Judy Chicago with Donald Woodman

at the Spertus Museum, through April 8

“After Auschwitz,” wrote critic and aesthetician T.W. Adorno, “it is no longer possible to write poems.” Thankfully, few artists took him literally, but the best Holocaust art reflects the spirit of his statement. Christian Boltanski’s shadowy installations are haunted by a sense of lost time; death cannot be shown literally and have any poetic meaning. He mounts old, often blurry photographs of persons now dead on small coffinlike boxes, which he stacks or places in grids on the wall, illuminated by the dim, candlelike yellow light of small incandescent bulbs. Death enters these works only in the ways the person in the photo is irretrievably distanced from us, and life–which for Boltanski can no more be represented literally than death–is only hinted at, in a faint smile or the glimmer of an eye.

Or consider Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s great nine-and-a-half-hour Holocaust film. We see the testimony of survivors, we see the mass-murder sites today, but he uses no footage or photos from the actual period. Nor does Lanzmann cast himself as perfect: his hatred of old SS men is apparent, but he also reveals the lies he himself told to get one of them to recall his “glorious” years at Treblinka. As the film unfolds and we learn more and more about things we never see, the effect is of a whirlpool swirling around an empty center, of a horror so great it defies imagination, and thus certainly defies depiction.

Both artists are heir to the Jewish tradition that the sacred cannot be represented in imagery. They use images, but their work expresses the idea that the most important things cannot be depicted. This idea is echoed by romantic and modernist traditions in art: such artwork often questions its own authority, its own ability to depict. As our civilization abandoned religious dogma, images of gods and saints lost their certainty, and a gap opened up between the physical and the spiritual that cannot easily be bridged. Much of the great art of the last two centuries acknowledges its own limits.

But of course bad artists go on, as they always have, creating literal images that merely illustrate whatever ideas the artist has latched onto at the moment. Judy Chicago’s Holocaust Project: From Darkness Into Light, now on view at the Spertus Museum, falls into this category. But the importance of her subject matter and the particular ways in which she fails make the show instructive.

Holocaust Project has several facets. There are 16 separate works, some multipaneled; a roomful of wall texts (most by Chicago) and images that describe the making of the work; an audio tour in which Chicago and her husband and collaborator, photographer Donald Woodman, discuss the project; a videotape about how the work was made; and a book with an essay and journals by Chicago on the project’s creation as well as high-quality color reproductions, often more than one, of every piece.

In the room that introduces the exhibit we learn that when Chicago and Woodman were engaged, in 1985, they were both assimilated Jews who knew little of the Holocaust. “In 1985, Donald and I saw Shoah. It totally overwhelmed me . . . . Sitting in the theater . . . holding hands with Donald and sharing this painful confrontation with the terrible tragedy that had befallen the Jews, I felt bonded with him by our joint heritage.” I found the conflation of bonding with one’s fiance with the “terrible tragedy” (those with a refined sense of the word “tragedy” might take offense at its use to describe genocide) to be more than a little odd, but soon discovered that this observation fit right in with the show, which is a highly personal interpretation of the Holocaust: in her texts Chicago constantly informs us as to how her work affected her own life.

Her central idea is that the Holocaust should be seen not as a unique event but as part of the long history of patriarchal oppression, which in her view includes the killing of animals for food, inadequate health care, and even man’s landing on the moon. The relationship of the Holocaust to other historical events is of course a legitimate subject of debate. I agree with Claude Lanzmann that the Holocaust shouldn’t be seen as merely another instance of evil–its concentration of horrors was unique in kind, number, and degree–but it’s hard not to be sympathetic to Armenians or Cambodians who question the “the” in front of “Holocaust.” Certainly it makes sense to investigate the relationship between what the Nazis did and other forms of brutality. Chicago’s multipanel configurations, she writes, provide a “way to assert the uniqueness of the Holocaust, which [Woodman and I] always present in distinct spaces–a metaphor for the fact we are examining connections, not suggesting that the Holocaust is exactly like any other historical event.”

But the second work in the exhibit, The Fall, does not place the Holocaust in its own space. This enormous tapestry was recently completed by an unpaid weaver who worked long hours for years, following Chicago’s design–until a few weeks ago, a full-size cartoon was in place. This work combines, in one undivided 18-foot-wide, rectangle, images of men attacking women, of the “oppressive” use of animals in plowing, of a Leonardo subject as evil patriarch, of the Industrial Revolution, of animals hanging as if in a slaughterhouse, and of a Nazi with clenched fist herding bodies into fiery ovens. By placing the Nazi genocide at the bottom right of a tapestry whose chronology reads from left to right, Chicago makes it seem the culmination of a history of evil.

