreign policy? How did the increasing prominence of Holocaust representation function as a sort of screen memory, obscuring the recognition of crimes in which Americans bore more direct responsibility? Some discussion of the intense controversy surrounding Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem would have been welcome, given how the affair exposed neuralgic points in the intellectual milieu of figures like Louis, Newman, and Greenberg. One especially wishes there had been more critical analysis of the sacralization of Holocaust memory. However one regards the merits of Newman’s Stations, the work looks quite different in view of the subsequent, highly problematic tendency toward Christianized accounts of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel’s Night being the most familiar example. In a similar vein, more skepticism might have been warranted by Mel Bochner’s decision to frame his 1993 Via Tasso project with an epigraph referring to “the secrets of redemption.” Don’t such moves risk joining a sacralizing memory with a re-auraticized conception of the artwork? In these respects, the aesthetic emerges as a site where an altogether different sort of abstraction threatens to hold sway: an abstraction that reifies history by sanctimoniously invoking it, a gesture whose logic is complicit with the sort of political theology presumed by figures like Sarkozy. In this context one can’t help but recall Marx’s observation that a certain abstraction is the central mechanism of ideology. Given the many contributions of Godfrey’s study, it seems fair to note one that is probably incidental: its suggestion that these less salutary types of abstraction deserve equally thorough consideration.

Andrew S. Weiner
Assistant Professor of Art Theory and Criticism, Department of Art and Art Professions, New York University

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