Visu­al Arts

Abstrac­tion and the Holocaust

Mark God­frey
  • Review
By – March 9, 2012

Abstrac­tion and the Holo­caust is a schol­ar­ly exam­i­na­tion of works of sev­er­al artists, an archi­tect, a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, and a video­g­ra­ph­er, which were inspired by the cat­a­stroph­ic geno­ci­dal poli­cies of Nazi Ger­many in World War II. In under­tak­ing the project the author, Mark God­frey, who teach­es at the Slade School of Art of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don, sought to com­pre­hend and make com­pre­hen­si­ble the non­rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al works as they relate to philo­soph­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal ideas of abstrac­tion as well as how they depict— abstract­ly — the Holo­caust itself. The first part of the book con­cen­trates on works cre­at­ed in the first twen­ty-five years after the war by a few of the best known prac­ti­tion­ers of abstrac­tion: Mor­ris Louis, Bar­nett New­man, and Frank Stel­la. Entire chap­ters are devot­ed to Louis’ Charred Jour­nal: Firewrit­ten paint­ings of 1951, Newman’s The Sta­tions of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani (19581966), and Stella’s Pol­ish Vil­lage series of the ear­ly 1970’s. In these mas­ter­ful paint­ings and mixed media, fre­quent­ly only the title defin­i­tive­ly estab­lish­es their theme. 

The sec­ond part of the book deals with com­mis­sioned memo­ri­als (some unre­al­ized), the work of the video artist/​activist Beryl Korot (Dachau 1974), the fas­ci­nat­ing Via Tas­so project by Mel Bochn­er, and con­cludes with a chap­ter on Peter Eisenmann’s Memo­r­i­al to the Mur­dered Jews of Europe (1997 – 2005) and Susan Hiller’s The J. Street Project (2002 – 2005), both exe­cut­ed in Berlin. While the lat­ter is not abstract it is moti­vat­ed by an abstract idea (J. Street = Juden­strasse, the street of the Jews – with­out Jews}.

This ambi­tious trea­tise is based on a vast amount of research. The author’s unique per­spec­tive gives the wide-rang­ing sub­ject mat­ter some cohe­sive­ness, but this read­er felt it could have been two sep­a­rate books. Nev­er­the­less, the dis­cus­sions and the exten­sive foot­notes and bib­li­og­ra­phy make this an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to analy­ses of both the art and the memo­ri­al­iz­ing of the Holo­caust. 100b/​w +40 col­or illus.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions