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.”
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.
Shortly after Adelman’s work was taken down on the afternoon of May 7—a small note, informing the public that the work had been “temporarily” removed, was posted on the wall—another work from the permanent collection, Israeli artist Nir Hod’s I Swear (1997), a work that engages with many of the central themes of “Composed,” was hung on the wall in its place, and any mention of Adelman’s work was removed. (Ironically, Hod’s own recent controversial exhibition of paintings is based on the appropriation of an iconic Holocaust image.) I Swear is a large color photograph of a cross-dressing Israeli soldier (the artist), wearing shiny red lipstick, long black locks of hair, a uniform and tie, holding one leather-gloved hand to her chest while the other clutches a gold necklace, a blingy Jewish star dangling above a Tanach, or Hebrew Bible (on which the soldier “swears”), and a gun. Red wax candles adorn the table. I Swear has been in the museum’s permanent collection for some time and had been passed over when the checklist for “Composed” was finalized.
The Jewish Museum has a venerable history of tackling difficult ideas by mounting ambitious, bold, and experimental exhibitions, best exemplified by the vision of legendary chief curator Norman Kleeblatt, whose conversation-changing exhibitions, from the landmark “The Dreyfus Affair” (1987) to “Action/Abstraction” (2008) were among the best shows curated by anyone, anywhere, in those years. Kleeblatt has also curated some of the Jewish Museum’s most provocative and challenging shows, including “Too Jewish?” (1996) and “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art” (2002), a brave and challenging exhibition that was quickly enveloped in a maelstrom of controversy. According to Carole Zawatsky, then-director of education at the Jewish Museum and now CEO of the JCC in Washington, D.C., the museum did a tremendous amount of due diligence in anticipation of some of the reactions to the show, and a conversation space was developed as an integral part of the exhibition that included controversial (and often maligned) artist Tom Sachs’ Prada Death Camp, a model of Auschwitz constructed from a Prada hatbox, which drew upon the artist’s association of fashion to fascism. At the time, the Jewish Museum stood by its decision to exhibit the controversial work and never removed it, nor any of the other contested works—even as protesters, including a group of survivors, positioned themselves outside the museum’s doors.
Whatever the lawyers might have to say about it, the notion that pictures posted on a free and open Internet website such as GayRomeo will always remain private seems absurd as a matter of common sense. Within seconds of entering the site, I was able to view tens of thousands of men’s profiles and pictures and did not need to register nor pay a membership fee to do so. If one wishes to post a profile, the process asks for basic information to be provided: fetish preferences, publicly listing one’s penis size, willingness to participate in various sexual acts and the manner in which one prefers to do so, fluency in various languages, if one’s penis is circumcised, and (perhaps the most intimate and consequential disclosure of all) whether safe sex is a priority. This basic introductory information pops up alongside numerous profile pictures, many of which are extremely graphic. Rooks’ profile picture, and those of 149 other men, including that of the artist himself, are, by comparison, among the tamest things that one might find on GayRomeo.
Given the public nature of these very personal declarations, it’s hard to imagine how a fully clothed portrait of a man standing in front of a deconstructivist memorial sculpture in Berlin, posted on a site that requires no membership fee and has tens or hundreds of thousands of visitors at any given moment, was somehow an invasion of his privacy. At what point, one might ask, does one relinquish the reasonable expectation of privacy? Practically speaking, this is a question ultimately for lawyers. But it is also a prime opportunity missed by the Jewish Museum—regardless of whether they ultimately decided to remove the work. The intersection of photography, the Internet, and appropriation of other people’s likeness raises complicated legal and ethical questions. What, for example, are reasonable expectations of privacy on the Internet? What is the artist’s role in creating art within an ever-shifting legal landscape and expanding online bank of images, and what are the limits of a museum’s obligations to protect and defend the artwork and artist? Ironically, Adelman’s work, which astutely grapples with questions concerning the conflated spheres of public and private life that are at the heart of the objections raised by Rooks, could have provided a springboard for addressing these very current issues.
The removal of work sets a dangerous precedent. If the decision was based on a fear of legal action, then the Jewish Museum should have worked with their counsel to find a way to keep the artwork in place. If it had to be removed, then a public conversation should have followed. This is the role of the museum: to protect and defend the artist and the artwork and to provide a space for open discussion about sometimes conflicting and overlapping contemporary concerns. Few things are more relevant to contemporary culture than the evolving role of the Internet, and concurrent shifting notions of public space, as they relate to contemporary artistic practice. With less than two weeks remaining before “Composed” closes, I can only hope that the Jewish Museum will reinstall Adelman’s Stelen (Columns), so that a public discussion can be had about the important questions that were raised by its removal.
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