The Consistency of Memory: Stewart Goldman’s “The Hanging Figures” at the Skirball Museum

June 1st, 2019  |  Published in *, May 2019

Stewart Goldman taught at the Art Academy of Cincinnati for over thirty years. An enduring presence in the Ohio art world, he has curated shows on printmaking and the visual aesthetics of opera, lectured on the long-term influence of the Renaissance, and headed up the Cincinnati Sculpture Council. He has frequently exhibited his work in Cincinnati galleries, while also putting on shows in Chicago, Fort Worth, Philadelphia, Kharkiv, Munich, and Wiesbaden. Since beginning at the Art Academy in the 1960s, he has earned multiple grants from the Ohio Arts Council, a Cincinnati Bell Mural Commission, and a grant-residency in Germany. In both his teaching and his visual production, he has shown profound concern for human rights, social justice, and the global implications of genocide in Germany and elsewhere. Driven by those concerns, he served as a member of the Board of the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education from 2003 to 2010.

A few years before assuming that appointment, he traveled to Munich to meet a fellow artist, where he noticed heightened security in and around the airport. When he later passed the Munich Art Academy, he saw advertisements for a show featuring the work of Käthe Kollwitz and Max Liebermann, and he quickly began to understand the source of the unrest. In the 1920s and early ’30s, Kollwitz was head of the Master Studio for Graphic Arts while Lieberman oversaw the Prussian Academy of Art. In 1933, the Nazi regime fired them both. As Goldman encountered the War of Extermination, Crimes of the Wehrmacht exhibit at the Munich gallery, he recognized that right-wing demonstrators would soon gather to protest, and that the tension in the city signaled people’s wary anticipation of the coming face-off. While he shared that dread, the event also inspired a creative response that would become The Hanging Figures, a 1999 series that now resides temporarily in the Skirball Museum at Hebrew Union College.

Hanging g, 1999

 

Hanging i, 1999

That series includes twelve depictions of Jews who have been executed in public space. Goldman gives the images the sparest of titles, designating each with a letter of the alphabet like forensic evidence. He draws the scenes in viscous ink on the pages of a phone book that combines Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana residences. The bodies hang sometimes in isolation, sometimes in such clumps that they are hardly distinguishable from each other. In several of the pieces, they appear to liquefy or deflate. The sense of purpose is crisp and assured with each drawing, though they might easily have issued from a trembling hand. Selections from The Hanging Figures operate like Lieberman sketches drained of all but the essential forms, condensing the accumulated anguish of Kollwitz’s visages and wracked torsos. Jonathan Kamholtz observed a similarly suggestive quality in Goldman’s 2015 landscape show Nuances, praising a “remarkably exacting draftsmanship” that evokes “all the things that have been left out.” In the Skirball show, that draftsmanship respects the paradox of Holocaust art, the obligation to document an event that defies representation. Goldman hints at the “left out” while conceding the impossibility of its recovery.

Hanging a, 1999

 

 

Hanging f, 1999

As concerned with ambiguity as with omission, his scenes’ abbreviated forms and smudged lines often produce an uncertainty of perspective and a disquieting sense of irresolution. If we perceive Hanging a, for example, as rendered from a slightly raised angle, with the figures swaying below and twisting away from our gaze, the body in the bottom left corner hangs considerably lower than the rest. If we happen to be looking at the figures straight on, however, the body is that of an infant. Such details have particular significance given his 2014 interview for AEQAI, when he told Mike Rutledge of the child mortality rate during WWII, and acknowledged the vulnerability of children as a recurrent concern in his artwork. The unsteadiness of reference continues with Hanging f, where a person hovers near the center of the page as two or three others occupy the street below, appearing to kneel or rear back. Whether we find the street figures in the throes of grief, or acting as executioners pulling the noose tight, remains an unsettled question. The abstract quality of the figures, all drips and splotches, slashes and loops, at once raises such queries and leaves them dangling.

Another open question is the choice of canvas, though the phone book pages contribute forcefully to the pictures’ affect of deadly routine and local relevance. Neighborhoods and communities that were ravaged by the Holocaust haunt regions far removed from its horrors in time and space. Goldman’s media confront us with the prospect, all too real in the 1940s, of vast registries of citizens being slaughtered en masse. The phone book backdrop underscores the association between banal materials and extreme violence: apartment balconies become gallows and bloody cages; lampposts become lynching trees. Repeating lines, numbers, and columns on the directory pages cohere with the bureaucratic formalism of the extermination. Reiterating the design format from image to image amplifies that effect, while the immediate impression of dashed off graffiti punctuates the show’s rhetoric of protest. The “white pages” that carry the crime and the indictment go yellow and ragged with time. Torn and incomplete yet determined to persist, they have the consistency of memory.

However fragile memory tends to be, Goldman’s series helps preserve it in an era where Aryan supremacism vigorously reasserts itself, where right-wing collectives vilify immigrants and gather them in pens, and where the contours of historical truth appear susceptible to revision by authoritarian administrators. In that way, The Hanging Figures continues the project of the Skirball Gallery, with its displays of concentration camp clothing, Jewish badges, telegrams recounting plans for the Final Solution, and paintings of resistance fighters in Warsaw. The exhibit resonates in especially profound ways with the gallery’s wall of names, a Holocaust memorial explaining that “the single-mindedness of effort, the focus of the Nazi state on the complete eradication of Jews and Judaism, places that genocide in a position of tragic uniqueness in the brutal history of human inhumanity.” Noting the “destruction of hundreds of Jewish communities and hundreds of thousands of Jewish families,” the memorial links the individual names to eradicated neighborhoods and razed lineages. As Goldman confronts us with a palimpsest of executions and telephone numbers, gory strokes and street addresses, he defamiliarizes the history, giving the events an uncanny nearness through a process of dislocation and strange fusion. The terror of the series arises not just from that fusion but its necessity in Cincinnati, in the U. S., in a range of countries contending with right-wing populisms eighty years later.

–Christopher Carter

 

Works Cited

 

Kamholtz, Jonathan. “The Nothing that is There: Stewart Goldman: Nuances at the Philip M. Meyers, Jr. Memorial Gallery, DAAP, September 13-October 25, 2015.” AEQAI, 21 Sep. 2015, aeqai.com/main/2015/09/the-nothing-that-is-there-stewart-goldman-nuances-at-the-philip-m-meyers-jr-memorial-gallery-daap-september-13-october-25-2015/. Accessed 27 May 2019.

Rutledge, Mike. “Profile of Stewart Goldman.” AEQAI, 1 Dec. 2014, aeqai.com/main/2014/12/profile-of-stewart-goldman/. Accessed 27 May 2019.

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