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MoMa Catalog Omits Artist’s Nazi Grandfather

Should Isa Genzken’s exhibit material make the connection? Experts disagree.

Batya Ungar-Sargon
November 21, 2013
Installation from Isa Genzken: Retrospective. (Museum of Modern Art)
Installation from Isa Genzken: Retrospective. (Museum of Modern Art)

On Saturday, November 23, the MoMa opens its retrospective of German artist Isa Genzken. Genzken, who was once married to Gerhard Richter, is one of Germany’s most important artists. Her work handles themes such as post war Germany and the alienation of city life with vibrancy, color, scale, and a rage that is somehow mediated through whimsy, making her work insist on its place in the world with all the flamboyance and personality of the artist herself. Among the pieces showing in the retrospective from the different periods of Genzken’s over thirty-year career are the mini architectural sculptures of found objects called “Fuck the Bauhaus” and the various memorials to September 11.

The retrospective also contains many pieces on display for the first time in the US, including a thirteen-piece set of mannequins called “Schauspieler,” or Actors. The mannequins are dressed in colorful clothing, some of it Genzken’s, some of it found on the street. Their faces are also dressed—as a skull wearing an eye mask, or with half an alien mask over a biker jacket. One wears a poncho and a cowboy hat. A child holds a magnifying glass; over his shoulders, a silk men’s shirt is draped open like a cape. While each seems unaware of the other, they cohere into a group that both invites and rebukes the spectator.

On October 25, the German magazine Der Spiegel covered the MoMa retrospective, though the piece focused mostly on Genzken and, in particular, Genzken’s family history. “In 1960, the family moved to Berlin,” Der Spiegel reported, “where her parents had inherited the villa of her grandfather, Karl Genzken. He was a Nazi through and through, a doctor who worked for the SS.” The piece goes on to detail Grandpa Karl’s war crimes, his Nuremberg trial, his theosophy, and his cell where the young Isa once visited him.

The MoMa catalog doesn’t mention this fact at all. Indeed, while it stresses that Genzken’s work reflects and comments upon Germany’s post-war context and ethos, her own familial connection to the war is elided from history as it appears in the catalog. According to MoMa, Genzken did not move into a house inherited from Genzken’s Nazi grandfather, as per Der Spiegel, but rather, “Genzken’s mother had bought a house in the Grunewald district.”

Why was Genzken’s family history not presented in the catalog? In response to a query, one of the curators of the exhibition, Laura Hoptman, herself the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, wrote in an email,

“our research has convinced us that the crimes committed by a relative two generations removed who Genzken may or may not have met once in childhood was not pertinent to a discussion of her work.

This is not to say that the legacy of Nazism and World War II is not relevant to Genzken’s work; it is. Genzken was born in 1948; how could someone of her generation not be affected? The devastation of war is a theme that re occurs, first in her concrete sculptures from the 1980s and subsequently, in her Empire/Vampire series from the beginning of the 2000s. In this later series, her depictions of war and mayhem are brutal and deeply, scathingly critical, showing her disgust for wanton destruction and cruelty.

Like many German artists- including Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and Anselm Kiefer among others, Genzken’s family past is tangled with at least one connection to the Nazis. But we don’t see a connection between Genzken’s work and her grandfather’s life, and no art historian, critic, or Genzken herself, does either.”

Indeed, Genzken herself was angered by the Der Spiegel portrayal, according to her Berlin gallerist Daniel Buchholz. He said the writer Ulrike Knöfel “was only ten minutes in the studio, then it’s all Nazis and bipolar.”

“I understand somehow,” Buchholz said of the desire to parse the role of Genzken’s grandfather in her life and work. He was anxious to answer all my questions, but he said that Genzken herself didn’t identify with her grandfather, and didn’t think her work was related to him. “I don’t want to under-represent it,” Buchholz said, “but she was never talking about that.”

As for the house in Grunewald, Buchholz says that according to Genzken’s mother, who is now in her 90s and still lives in the notorious villa, “Isa Genzken did not grow up in the grandfather’s house. The house in Berlin is another one.” Not so notorious after all.

“These are very highly charged issues,” says David Marwell, director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a Living Memorial to the Holocaust. Marwell believes that though the impact of post-war Germany is not to be underestimated, an artist should be permitted to decide what is divulged about herself. “I could see how she would not want to be identified with a notorious Nazi,” Marwell said.

While Der Spiegel may have overplayed their hand, others question whether it is the prerogative of the MoMa’s curatorial staff, or even the artist herself, to omit such familial origins, or whether it is up to the viewer, supplied with such information, to decide the role Genzken’s family may have played in her work.

Tom L. Freudenheim is an art critic for the Wall Street Journal and a retired museum director. Ordinarily, Freudenheim says, he believes that people are not responsible for their ancestors, but in the case of Isa Genzken, the artist uses visual language that plays on her background.

“Usually it’s a distraction,” Freudenheim said over the phone, “but in her case, it seems fair game. Her use of imagery and references to the past are an invitation for an outsider to enter that territory.” Given that Genzken’s work references the past and sometimes her own family, Freudenheim says, the MoMa, or at least the exhibition’s curator, has a responsibility to mention her grandfather in its catalog. The failure to do, according to Freudenheim, is “a notable omission.”

Do you think Genzken’s grandfather’s Nazism is notably omitted or tastefully not mentioned? Either way, go see the work. The exhibit is on display through March 10.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.