2010 – 2012
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An enormous catalog of literary, theater and film works has become a prime conduit in our grasp and memory of the Holocaust. As the catalog expands, it increasingly underscores the contrast between the hardships it depicts and the comforts enjoyed by present readers and viewers. Still, Holocaust-themed productions rarely address judiciously the aesthetic/moral dilemmas implicated by every representation of this event. Primo Levi and Claude Lanzmann are among the few who cope head-on with such hurdles. While weaving the forthright testimony of survivors into their narratives, they deliberately eschew melodrama and poetic hyperbole in order to emphasize the duty not to manipulate the public’s sensibilities into shame, pity or terror. Levi and Lanzmann demonstrate unique approaches that are as restrained as they are effective, but these have been hard to follow by second and third generation authors, children of our long-lived Pax Americana, where the threat of extreme horror becomes a curiosity in the realm of entertainment.
Painters have fared poorly when it comes to addressing the Holocaust, yet for other reasons: not for trying too hard, but mostly for not trying enough. While painting has long been an eloquent mediator in our exchanges with death —from the Fayoum funerary portraits of ancient Egypt to Rothko’s late black abstractions— the near total omission of the Holocaust in post-war painting may be read as a sign of respectful trepidation before too compelling a subject. But such scarcity also can be blamed on the modernist posture that propelled abstract expressionist and minimal art by privileging the “presence” of an artwork at the expense of its representational content. Within that framework, any serious attempt at making the horrors of Auschwitz “present” on a canvas would have ended up being artistically suspect, even pathetic or pitiful. This constraint could only be dropped when, towards the end of the last century, the repudiation of modernist priorities became requisite in the artworld, and for a number of painters it became imperative to renege altogether on the quest for pictorial presence.
While the possibilities for picturemaking opened up, the Holocaust as a subject for painting remained, literally, at arms length. A case in point: Luc Tuymans’ paintings of concentration camps from the late 1980s and ’90s are vague and presence-less by design. While Tuymans’ daring originality was critically celebrated from the outset, the curators of his recent retrospective at San Francisco MOMA seemed concerned about the public’s response to these tactically distancing pictures, at least enough to insist in their wall text that “the viewer is unlikely to come away with a better understanding of the atrocities that the [Holocaust] encompasses, [which] reflects Tuymans’ larger point—that certain events defy representation.”
The commendation of Tuymans’ paintings as demonstrations of a dispassionate detachment in the face of the unfathomable may have been meant to recall Wittgenstein’s famous closing proposition for his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus of 1921: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” Granted, paintings are by definition silent, but a painting’s silence need not be confined to the numb estrangement postulated by Tuymans’ curators in San Francisco. Consider a certain sampling of still-life painting—such as in Claesz, Chardin and Morandi—where the invocation of silence is anything but empty; or the mute- yet-passionate abstract masterpieces of Mondrian, Rothko and Reinhardt. Indeed, one of painting’s more notorious attributes is that of making silence speak.
In my Prussian Blue series, I address the Holocaust in painting by seeking to generate the pictorial impression of a silence as solemn and forthright as it is eloquent, thus furnishing an alternative to the fatalistic strictures that have stifled the production of works dealing with this subject. As source material, I have gathered a number of photographs of gas chambers at different concentration camps. Some are period pictures taken after the end of the war; some others were taken after the camps had been turned into memorials and open to visitors. I deliberately have restricted myself to using three types of coloring materials that each have a direct, non-metaphorical relationship to the genocide:
Prussian blue paint: The Zyklon B product that was used as a killing agent from 1940 through 1945 often produced blue stains on the walls of the gas chambers by way of a chemical reaction with the brick and mortar. Such stains are still very much apparent in the structures at Majdanek. The cyanide-iron compound of these stains is chemically identical to the painter’s pigment known as Prussian Blue.
Pumice or Diatomaceous Earth: The cans of Zyklon B contained prussic acid that had been infused into pellets of a porous silica-based material, such as diatomite or pumice. The pellets were the medium that delivered the gas into the sealed-off halls. I utilize a powder made of these materials as an inert translucent filler in a medium that imparts the appearance of a slightly muddy vapor.
Flesh color paints: I’ve selected paints labeled as Flesh tone, Flesh tint, Blush, etc. that are conventionally used by painters for rendering skin tones. These make direct reference to the thousands of men, women and children who were murdered within the spaces I depict, where the evidence of the flesh that is absent from the scenes remains in the hues that permeate them.
The images and materials I’ve chosen reverberate with grueling associations that confront our imagination of the Holocaust. For me, as each painting slowly and reluctantly comes together in the studio—through underpainting and overpainting; trials, corrections and rectifications; building up and scraping off; modulations and glazes—a visible corroboration emerges. Coping with the painting’s pictorial density requires coping with the scene’s implications. I hope that the friction of my mark-making and the images’ inherent significance resonate in a viewer’s apprehension of my paintings.
Much like Levi and Lanzmann, I desire to eliminate (or at least minimize) metaphor as my works’ signifying conduit. The unmannered directness of the photographs, the intrinsic linkage of the coloring materials with the gas chambers, and my efforts at merging these ingredients into effective artworks— these are the design elements in the Prussian Blue series intended to spark off painting’s evocative powers .
My purpose is not moralistic; I do not aim at enlightening or educating others about the Holocaust. Much less are my paintings prosthetic devices. Still, I intend to elicit actual feelings, not just point to them. So, if my works produce an emotional response, it is not because they simulate the horror of being in the concentration camps (they don’t), or because they demand pity for the victims (they don’t), but because they trigger what the sheer awareness of the Holocaust feels like. This shared sensation is the communal lifeline of the memory. Someone who never had this particular feeling will not learn it from my paintings. But someone who undergoes this feeling as a response to a painting for the first time might learn something about the often misunderstood representational and aesthetic powers of painting. The evocative sense of grief and bafflement in my paintings is compounded by their pictorial presence and what they represent, by the thrust of the paintings’ poignant silence and our empathetic speechlessness before the memory of the millions killed.
Los Angeles, October 2011