“I chose tapestry,” Chicago says, “because I want to emphasize how the Holocaust grew out of the very fabric of Western civilization.” Her text below the original cartoon describes how the ancient “battle between men and women” led to the “conquest of women and nature” and to “an assembly line where first pigs were processed, creatures . . . killed for food . . . . Is it any wonder that a world like this produced the ‘processing’ of people, the liquidation of Jews?” But her formulation makes the killing of pigs for food as great a crime as the killing of people; on her slaughterhouse rack other animals, and nude humans as well, are hanging upside down behind the pigs. The effect of the piece’s intricate weaving is to unite its disparate images–one’s eye passes smoothly from the slaughterhouse rack to the ovens. The thought seems to be that if we were all vegetarians, the Holocaust might never have happened.

Apparently Chicago doesn’t know that Hitler himself was a vegetarian. He remarked to a dinner companion in the 1920s, after she ordered Wiener schnitzel, “I didn’t think you wanted to devour a corpse . . . the flesh of dead animals.” He regaled other meat-eating dinner guests with stories about the horrible pools of blood in a slaughterhouse he’d visited. In one account he calmly watched a film of actual human slaughter but had to avert his eyes when animals were killed in the same film. Other German vegetarians may not have been much better: a German health food magazine ran the headline “First Great Victory of German Vegetarians: Hitler Becomes Chancellor!” Heinrich Himmler is said to have been disturbed upon looking into the eyes of a deer he’d killed in a hunt.

My point is not that the Nazis had a good side but that Chicago’s art can’t accommodate the notion that human beings are complex and often contradictory creatures. Her argument for human improvement takes the form of a list of the evils men do, and with an unambiguous bluntness that excludes argument or questioning she makes herself sole arbiter of right and wrong. Things are represented literally in rather unsubtle illustrations; a relationship is established by merely placing two things side by side. Emil Fackenheim’s idea of the Holocaust as “the presence of an absence” seems beyond her ken; she reduces everything to images of physical objects. Such work cannot address this monstrous event, whose significance lies not only in the persons killed but in the future destroyed, nor can her work even begin to suggest the deep contradictions that lie within all of us and at our civilizations core. It can never make a space for the self-questioning and acknowledgment of limits so common to the best art of recent centuries.

Most of the next 14 works–all but the very last piece–are on photolinen, a material that can both record photographic imagery and receive paint. Woodman’s photographs were combined with Chicago’s drawings and painting through painstaking rephotography–the project took eight years to complete. The two different forms of representation are combined with care and delicacy, and the results are rather interesting to look at. Woodman and Chicago apparently intended the two forms to have different effects: “The photography roots the image in the reality of the historic event,” a pamphlet asserts, “while the painting expands and transforms that reality.” But in much of the work, photo and painted imagery are blended almost seamlessly. Rather than maintaining a distinction between imagery that traces reality and imagery generated by an artist’s imagination, the visual enjambment of photo and paint suggests that an inner, personal reality is not only as important as but almost the same as our shared, external reality. This is truly the work of an artist who doesn’t see much difference between her hope, expressed in a wall text, that her collaboration with her husband on this project will help their marriage and her hope that her art will heal the world–presumably of meat eating and space travel as well as of war and genocide.

Banality of Evil/Struthof shows an inn near the Natzweiler concentration camp in France; most of the image is a black-and-white photograph of the actual inn today. In the foreground is an outdoor cafe where, during the war, both Nazis and the local populace hung out. Behind is a bathhouse the Nazis converted into a gas chamber. Chicago has added painted figures: in the background two men with a whip and a dog are forcing nude prisoners into the gas chamber, while in the foreground two local women and two Nazis sit happily at the tables. The colors are subdued: aside from the gentle flesh tones of all the figures, there are only a few pale browns and gray and blue off-shades of the photograph’s grays; photographic reality merges smoothly with the painted additions. “This work demonstrates the distinction between artistic and historical truth,” the audio tour informs us. “Whether people actually witnessed this event is not as important as the larger truth about people’s capacity to live with evil.” In other words, Chicago’s sensationalistic juxtaposition is her invention.

In Shoah Lanzmann makes a powerful implied argument against depicting actual killings: images of bodies reduce the true dimensions of genocide, which can only begin to be fathomed in the mind’s eye. If an artist rejects that argument, as Chicago does, she must find some other way to justify such imagery. Chicago shows the agonized contortions of the victims in a flat, almost comic-book style; there are Holocaust photographs far more horrifying than these paintings. It’s hard to see what her images add to the historical and artistic record.

Chicago’s pictorial literalness comes a cropper in Pink Triangle/Torture. In its central panel the bodies of three nude men, writhing in agony, are placed within a pink triangle, the symbol gay people were forced to wear; the triangle is surrounded by a photograph of pink pansies. Chicago says of this background, “I’ve always liked to challenge negative stereotypical images, turning them around.” But I see nothing in her art that reverses the meaning of these pansies–couldn’t an extreme homophobe find here a justification for gay murder? Indeed the flowers’ irregular pink shapes seem to echo the pale pinks of the bodies, making them seem almost pretty–a strange way to protest torture.

