Gottfried Helnwein's exhibition at the Legion of Honor includes documentary pictures of an outdoor installation he did at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in 1988.
A long canvas mural of huge photographic portraits of children, titled "Selektion," the piece marked the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the November night in 1938 when the Nazis went on a rampage, attacking Jews and their property throughout Germany.
"I called it 'Selektion,' "Helnwein said in conversation, "because I thought 'selection' was the keyword of the Third Reich. That's what it was all about -- the idea of the small group that can select who has the right to live and who not. The Nazis had these allegedly objective criteria of how you can tell whether somebody's superior or inferior. So I wanted people to confront all these pictures, children from all backgrounds living in Germany today, and I was amazed by the reaction."
Some got the drift of his intentions. But one night, soon after the pictures went up, somebody slashed the throats of all the depicted children. "We don't know who or why," Helnwein said. "We even had cameras there but they didn't see anything. My work has been attacked before, so I'm used to that." But he can never foresee people's responses to what he does.
In his first gallery show, someone pasted a label under each picture that read "degenerate art," the Nazis' insult to all creative work that offended the regime.