Space Dust and Stars
by Joshua Bauchner
In 2002 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston there was a traveling show of Eli and Edythe Broad’s contemporary art collection, called “Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons.” In a stunted hall towards the end of the gallery, I first met Anselm Kiefer, in three massive paintings.
germany’s spiritual heroes
I remember feeling betrayed by the exhibition’s guide, which described Kiefer’s gallery as one of Germans influenced by Pop art. It was summertime, and I had left my pencil grinding job of reviewing health surveys early that day to attend. Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles greeted my friend and me. The show, heavy in Ruscha and Lichtenstein, was a sugar overload. Kiefer’s hall stuck out, emitting fumes of a forest, rank with dead undergrowth, ready for a blaze.
The back wall was filled entirely by his 1973 painting, Germany’s Spiritual Heroes, which at a size of roughly ten by twenty feet is one-and-two-thirds times me by three-and-a-third times me. The painting represents an attic and a meeting hall, a heavily wooded enclosed space with few windows, lit by torches. Walking forward, the attic’s small doorway seemed to recede as the torches grew in strength—the entire painting threatening to incinerate itself and me and the whole paying audience. My breath was catching, and I stepped back.
Kiefer’s work is visceral, for obvious reasons: their size, heavy palette and splintered texture, from the weight of the materials. They are too large, too heavy, too thick, too textured. They are merciless. Reviews of his work tend to read like a twilight of the gods, caught up in his tar pit for misery of straw, mud and lead paint. For 40 years these have remained his immediate hallmarks, and they are fully present in two prominent displays of his recent work, at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, and the Louvre, in Paris.
Of course, half a lifetime of leaden books and crusty enormous paintings do not automatically qualify one for a permanent appearance at the Louvre. On top of his wallop, Kiefer clearly seeks a deeper target: a larger sort of German mythohistory. Kiefer is often grouped with Gerhard Richter, Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass as Germans preoccupied with a memory through art and literature of the rubble. The ferocious director RW Fassbinder may be his closest compatriot; both are of a later generation than the others, both were born in spring of West Germany’s Year Zero, 1945.
To describe this sort of cultural work there is the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a German supercompound conveying a ‘coming to terms with the past,’ but Fassbinder and Kiefer do not engage so directly with this historical processing, a strategy that gives their work such immense, if subtle, power.
For Fassbinder, there is In the Year of the Thirteen Moons, in which the trauma of World War II is inscribed onto the body of the protagonist, the transsexual Elvira.
For Kiefer, there is Germany’s Cultural Heroes, representing at once the attic, a space of forgotten items for the postwar bourgeoisie, as well as both the great halls and claustrophobic crematoriums of the Third Reich. Germany’s massacred and missing Jews are a persistent subject, without either ever falling into Schindler’s List.
Kiefer described this task of the artist in bald, provocative language: “I do not identify with Nero or Hitler, but I have to reenact what they did just a little bit in order to understand the madness. That is why I make these attempts to become a fascist.” His often-cited first project is a quasi-literal attempt. In a series of photographs, Besetzungen (Occupations), the artist gives Nazi salutes in front of well-known German landmarks.
The landmarks include Brandenburg and Siegessaule. The photos are small and grainy, amateurish. In them, the artist looks frumpy, like a five year old woken early from his nap to play dress up. The use of Nazi symbols, illegal in West Germany, is strangely neutered in the photographs, transformed into the snap-shot detritus of any family vacation to Berlin.
But Kiefer’s historical ‘coming to terms with’ went beyond the Third Reich into older Germanic mythology. As Andreas Huyssen writes, he “insisted that Nazi culture’s exploitation and abuse of traditional German image worlds had to be worked through.” In Kiefer’s world, one descries Wagner and Bismarck alongside Nordic legends Yggdrasil, Arminius, Kyyfflhäusser.
At MASS MoCA, A.E.I.O.U (Elizabeth of Austria) invokes the motto of 15th-century Austrian king Frederick III ‘Austria est imperare orbi universo,’ or, ‘Austria’s destiny is to rule the world’; across the room, we hear from classical Greece, and see Die Nachricht Vom Fall Trojas (News of the Fall of Troy).
This union of myth and history has won Kiefer great plaudits, especially among American academics; in 1987, the former New York Times art critic John Russell casually noted, “In the opinion of many a good judge [he] is the most remarkable artist to have emerged from Europe in the last quarter of our century.”
In both North Adams and Paris, Kiefer occupies spaces unconventional for contemporary art most used to a gallery’s temporary, white drywall. At MASS MoCA, the former home Arnold Print Works’ textile industry, six paintings and a massive concrete sculpture sit in Building 4’s gigantic, empty shell of a second floor. The sculpture, Etroits sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow are the Vessels), is 82-feet long and indeed narrow; its strips of wavy concrete, stacked in a manner that strains to be haphazard but is exceedingly deliberate, sprout stained rebar like track marks exiting an arm.
