In the Jewish Museum’s Closet
The museum removed photos of gay men at Berlin’s Holocaust memorial from an exhibit on sex and identity
In an act of censorship that was surely intended to go unnoticed, in early May the Jewish Museum in New York abruptly removed a provocative photography installation by artist Marc Adelman from its current exhibition, “Composed: Identity, Politics, Sex,” without any announcement or explanation. The work, titled Stelen (Columns), 2007-2011, consists of a compilation of 150 found individual portraits of men at Peter Eisenman’s 2005 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. The photographs were then used as profile shots by the men in question on GayRomeo.com, a gay dating site, where Adelman appropriated them. The installation, purchased and exhibited by the Jewish Museum, consisted of 50 of these 150 individually framed portraits, each measuring only 3.5 by 2.5 inches, and hung in a tight grid. The museum’s press release—which lavished special attention on Stelen (Columns)—asserted that the “pictures juxtapose casually posed, flirtatious figures with the severe abstract forms of the memorial,” thereby exploring “the provocative transformation of a site of reverence into a social space where public remembrance collides with private desires.”
But, according to Artinfo, trouble began when a German man named Tim Rooks discovered that his posted profile image was used in the work after reading about it in a brief Huffington Post review of “Composed.” Rooks told the LGBT-oriented Bay Area Reporter that “even without my name attached numerous people saw it and knew who I was”—and threatened legal action. When initially contacted by Rooks, the museum promptly consulted with Adelman, who asked that the museum substitute another portrait in the series for Rooks’ profile portrait; the substitution was made on April 26. Adelman offered an apology to Rooks—explaining that “it was never his intention to create a stressful situation for anyone in regard to the project”—and removed Rooks’ image from his own website. Adelman took the further step of adding a note to his website, assuring that “Any image will be removed from the series upon request.”
Since the Jewish Museum’s Stelen (Columns) consists of 50 selected images from the larger group of 150 profile portraits, the initial substitution—according to the artists and the museum, done at the request of the artist and in collaboration with the curators—did not affect the integrity of the work. But on May 7, the Jewish Museum took the entire installation down. “The Jewish Museum’s Director and several senior managers, including one with curatorial oversight decided to remove the Adelman work from view,” Anne Scher, the Jewish Museum’s Director of Communications, wrote in an email, declining to clarify whether the decision involved any actual curators.
The decision to remove a work of art is an action so rarely taken that all of the major museums I contacted, including MoMA and LACMA, could not recollect an instance in which an artwork was removed from the walls of an exhibition (conservation and provenance issues aside). Disconcertingly, Scher claimed in her initial email that “as issues have been raised with respect to this work, in consultation with Mr. Adelman, we have removed Stelen (Columns) from the in-gallery exhibition and images from the work from our website.” But Douglas Robbins, Adelman’s attorney, told Tablet that Adelman was decidedly not consulted. “The museum took down the work on their own,” he told me. “Mr. Adelman has had little to no dialogue with the museum since the removal of the work.” When asked about this discrepancy, Scher tweaked the museum’s official line in a subsequent email: “Before we decided to remove Stelen (Columns) from view in the exhibition, we had a conversation with Mr. Adelman.”
It is easy to see why the juxtaposition of gay-dating profile shots with a solemn memorial to the murdered victims of the Holocaust struck Adelman as provocative—and why his reframing of those images might provoke strong reactions in viewers. Surely the men who took flirty posed shots in front of a Holocaust memorial and posted them on GayRomeo did not expect to end up on the walls of the Jewish Museum. It is also easy to see how some of the Jewish Museum’s board members and trustees may have been made queasy by the legal implications of Adelman’s appropriation of semi-public material, or by the work itself. A public conversation about artistic freedom, protection of intellectual property, and the free flow of information on the Internet, as well as the role of a museum in navigating the tensions between these values, might have made the museum a place of informative and innovative discussion and debate, even if the museum administration chose—for whatever reasons—to take the work down. The Jewish Museum might have also chosen to state that its initial decision to show the work was wrong, on aesthetic or moral-historical grounds, and explained why. Instead, they chose to instruct staff to quietly take down a work of art and hope that no one noticed.
The Monument to Homosexual Holocaust Victims, in Berlin’s central Tiergarten, consists of a single pillar, nearly 12 feet high and 6 feet wide. Located just opposite the Memorial to the Murdered Jewish of Europe, the site underscores how the lives of Jews and homosexuals were both transformed by persecution and loss under the Nazi regime. “It’s a central aspect to both cultures,” Adelman observed in an email exchange, “and one that has greatly influenced my understanding of the images that comprise Stelen and their relationship to the cultural history of HIV and AIDS. … The Stelen series addresses sexuality vis-a-vis time; we can’t think about queer sexuality without thinking about temporality.”
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