Visual Arts: ‘Degenerate Art’:
Wed, 02/19/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
Max Beckmann’s “Departure,” 1932, is part of “Degenerate Art” show. Courtesy of 2014 MoMA/SCALA
Max Beckmann’s “Departure,” 1932, is part of “Degenerate Art” show. Courtesy of 2014 MoMA/SCALA

The most anticipated show of the spring season is “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany 1937” at the Neue Galerie, the elegant Upper East Side museum dedicated to German and Austrian art. Perhaps the excitement is due, at least in part, to the suddenly widespread attention focused on Nazi policy regarding art. Hollywood is banking millions with its star-studded film “The Monuments Men,” about a U.S. army unit that recovered art stolen by the Nazis during World War II. The so-called “Gurlitt Trove,” the recent discovery of over 1,400 works of art in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a wartime dealer, caused an international stir.

“‘Degenerate art’ is a label the National Socialists used to condemn the different movements of modern art since around 1910 [Futurism, Dadaism, Cubism, Constructivism and later Expressionism and New Objectivity],” noted the show’s curator, Olaf Peters, in an interview with The Jewish Week from Germany. Peters is a Neue Galerie board member and art history professor in Halle. “They did not invent the term but simplified the discourse to use the term in a propagandistic way against internationalism, the Jews and Bolshevism,” Peters continued.

This approach of associating genres of art with races was part of a strategy by Joseph Goebbels, Adolph Hitler’s chief propagandist, to push the conspiracy that Jews were out to corrupt Germany through subversive art.

Hitler had a very specific idea of what good art was: Greco-Nordic art. The art that didn’t jive with this ideal was deemed degenerate and was removed from museums and collections. The Nazis collected examples of “degenerate art” and in 1937 exhibited it in a show that traveled for three years throughout Germany and Austria; some of the art was then sold and some of it was destroyed. The show was developed to compliment “The Great German Exhibition,” which contained artwork sanctioned by the National Socialist Party, and illustrate the contrast between the types of art the two exhibits displayed. “Degenerate Art” was a hit, attracting millions of visitors and popularizing the art the Nazi Party denigrated.

Peters said the Neue Galerie’s two-floor exhibit “aims at raising questions and aspects around the 1937 show, like the art policy becoming part of the extermination policy of the Nazi regime, or the reaction of the artists reflected in their self-portraits.”

The last major exhibit to address the question of “degenerate art” was staged over 20 years ago in Los Angeles and did not travel to New York.

This exhibit will feature approximately 50 paintings and sculptures, 30 works on paper, as well as posters, photographs and other memorabilia. Some of the “degenerate art” that will be hung in the Neue Galerie’s show are paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Paul Klee.

“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany 1937” opens March 13 and runs through June 30 at the Neue Galerie, 86th Street and Fifth Avenue. Neuegalerie.org.

The Language Of Art:

Mel Bochner at The Jewish Museum.

Back in 1963, when he was just out of art school, contemporary artist Mel Bochner guarded the works of artists such as Jasper Johns, Phillip Guston and Kenneth Noland, while working at The Jewish Museum. He was fired after he was found napping behind a Louise Nevelson sculpture.

Bochner reviewed the museum’s “Primary Structures” exhibit in Arts Magazine two years later and found himself excited by the Minimalist art. (Incidentally, the museum is revisiting that show this spring in an exhibit titled “Other Primary Structures.”) Soon, his own conceptual art would foment revolution in the art world.

Norman Kleeblatt, the curator of “Mel Bochner: Strong Language,” began discussing the possibility of a show with Bochner in 2012 when the museum acquired “The Joys of Yiddish.” This show will feature Bochner’s experiments with word play and the “cerebral and visual aspects of language.” According to Kleeblatt, the exhibit focuses on Bochner’s “Thesaurus” paintings, which he has made since the 1990s.

“Strong Language” will cover the conceptual artist’s text-based works from the years 1966-2014. Bochner’s earlier pieces were often pared down visually, painted in monochrome, while his later works tend to be more colorful. His paintings, while not overtly Jewish in content for the most part — though there are some exceptions — show the artist’s interest in Jewish thought, he says.

Language and wordplay have remained the basis of the artist’s practice. In an email to The Jewish Week, Bochner wrote, “Among other things, Judaism has a rich linguistic heritage, which threads itself through my work in ways that I’m aware of, and others that I’m probably unaware of.”

“Mel Bochner: Strong Language” opens May 2 and runs through Sept. 21 at The Jewish Museum, Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street. Thejewishmuseum.org.