Four of the paintings are recent (2005‑2006). These are of a regular Kiefer scale, roughly 10 by 25 feet each. They all play on the same visual scheme, with varying palettes: from one point near the top of the canvas, cords of thick paint radiate at all 180 degrees. Halfway down the canvas, these cords splotch into exploded bullets of paint. It looks like an explosion or contraction, inexorable either way.
Sol Invictus, 1995
At the Louvre, a painting and two modest piece-meal sculptures are pasted into the corners of a stairwell connecting the Egyptians to the Sumerians. The `painting, titled Athanor, features a whitish, naked man lying in a cloud of mud at its base. A thin line stretches straight upwards from his bellybutton, into an expansive night sky, swirling with space dust and stars. From both sculptures spring sunflowers, a gaggle of them in Hortus Conclusus and a solitary, almost drooping one in Danaë. The base of the former is a speckled hump, with the texture of papier-mâché; that of the latter, a stack of lead dipped books.
Die Nachricht Vom Fall Trojas
These installations give the lie to the most serious criticism of Kiefer. First, that he is a one trick pony of doom and gloom. His colors are mostly in the same territory of ash to char to spittle to clay, but there is something distinctly positive, almost affirming, about these works. The flowers in the Louvre and the speckles of light blue and purple in the Massachusetts paintings offer the prospect of rebirth and growth.
But more importantly, Kiefer builds on this prospect and manages something awesome: a tying together of place and art to create spaces of levity. He reclaims the scale necessitated by the buildings’ historical tasks, bringing the sites’ histories and his Germanic ones into the present and amplifying them once more. The visitor experiences the weight of the multiple histories as a sort of “feeling and formlessness,” the characteristics that the august philosopher and critic Arthur Danto pinpoints as the sublime.
twilight of the west
Throughout his career as a Teutonic brooder, Kiefer maintained such rigid form in his paintings—the size, the dirt, the symbols, the brimstone, the paint, the lead, the scrap pile—that, at one point, to call his work formless would have been an impossible contradiction, let alone feeling, a response which the exhibition glossaries that always follow Kiefer swiftly deny. But that is precisely his accomplishment with the two centerpieces: Etroits sont les Vaisseaux and Athanor.
Describing the crippled concrete of Etroits sont les Vaisseaux most reviews probably use the word ‘wreckage’ and imagine the horrific tempest that produced it. Such imagination is unnecessary—the shuddering presses of industry are long silent, but the sculpture itself reverberates in the cavernous brick oven. The recent paintings, with their visual sameness, coat the walls, the radiating lines of paint marching with the sculpture’s reverb into the gaping ceiling.
The walk through the Louvre’s medieval basement and moat-like Egyptian tomb gallery to reach Kiefer’s stairwell is a quiet relief from the throngs; its length and sparse signage amp up the payoff.
Below, the stairwell is not marked, but the reddish base of Athanor which peaks down is obvious, a visual stain on the prevailing washed limestone. Ascending the stairs, the painting reveals itself, and the eye immediately follows the paint strand from the figure to the sky. I almost tripped on the stairs, my neck craned to reach the ceiling. The three works sit in carved out spaces, giving them a decorative feel—they are celestial palace decoration, but for us plebeians.
Of course, quoting Danto to ascribe to Kiefer sublimity has its own irony, as the philosopher is one of the artist’s most notable detractors. In his 1989 review of Kiefer at MoMA, Danto cast the artist as wanting nothing more than to be Wagner in a smock: “And there we have the good old command to think with the blood.” With the bracing aesthetic package, it is not difficult to see why Danto made this judgment. But here, at MASS MoCA and the Louvre, Kiefer has retooled.
Still resolutely unafraid of his double legacy of culture and barbarism, Kiefer seems to understand that he must take a step away to honestly look that legacy in the face. Nearly 20 years later, he lives among the same vulgar material, yet his brushes with history are no longer dizzying — they are open, soaring even. Leaving the MFA in 2002, I had in my gums a distinct, ashy taste, deposited by Kiefer.
Six years later, walking from his exhibitions in Massachusetts and Paris, I again carried a distinct impression, though not from any type of forge. I felt small—the concrete and stars, the rebar, the sunflowers and I, we were diminished together, all swept into the same slipstream.
Joshua Bauchner is a writer living in Massachusetts. He is a member of the Some Young Jerks collective. This is his first appearance in these pages.
portrait of the artist on a young cell phone
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