Jonathan Horowitz: Minimalist Works from the Holocaust Museum

January 2011

Publication: The Times

The New York-based multi-media artist Jonathan Horowitz in his first major UK show does not shy away from tackling difficult, disturbing subject matter. His approach is, rather, confrontational, uncompromising and polemical. Many will find his championing of various ‘right-on’ causes including a selection of charities in which giving is aestheticized by the artist both nauseating and moralising.

Here, Horowitz’s views seem more like a reminder of British student politics in the 1980s and, as such, appear quaint, outmoded and hopelessly simplistic. Most of his artworks push their viewpoints with all the subtlety and finesse of an out-of-control juggernaut. With an apparent lack of irony one of Horowitz’s pieces includes a life-size photograph of a US Army tank (Pink Tank 2005/2010). This image (on which a pink ‘bumper sticker’ ribbon motif has been superimposed) confronts the viewer at the entrance to the show. This is in-your-face discourse and as such can be read as a useful metaphor for Horowitz’s approach.

Horowitz seems to have a particular dislike of the actor and director Mel Gibson, now notorious for his drunken racist and anti-Semitic rants. In his 20 minute Apocalytpo Now, (which recalls Gibson’s 2006 film, Apocalypto) Horowitz intercuts fragments of Hollywood disaster films, documentary footage of natural disasters and an interview with Mel Gibson. Somewhat bizarrely, the work is packaged and sold for its ‘carbon neutrality’ and we are told that it is powered by renewable energywhile the booth in which the film is housed is made form recycled’ materials. All of this lends nothing to the quality of the art and appears rather as another irritating gimmick.

Elsewhere, Horowitz (described in the publicity material as a vegan’) does not entirely lack wit as his monument to the soya bean (staple of vegetarians) Tofu on Pedestal in Gallery, 2002 demonstrates. A cube of off-white tofu has been placed on top of a white pedestal inside the ‘white cube’ of the gallery space. Pillow Talk Bed from 2002 might be seen as the antithesis of and homage to the slightly earlier work My Bed, by Tracy Emin. Horowitz’s bed is, by contrast, clean and pristine with the ‘occupants’ indicated by the names of famous couples on the pillows.

The misleading and some may feel, disingenuous, title of the show derives from Horowitz’s

desire to tackle what, we must presume, he sees as the bland neutrality of the art chosen for The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (designed by James Ingo Freed and opened in 1993). Gravity by Richard Serra, Memorial by Ellsworth Kelly, Consequence by Sol LeWitt and Loss and Regeneration by Joel Shapiro are all examples of minimalist abstraction and were chosen to complement Freed’s design. Discussing the relationship of the museum’s architecture to the Holocaust, Freed said, “There are no literal references to particular places or occurrences from the historic event. Instead, the architectural form is open-ended so the Museum becomes a resonator of memory.” In other words, Freed’s purpose was to allow visitors to bring their own imaginative experience to the buildings and its art. So, in his reimagining of the works of these artists, this is a purpose which Horowitz has clearly misinterpreted.

Horowitz clearly courts controversy in his replication of the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign which overhung the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. In 2009, the sign was stolen and recovered, cut into three pieces. It has now been replaced with a copy. The motivation for the theft remained a mystery but eventually was revealed as having been perpetrated by a neo-Nazi. But this symbol is so potent, so freighted with ideological, historical and political baggage that any artist toys with it at their peril...and there is real danger here that Horowitz’s act may cause real and lasting offence.