Making the Heart Seize

Contemporary Art Delivers an Emotional Wallop in New Exhibit

By Bonnie Friedman

Published May 09, 2003, issue of May 09, 2003.
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Each piece at the Jewish Museum’s new exhibit, “Contemporary Art/Recent Acquisitions,” encourages a kind of absorbed study and many of them, once surrendered to, deliver a real emotional wallop.

This is refreshing. Many of us are left cold by contemporary art, which can seem antiseptic, broody, narcissistic. But among the pieces on display through July 27 — all 19 of which were created after 1975 and acquired by the museum in the past two years — you will find some so strong that they transcend the qualities that make so much recent art off-putting. Yes, there are the stark galleries with echoey voices from video-art next door wallowing through like an underwater version of a stranger’s psychotherapy. And yes, there is the occasional confrontation with an almost-exhibitionistic nude. But if you can get past these banalities of the contemporary art scene, the show will reward you with some tremendously satisfying and significant emotional experiences, experiences that reflect the contemporary and recent plight of what it is to be a Jew.

Two archetypal photos usher us into Fred Wilson’s piece “H RR R and H PE” (the Os have been obliterated from his title). One photo shows two skeletal men in striped clothing lying exhausted on the hay-covered ground of a concentration camp, while the second features bony, dark-eyed, World War II-era children standing aboard ship in New York’s harbor, each child waving an American flag. Beside each photo is a replica covered almost entirely by a white matte, with a small window exposing a square of stripes from the flags in the first picture and a square of stripes from the clothing in the second. The stripes look identical. How infuriating, you might think, equating the American flag with Holocaust clothing.

And then one turns the gallery corner to see walls covered with more white mattes, each exposing tiny details of pictures: daisies on a bedspread, shadows of people walking in file along a road, Jewish stars forming a decorative fence. On a shelf against a third wall rests a white plastic notebook. Glancing inside is almost earth-shattering, for this notebook contains a list of descriptions for the full pictures that cannot be seen: “#536: Atrocities: A field of bodies (1945),” “#538: Atrocities: GI Among the Bodies (1945),” “#542: Atrocities: Bodies Awaiting Burial (1945).” And you learn that the pictures are taken from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s photo archives.

The mattes that blanket the pictures now seem to refer to the passage of time — how it blinds, blots out, leaves only perhaps a suggestive, misunderstood and even manipulative detail. Who remembers the daisies on the bedspread, the shadows along the roadside? And what actually do they mean? It’s hard to tear oneself away from the poignant white notebook. So many horrors simply filed under “A.” So much one has already forgotten, forgotten somehow before even learning it.

In contrast, Ori Gersht’s video of an Arab village seen from across the border, from the Jewish quarter of Nazareth, is lyrical and uplifting. One comes upon a dark screen that shows what seems to be a glittering starry sky. The air brightens, and those stars turn out to be tiny lights in windows. As the sun grows stronger, you can see the particular homes of a lovely village. It is almost picture-book pretty, pastel-pink and white, yet impossibly far away. How unnerving it is to see the loveliness of this enemy-ridden place — or if not enemy-ridden, than at least verboten, across the border, washed out now by the intense light of midafternoon only to emerge disturbingly, achingly again at dusk as the lights in windows begin to glimmer again.

Many other pieces in this show of contemporary work evoke strong emotional responses. Horst Hoheisel’s “Crushed History” consists of clear plastic bags holding the debris from Gestapo buildings that were destroyed in 1997. Something about seeing the actual stuff of the buildings — these bonelike rocks, these shards of brown wood — makes one’s heart seize. So, you think, it was all true.

But it is Robert Longo’s commanding charcoal-drawing of the stairway up to Freud’s apartment — based on a snapshot taken just before Freud fled Austria — that dominates the gallery. Freud’s stairway, inevitably resonant of the unconscious, of secret passages and desperate hopes, here also seems to echo with the mood of imminent eviction. And it calls to mind the feeling of revisiting a corridor in one’s own old neighborhood, the chipped tile landings, the gloomy halls, the sense that you lost something here that you are only now realizing.

Bonnie Friedman is the author of “The Thief of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy.”

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