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The memory of modernism: Abstract art and the Holocaust

Godfrey, Mark Benjamin; (2002) The memory of modernism: Abstract art and the Holocaust. Doctoral thesis (Ph.D), UCL (University College London). Green open access

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In this thesis, particular American abstract art works are examined in order to ask how they might relate to Holocaust memory. I ask how references to the Holocaust might be in play for their viewers, how abstraction throws into crisis the very notion of reference and memory. Detailed archival research is combined with an engagement with theoretical approaches to abstraction and to Holocaust representation. The thesis begins with an introductory first chapter examining prevailing approaches to post-war American abstraction. I ask why New York Jewish critics developed Modernist criticism in the wake of the Holocaust - how an approach to art that sought to dismiss possible relations between art works and historical content might itself have been prompted by historical factors. I proceed to outline how abstraction will be considered in the rest of the thesis. Chapter Two focuses on Morris Louis's 1951 Charred Journal: Firewritten series. I ask how these works relate to the Nazi book burnings, how the viewer is encouraged by their titles to develop interpretations of the works which slip away when their formal abstraction is considered. Chapter Three looks at Barnett Newman's The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani (exhibited 1966). I ask questions about the significance of the metaphor of the crucifixion at this moment, and how the installation of the paintings at their exhibition created a space of loss. Chapter Four examines Louis Kahn's proposed Holocaust memorial (1966-72) for New York's Battery Park - a grid of glass cubes. How does the abstraction of Kahn's proposal affect what might be meant by a Holocaust memorial? How does the materiality of the proposed memorial affect the viewing process? The next chapter looks at Frank Stella's Polish Village series (1970-74). I ask how these can be considered in connection to photographs of Polish synagogues destroyed in the war that Stella had seen in the book Wooden Synagogues. What is the significance of Stella's work at the moment of the collapse of modernist painting? In the final chapter, I examine commissions by Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt, Joel Shapiro, and Ellsworth Kelly made for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. (1991-93). I chart the history of the commissions, and ask how the works function in the space of the museum. The thesis ends with a short epilogue about Jeff Wall's work The Holocaust Memorial in the Jewish Cemetery (1987).

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Qualification: Ph.D
Title: The memory of modernism: Abstract art and the Holocaust
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
Additional information: Thesis digitised by ProQuest.
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10101798
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