In most of the multipaneled pieces Chicago does in fact separate the Holocaust from other events. But her compositions tend to link the panels rather than distinguish them. In Treblinka/Genocide, two side panels show Jews surrounded by flame against the outline of Treblinka’s stone memorial and a reddish pink sky. In the central panel, people and animals under attack or made extinct by industrial civilization are set against a modern city skyline and the same sky; the panels are hung so that the stones and city skyline form a continuous line. Similarly, See No Evil/Hear No Evil juxtaposes a panel showing a train filled with camp-bound prisoners with one showing a truck on a highway carrying nuclear waste and people supposedly deformed by radiation. The similarly shaped truck and train are rendered alike and placed in similar positions in the panels; side panels juxtapose a nuclear blast and a crematorium.

Four Questions, made up of four panels, uses a different method to compare the Holocaust with other evils, a technique borrowed from abstract artist Yaacov Agam, one of whose works is on view in the museum’s lobby. The picture surface is not flat but folded like a fan (though it’s not gathered at the bottom); each picture has two images divided into bands and placed on opposing facets. Viewing the panel from the left reveals one image; from the right, the other; and from the center, fragments of both. Each panel has a question printed at the bottom that can be read only when the panel is viewed head-on.

These panels are visually arresting for a while–it’s interesting to try to see both images simultaneously, and to watch one become the other as one walks past. But what is one to make of Chicago’s question “When Do Ends Justify Means?” for the panel in which she juxtaposes a huge pile of corpses–slave-labor victims of the building of the Nazi V-2 rocket–with the famous image of the first man on the moon? Or of the question “What Determines a Quality Life?” below images of an elderly man kept alive by tubes and disabled people being shipped to their death under the Nazi “euthanasia” program?

Four Questions is a reference to the Passover seder, at which the youngest child present asks, and hears answered, four basic questions about Jewish history. Each of those questions has only one correct answer, while Chicago’s questions are more ambiguous. Or are they? Walking back and forth, one sees how smoothly one image turns into the other. The question is visible only. from head-on, at the point at which the two images blend; after one has seen both images, it’s easy to reconstruct them in the mind’s eye using the fragments seen head-on. In fact I started seeing a giant equals sign uniting these interpenetrating images. Chicago appears to assert that slave labor on the V-2, which paved the way for space exploration, somehow devalues that exploration, and that ethical problems in health care today are somehow tied to Nazi murders. By this is logic, anyone who benefits from medical proce dures made possible by experiments on animals is the moral equivalent of a Nazi.

My point is not to argue with any of these specific positions but to demonstrate how bluntly and artlessly they’re presented. An approach that is at first visually engaging, introducing the modernist paradoxes of visual and moral uncertainty, soon reveals itself to be a gimmick that only momentarily conceals what is essentially one-dimensional propaganda art. Whatever the relationship between the Holocaust and the present may be, the aesthetic equivalent of an equals sign cannot hope to illuminate it. Chicago’s stated goal is to struggle against the forces of brutality and oppression. But she herself creates an authoritarian relationship between art and viewer: her art asserts itself as revealed truth rather than leaving space for the imagination or for inquiry, and her images of corpses show her failure to recognize that the meaning of human life lies in the ineffable spirit of the departed rather than in their physical remains.

Her failure is brought home with a resounding thud by the final piece in the show, Rainbow Shabbat, three windows of stained and painted glass illuminated from behind. The center window depicts a Sabbath ceremony; seated at a table are Jews, a Christian clergyman, an Arab, and other persons of various races touching one another in universal brotherhood. Each side panel contains a yellow star–the symbol that Nazis forced Jews to wear–with a prayerful poem in the center. “Rainbow”-colored bands follow each star’s outline; these starshaped bands also form the background for the central image.

Rainbow Shabbat is certainly meant to be a sign of hope for the future, but it fails completely. Perhaps no single work could transform Holocaust imagery into a prayer to heal the world, but this window is an object lesson in bad art.

The rainbow is itself of course an important symbol, and not only for Jews–in Genesis it’s a sign of God’s promise never again to flood the world. An actual rainbow is one of nature’s most miraculous apparitions; hovering tenuously in virtual space, its colors are at once bright and ethereal, separate but shading into each other.

But Chicago’s strips of color, separated by thick metal bands, are unambiguously distinct: her approach actually diminishes the natural object that inspired the art. And whereas in great art, from Giotto to Warhol, the colors and shapes are always more than what they seem–repeated viewings reveal new depths, new resonances, new implications–in Rainbow Shabbat the colors are static; the flat, monotonous reds and blues are almost plastic. This is the stained glass of kitschy thrift-shop art.

After viewing Holocaust Project, I went upstairs and found a small display of cutout constructions made by elementary school children, illustrating the seven days of Creation. None of these pictures were as accomplished or organized as Chicago’s pieces. But after the imprisoning colors of Rainbow Shabbat, it was a relief to look at colors used playfully and imaginatively again. It may not be possible to heal the world with art, but certainly it’s impossible with bad art.