A few years ago, at an early press junket to Dia:Beacon, I had an acute, life-emulates-art experience. Entering the cavernous ex-factory building in Beacon, New York, then still undergoing renovation and largely bereft of installed sculpture, I turned a corner to find myself facing a vertiginous expanse of open space, the clear orthogonals provided by the architecture striking me like an unexpected clap of thunder. My first thought was: I’ve fallen into an Anselm Kiefer painting!
With this experience in mind, when I heard that MASS MoCA, the prototype for the Beacon museum, would be hosting a Kiefer exhibition, I could only imagine how his actual work would function in such a space.
The artist, as all the press releases and canned biographies duly note, was born in Germany in 1945, during the waning days of the Third Reich. The cellular memory of this accident of birth resonates throughout his work. The damnation and the living conundrum of being German in the aftermath of the Holocaust have propelled Kiefer’s ongoing project of artistic atonement, beginning with the specifics of this situation, but ultimately extending to embrace a sweeping vision of humanity as well.
In an early, controversial photographic performance, Occupations, Kiefer posed himself giving the straight-armed Hitler salute in various locations throughout Italy, Switzerland, and France. This gesture placed him in a position to powerlessly “occupy” the lands he was visiting, ironically assuming the role of the Nazi occupier himself, in order to demystify and, finally, to defang such a display of power. After studying with Joseph Beuys (who had been developing his own methods to address this thorny historical legacy), Kiefer developed a powerful style of painting that utilized unconventional, deeply symbolically charged materials such as tar, dirt, lead, and straw. Playing on the power of pitched perspective to suck the viewer into these often huge, sculptural works, he opens a deeply visceral yet spiritually transcendent door onto all that lies behind our contemporary, superficial world of transitory images.
Like many of his strongest works, the centerpiece of the MASS MoCA exhibition is a sculpture, Etroits Sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow Are the Vessels) of 2002, that takes its title from a passage of evocative poetry. Composed of a line of crumbling, undulating raw concrete, with rusted bits of exposed rebar jutting out from its sides (and with a few sheets of Kiefer’s signature lead haphazardly strewn on top), the 82-foot-work initially reads like a collapsed-highway disaster. Or the Berlin Wall after it fell. Or an abstracted rendering of waves crashing onto a beach. Roughly scrawled in charcoal onto an adjacent wall are several lines of poetry (in French, but translated on a wall label) from the French Nobel laureate Saint-John Perse, which puts the work in its most powerful symbolic context: In vain the surrounding land traces for us its narrow confines. / One same wave throughout the world, one same wave since Troy rolls its haunch towards us.
Suddenly, the irregularly stacked sections of concrete animated themselves before me, as the walls of that tragic city collapsing beneath the onslaught of the ancient Achaeans. In this light, the work is a brilliant contemporary realization of the primordial power that courses through the Iliad, analyzed in a famous essay by Simone Weil as “The Poem of Force.” Her essay begins:
“The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. The human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.”
Appropriately enough, directly opposite one end of the sculpture is a large Kiefer painting from 2005-06, News from the Fall of Troy. Heavily worked in black (here in just oil and acrylic, not tar), a blasted landscape quickly recedes toward its horizon line, placed (typically for the artist) very high on the canvas. Normally I’m suspicious of art that makes claims to timelessness, but Kiefer very nearly accomplishes it here, invoking a resigned commitment to the universality of destruction, an apocalypse held in store for all of us. Returning to Weil’s essay, she notes that “Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates.” The raw, merciless—dare I say it—authenticity of Kiefer’s canvas thrusts us into a reflection on this ultimate fate, regardless of the specific mechanics of that downfall. (Trojan horse? Nuclear holocaust? Terrorist attack? It’s all covered here.)
In the next room, a trio of recent canvases feature what is (for Kiefer) a surprising outburst of color. Even though the titles suggest an opening toward something like transcendent Christian hope—as in Aperiatur Terra et Germinet Salvatorem (Let the Earth Open and Bring Forth a Savior)—the vision here is just as terrible (in a biblical sense) as in the Troy-related work. Despite using a higher-keyed, terra-cotta-colored base for the painting, flecked with bright patches ranging from violet and sky blue to orange and yellow, death and destruction are still a fundamental part of the story. These happy bits of color appear in a repeated, irregularly rounded shape, with a sort of hole in the middle, revealing the underlying “ground” painting. Loosely stacked on the canvas, as though strewn across the field (and receding into the distance), they first appeared to me as skulls, the landscape recalling the horrible photographs of Pol Pot’s genocidal killing fields. Kiefer’s rule seems to be disaster first, salvation only in the aftermath.
While the number of Kiefer works on view at MASS MoCA is not large (and not displayed in the museum’s largest spaces, as I had originally hoped), together they comprise a body that, in contrast to many of today’s flash-in-the-pan aesthetic tactics, presents an artist who takes both his audience and his subject matter very seriously. The show itself might rightly be criticized for displaying work drawn from a single collection (that of Andy and Christine Hall)—a dismaying recent trend seen in other institutions that largely serves to pump up the prestige of the collector (not to mention the market value of the art)—but here the work itself seems too strong to be impugned solely on those grounds. Blunting that issue as well is the presence of a major Beuys piece, on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Lightning with Stag in Its Glare is the only full environment Beuys ever had cast (in bronze and aluminum) and, while not formally considered part of the Kiefer exhibition itself, it is installed in the same room as the three more colorful paintings. This proximity highlights the artists’ shared interest in primordial energy and the power of myth, and enables the viewer to see the salient differences in their approaches. (Kiefer seems much more driven by history or literature, while Beuys was busy inventing himself as myth.)
After seeing this show by Kiefer at MASS MoCA, I’m afraid I’ll have an even harder time settling for the more arid, intellectual charms offered by Dia’s minimalism. In our current historical moment, sliding into seemingly perpetual war (in Iraq and beyond), Kiefer’s visceral, Wagnerian scope seems much more appropriate—and, unfortunately, necessary. Initially borne of the tribulations of the 20th century, his work will undoubtedly continue to resonate throughout the 21st.
“Anselm Kiefer: Sculpture and Paintings from the Hall Collection” is on view through December 1, 2008, at MASS MoCA, 1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, Massachusetts. (413) 662-2111; www.massmoca.org.