Photo: The Jewish Museum’s installation of Stelen (Columns). (Bradford Robotham)
With an exhibit titled “Composed: Identity, Politics, Sex,” the Jewish Museum of New York was probably looking to push the envelope a bit, perhaps raise its profile. That’s why it’s so shocking that the museum recently removed a photography installation by queer artist, Marc Adelman. The work, Stelen (Columns), is composed of 150 found portraits of men posing at Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, taken from the men’s GayRomeo.com profiles. The Jewish Museum describes the exhibition with “pictures juxtapose casually posed, flirtatious figures with the severe abstract forms of the memorial,” thus exploring “the provocative transformation of the site of reverence into a social space where public remembrance collides with private desires.”
According to Tablet the controversy began when a German man named Tim Rooks read a Huffington Post review of the exhibit and discovered his photo, which he posted on the free and very public online dating site, was used in the exhibit. Rooks threatened legal action. The Jewish Museum had only exhibited 50 of the total 150 photographs, so they swapped Rooks’s photo for another one and still maintained the message and integrity of the work. Adelman offered Rooks an apology and posted on his own website that “Any image will be removed from the series on request.” The museum, which recently had a Kehinde Wiley exhibition, still decided to pull the artwork in early May. Removing a work from an exhibit, when conservation and provenance are not at issue, is almost wholly unheard of in the art world.
Adelman’s work deals with topics like identity, faith, and assimilation. His MFA thesis at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Samstag Abend im Eagle (Saturday Night at the Eagle), a digital video project, deals with such themes. In it the artist puts on phylacteries, a sign of adulthood in the Jewish faith, while retelling the story of picking someone up in a leather bar.
The museum may have been right for wanting to protect itself from legal action, but its role is also to support and stand up for its artists. Unless their legal team found their position to be utterly indefensible, perhaps they should have fought harder to keep Stelen (Columns) up.
“Composed” finishes its run on June 30.