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
Adelman, who came out at the age of 14, in 1994, questions the progress that has been made since the mid-1990s and wonders how younger queers “relate to the experience of the AIDS epidemic as something urgent and vital.” “Stelen (Columns),” he proposes, “offers a set of questions in regard to this: How do queers experience being haunted?” The notion that the LGBT experience now takes place in a “post-AIDS” era, he suggests, “is both fallacious and dangerous.” Drawing parallels in his broader artistic practice between the assimilation of European Jewry into American culture and the assimilationist shift within the LGBT movement that has taken place in the last decade, it is precisely the kind of challenging work, engaging with the ever-shifting terrain of identity formation, assimilation, passing, and forgetting, that a Jewish museum should be showing.
Adelman’s artistic process is inextricably linked to what his graduate-school mentor, artist Gregg Bordowitz, has termed a “queer structure of feeling.” But it is also informed by two years spent living in Germany, studying experimental theater and performance in Berlin. In a digital video from his MFA thesis at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Samstag Abend im Eagle (Saturday Night at the Eagle), 2007, the artist performs the intimate act of laying tefillin (phylacteries), a marker of male adulthood, while investigating the internal narrative of an evening spent picking up a man in a leather bar (the Eagle). While some might raise objections to the transgressive acts in the work, for the artist it was the first time he synthesized the experience of what it meant to be a “queer Jew.”
“I attended minyan with a grade-school friend the year leading up to my Bar Mitzvah, and we both laid tefillin on a weekly basis,” the artist recalled, “It’s an ancient ritual that I find fascinating particularly as a gay man because it involves a constellation of themes in regard to queerness that I have continued to engage with: faith, memory, the shift from childhood into adulthood in relationship to sexuality, the intense feelings that one goes through in coming to terms with various modes of alterity,” or otherness. The repetitive act of wrapping one’s body in leather, and “doing all this in the company of other men,” he observed, “all of these things seemed to relate albeit obliquely to queer rituals around cruising, sex, leather culture, and fetishism, and how one modulates private desires in public life.” It was, according to Adelman, “a means by which one creates a certain set of strategies in facing oppression.”
These themes also clearly drove the creation of Stelen (Columns), a layered, complex, original, and utterly fascinating work from a relatively young San Francisco-based artist, and raises challenging questions about the transformation of sacred spaces of memory and atrocity, the shifting definitions of public and private space, and the uncomfortable commingling of sex, desire, and longing that has transformed the Holocaust memorial, for some, into a gay cruising ground. The Jewish Museum exhibit in which it was featured is a compact and focused show, curated by a talented young Jewish Museum curatorial assistant, Rachel Furnari, featuring work by seven contemporary artists whose wide-ranging explorations of the complicated intersections of national, ethnic, and sexual identities are central to their artistic practice. Adelman was the youngest and least established artist in the show. His work was included alongside Israeli artists Adi Nes and Rona Yefman, and North American artists Gloria Bornstein, AA Bronson, Debbie Grossman, and Collier Schorr. The Jewish Museum acquisition of Stelen (Columns) for their permanent collection represents the first purchase of Adelman’s work by a public institution.
Although the work was acquired through the museum’s Photography Acquisitions Fund, and the purchase and inclusion in the show were subject to the museum’s notoriously rigorous review process, the photography acquisitions committee members, who funded the purchase, were not informed that it was removed from the wall, according to multiple sources involved with the museum. Mason Klein, the only curator in the country to hold the position of “photography curator” at a Jewish museum, has worked diligently over the past several years to increase the presence and role of the medium in the museum’s collection and on its walls, to the profound betterment of the institution and the cultural relevance of Jewish museums. He declined, through Scher, to comment for this piece. When asked if museum trustees were notified if the work was going to be removed prior to, or after, the work was removed, Scher replied, “Prior to the removal of the artwork, the issues that were raised were brought to the attention of the Museum’s Chairman of the Board of Trustees”—a maneuver that does not include the rest of the board or the members of the photography committee that had moved to acquire the work for the collection. Indeed, according to numerous sources, very few people were privy to the decision-making process to remove the work in its entirely (the earlier decision to substitute one portrait for another, at the request of the artist, seems to have involved a number of conversations with various staff members).
No stranger to the jarring experience of artwork being removed from a show, Jonathan D. Katz, co-curator of the now-infamous National Gallery exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” (2010), was thrust into the media spotlight when members of the Catholic League successfully agitated, with the vociferous help of right-wing U.S. Representative (and celebrated avocational art critic) John Boehner, to remove a work by artist and activist David Wojnarowicz from the exhibition. Facing threats to their federal funding, the Smithsonian made the controversial decision to remove Wojnarowicz’s film A Fire in My Belly (1986-87)—which included a brief scene of ants crawling on a crucifix, a reference to the AIDS epidemic that ultimately cost the artist his life—from “Hide/Seek.” The decision to remove the work, which was made without consulting Katz, caused a national uproar, with several prominent museums throughout the country, including the New Museum and International Center of Photography in New York, Boston’s ICA, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia’s ICA (headed, at the time, by the Jewish Museum’s current director), mounting Wojnarowicz’s film in acts of defiance against censorship. “The removal of any work of art is a form of silencing, and silencing is active and repressive, but also deeply ironic,” Katz astutely observed, in an email exchange about the removal Adelman’s work. “The irony is that nothing—and I say this from personal experience—guarantees any work more prominent a voice than trying to silence it. The one benefit silencing conveys is that the thought process spurred by the work will now take place not in the individual minds of viewers, but in the collective mind of our very public press, guaranteeing difficult ideas a far greater audience.” While the circumstances and decisions surrounding the removal of Adelman’s and Wojnarowicz’s work are worlds apart—the former was presumably a reaction to threats of legal action and the latter a move intended to avoid cuts in federal funding—in every circumstance museums are tasked with uncompromising vigilance when it comes to protecting their right to exhibit whatever work they deem fit for display and to take responsibility for the seriousness of any attempt to impinge upon freedom of speech or remove artwork from their walls. While the threat of a lawsuit might require that a museum conduct an internal review to ensure that it is not potentially liable for the conduct at issue, it should not take down work in the hopes that a possible lawsuit, that may well be meritless, will go away.
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