For his 1979 exhibition at The Kitchen in New York, as far as I can tell from installation views from the artist’s website, Troy Brauntuch showed only four works. As you walked in, you encountered the artist’s name besides a work that depicted what looks like the back of someone’s head, wearing some kind of crash-helmet.
Only after seeing the other three works in the exhibition does it become clear that this is in fact an altered photograph of Adolf Hitler asleep in his Mercedes, taken by Albert Speer.
The original photograph is included to the left of a red rectangle in the large triptych work called Untitled (Mercedes), 1978 (accompanied by two vertical rectangles depicting some genre of theatrical lighting).
Here is a detail, so you can see it clearer:
To the right of the triptych there is another photograph of a building, which connects directly with the work to the left, another triptych, but this time of architectural sketches.
To the right of Untitled (Mercedes), are enlarged sketched portraits of two heads, one in profile and one frontal.
Writing about this exhibition in the catalogue for the 2009 The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984, Douglas Ekland describes how the architectural drawings were made by Hitler, but which had been ‘subjected to spectacularizing technological effects’, echoing the vertical lights of the central triptych. As for the two portraits, Ekland notes how they are ‘greatly enlarged (so that the screen of mechanical reporduction is clearly visible) and how:
They are caricatures – one showing a Nosferatu-like profile that implies the antisemitism of the draftsman, the other a crabbed, pinched self-portrait.
When we understand these ‘buried histories’ (to use another of Ekland’s descriptive phrases), we begin to imagine the whole exhibition as some perverse dream of the sleeping Nazi leader and failed artist, that is manifest across a range of media and techniques, but which stems directly from his deranged mind.
Previously in his analysis of Untitled (Mercedes), Eklund had made the connection between Brauntuch’s reuse of Nazi imagery and documents and the Mercedes car company.
The Mercedes logo, visible behind Hitler’s head in the horizontal panel, was wedded in the German imagination to the swastika…below all the arcane mumbo jumbo of the Third Reich, after all, was stark corporatism – the intertwining of state and business interests that defines classical fascism.
The association between the historical portrait and corporate logo, in how the image Hitler asleep in his Mercedes from Speer’s photograph becomes redrawn and photographed remake with the crash-helmet and expanded to the enlarged antisemitic caricature, is evoked, albeit less directly, in an earlier work by Brauntuch called White Statue.
In the bottom left corner of an otherwise empty white space is what looks like a cropped and repurposed image of a Classical sculpture (it looks to me like Antinous, but I could be wrong) wearing a set of necklaces, probably taken from an advertisement. Within the conflation of fascism and capitalism represented by Hitler’s Mercedes, this work seems to be an extension of the appropriation of Classical sculpture (in all its convenient whiteness) by Nazi Germany and other fascist movements up to the present day (e.g. the use of Classical statues and busts for the white supremacist group Identity Evropa – something I will come back to in tomorrow’s Minus Plato post). What Brauntuch’s White Statue offers us today, however, is a subtle renegotiation of that very whiteness that is valorized by racist hate-groups. Relegated to the corner of the work and used to showcase jewelry, the statue is defined less by its whiteness than by its difference to the surrounding white space. As with effects used on Hitler’s drawings, the way that the lighting of the photograph generates dark shadows and the black lines of the necklaces, distinguishes the ancient portrait from some ideal of its own whiteness. (Indeed, if it is Antinous, there are a whole other set of ramifications for this choice in terms of ideas of masculinity and sexuality that would ensure).
Like many of his fellow artists who were part of the so-called ‘Pictures Generation’, Troy Brauntuch shows his incredible sensitivity to the way images can be appropriated, manipulated and re-staged so as to accentuate deep and troubling historical traumas. Although White Statue may not be as immediate and direct as the Hitler works in the 1979 exhibition, we must recognize the relationship between how the historical accident of ancient sculpture’s gleaming whiteness (again, I will discuss the issue of painted sculpture tomorrow) is as much a part of historical and contemporary white supremacist discourse as the swastika. While writing about Brauntuch’s early work at the time, Douglas Crimp emphasized the effect they had in marking ‘our distance from the history that produced these images’, today revisiting them makes us realized just how tragically close we still are to that history and its racist, hateful images.