NEW YORK — A controversial exhibition at the Jewish Museum has made art critics out of an unlikely group: Holocaust survivors.
After seeing only the catalog of the exhibition, which opens Sunday and features contemporary artworks that use Nazi imagery, some survivors' groups called for a boycott, claiming the show is repugnant and trivializes the Holocaust.
For months now the New York press has been overrun with angry criticisms and passionate defenses of art few have seen. One columnist even derided it as a "Holofest."
The museum has already responded by putting up warning signs in the galleries. But anguish over the show is growing. Last week 150 Orthodox Jewish high school students shouted protests in front of the eminent cultural institution, a few blocks up Fifth Avenue from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It's hardly the first art show to generate controversy in New York. In 1999, the Brooklyn Museum of Art's "Sensation" infuriated some New Yorkers, including then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, by including a painting of the Virgin Mary whose dress was decorated with elephant dung.
This latest show similarly offends some viewers by challenging taste and dissing the traditional approach to the past.
The museum staff clearly anticipated that it might be crossing lines with the show, "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," and went to great lengths to place not just the most unsettling works but all 19 in context and to explain the artists' collective mission (in the catalog, in discussion forums, and in wall labels) to show the horror of Nazism in a new way.
This is work by a new generation of artists that, according to the catalog, has "turned away from what has become a standard focus on the ... victims and instead stared directly at the perpetrators. More important, they created works in which viewers would encounter the perpetrators face to face in scenarios in which ethical and moral issues cannot be easily resolved."
But some viewers have not been able to get past their gut reactions to the pictures in the catalog. Never mind that each work has some noble intent or some high-minded explanation. They cannot understand why the Jewish Museum, of all places, is exhibiting Polish artist Zbigniew Libera's Lego boxes for building a concentration camp or a set of poison gas canisters by New York artist Tom Sachs made out of Hermes, Tiffany and Chanel packaging, or a photograph of Buchenwald inmates in which British artist Alan Schechner has digitally inserted himself holding a can of Diet Coke.
Menachem Rosensaft, the most outspoken opponent of the exhibition, is disgusted by those works and is particularly galled by six lifelike busts of Josef Mengele that gaze down at the viewer with an eerie vividness. The intent of the artist, Christine Borland, to question the difference between "participating in evil and representing it," is lost on Rosensaft, whose mother, Hadassah, spent 15 months in Auschwitz, where Mengele tortured Jews.
"Mengele beat my mother twice and personally sent her sister to the gas chamber," Rosensaft says. "His bust does not belong in that museum."
The founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, Rosensaft cannot understand why such an important institution has given its imprimatur to the Lego box exhibit, artwork or not. "This was not children's play," says Rosensaft.
Norman Kleeblatt, the curator of the show, explained that this work and others make powerful points about how we remember the past. The Lego set, he says, suggests "how the building blocks of good could be turned into the building blocks of evil." Other works attempt to connect the images of the Third Reich to modern-day perfume ads and explore how Nazism has been glamorized and commodified.
"Nazi imagery has been showing up during the last 20 years in pop culture more and more," Kleeblatt says. "How do we navigate the materials that we are bombarded with?"
In one memorable piece, Boaz Arad, an Israeli artist, tries to show how images of authority can be manipulated. Arad reedited several film clips of Hitler propaganda speeches in German so the viewer hears him say, "Hello, Jerusalem. I apologize," in Hebrew.
Kleeblatt says the exhibition is trying "to begin a discussion with a new generation about the Holocaust at a time when an older generation can chime in." Most of the 13 artists are in their 30s and 40s; only four are Jewish.
The show has been the talk of the art world since the catalog came out in December and a Wall Street Journal reporter showed it to Holocaust survivors who, not surprisingly, were infuriated.
While reserving judgment, although not gossip, about the works themselves, New York art cognoscenti have been speculating that such a provocative show at a not often provocative museum would probably draw crowds. But nobody had actually seen it until this week.