NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Nearly eight years ago I wrote a review leading off with the question, “What is it about Anselm Kiefer’s art that inhibits unfettered admiration?”
The article was about a set of big, brawny Kiefers from the collection of Andrew and Christine Hall of Fairfield, Connecticut, installed in two large galleries of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. While these sprawling works spoke to the depth and freedom of Kiefer’s imagination, I felt the same “abrading kernel of doubt” about them as I did with much of his art, which is often afflicted with bombast and “a queasily ingratiating antiquarianism.”
In 2013, one of the works from that show, the 80-foot-long ”Étroits sont les Vaisseaux” (“Narrow are the Vessels”) (2002), reappeared in a 10,000-square-foot building along MASS MoCA’s speedway, where it is on view during the spring, summer and fall (through November, weather permitting). The space also features two other major works, “Velimir Chlebnikov” (2004) and “Die Frauen der Revolution” (“The Women of the Revolution”) (1992/2013). All three are on extended loan from the Hall Art Foundation through 2028.
I had previously characterized ”Étroits” — thick, rippling lengths of concrete piled on top of one another — as “at once too much and too little”: the concrete waves felt graceless, too tied to their “hard, dry and static” material to evoke the currents of the sea, and the atmosphere was sapped by the three very large, very dark paintings hanging above the sculpture:
It would have been to the sculpture’s advantage if these paintings, two of which include lead appendages of model airplanes and a radar ship, had been relegated to a separate room. The museum had gone to the expense of sanding the gallery’s plank floor down to the raw wood, but the harmony it strikes with the color of the concrete is fatally disrupted by the paintings’ lowering umbers and grays. To isolate Kiefer’s monstrous pile in its own private Valhalla is extravagant, sure, but it would have matched the work’s ambition while enhancing the room’s unearthly ambient light.
I finally caught up with the re-installation last weekend, and isolating ”Étroits” in its own private Valhalla is precisely what the museum has done. Separated by high walls from “Velimir Chlebnikov” and “Die Frauen der Revolution,” the new building’s sand-colored concrete floors, abundant natural light and compressed space are just what the sculpture needed; you can sense its mass and weight, which felt diffuse in its earlier incarnation, and the constricted passage around the sculpture can turn your encounter with its rusted rebar and cracked slabs of concrete into an uncomfortable, almost terrifying experience.
The title, from a line of poetry by the pseudonymous Saint-John Perse, which the artist inscribed in French on the wall, is a reference to the Trojan War (“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”), but when I first saw it, because the piece seemed so dry and brittle, so un-watery, the associations I made were to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Highway of Death from Iraq War I.
Context changes everything, of course, and such recent events as the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear meltdown in 2011 have expanded the sculpture’s intimations from the cyclical nature of war, as the inscription implies, to include the despoilment of nature and the terrors of radioactive contamination — a sea frozen in concrete, or the shattered remains of a reactor containment wall — among other possibilities.
While its presence remains as theatrical as ever, its siting, which allows you less room to step back and take in the work as a whole, diminishes its literalness and bulks up its suggestiveness and ambiguity. You are pressed into a space that it controls, and the energy emanating from its bulges, barbs and voids is the dominant sensation — a compelling and unlikely fusion of Minimalist materiality and literary Postmodernism.
If ”Étroits sont les Vaisseaux” feels fundamentally different from my first experience of it, “Velimir Chlebnikov” looks pretty much the same as it did at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where I saw it during the summer of 2006. This enormous installation includes thirty paintings, which individually measure around 6 by 11 feet, in two 3 x 5 grids on the long, facing walls of a specially designed shed. High on the wall in between, Kiefer has written an inscription in German, which translates as, “Time, Measure of the World — Fate of the People. The New Doctrine of War: Naval Battles Recur Every 317 Years or in Multiples Thereof, for Velimir Chlebnikov” (translation from the article cited immediately below).
Grace Glueck, in her New York Times review of the Connecticut show, describes the title character, Velimir Chlebnikov, or Khlebnikov, as it is spelled in an alternate transliteration, as a Futurist poet and “a mystical theorist” who held to the belief that “climactic naval battles occurring every 317 years had cosmic significance for the course of human affairs.”
Kiefer responds to this premise with paintings of a roiling sea over which he positions, in most of the works, lead sculptures of ships and submarines. He has also written the words “Odi navali” (“Naval Odes”) in the top left corner of many of the canvases, which, as Glueck explains in her review, is “the title of a collection of poems written by Gabriele D’Annunzio, the Italian Fascist poet and man of action.” In other paintings he invokes the mythic proportions of Chlebnikov’s unprovable thesis by inscribing names such as “Aurora,” “Argos” and “Aphrodite.”
The most successful of these works, however, are the ones that are the least encumbered by a three-dimensional object — those bearing bleached-white sunflowers or lengths of wire. These images carry a doleful lyricism, while many of the lead ships don’t transcend the impression of being hobbyists’ models.
The problems encountered in scaling down the ships undercut the seriousness suggested by the project’s size and ambition, leaving the work more self-consciously awe-inspiring than genuinely moving. I tend to doubt that such a diminishment was intentional, though the artist’s choice of D’Annunzio as one of his literary sources implies that there is at least one fascinating contradiction at the heart of the piece.
That D’Annunzio could be a popular poet, a nationalist and Fascist (more accurately, a proto-Fascist), no doubt holds a special significance for Kiefer, who has spent decades mining the gray areas of collective guilt and the porous membrane that separates the forces of creation and destruction. The historical wrinkle that D’Annunzio also advised Mussolini against his ill-fated pact with Kiefer’s native Germany might have also entered into the artist’s thoughts on the often dubious role of the artist as the conscience of a nation. From the earliest of his works, Kiefer has been questioning his own choices and responsibilities if confronted by an oppressive regime, starting with the Besetzungen (Occupations) series of 1969, a group of photographic self-portraits in which he flashes a Nazi salute in various European locations that had been occupied by Hitler.
And yet there have also been layers upon layers: in the catalogue essay for the Kiefer retrospective organized with A. James Speyer in 1987, Mark Rosenthal writes that the artist, as depicted in the Besetzungen photos, “resembles a Roman warrior striking a characteristic pose. Relating the Nazi salute to the gesture of the ancient Roman is like the efforts of earlier Germans who sought to link both societies in a single historical continuum.”
Kiefer, therefore, never stopped at a simple evocation of a sullied past, but sought out the same imagery that his forefathers adopted to ennoble their enterprise, and in doing so, exposed the irony that the Nazis, while appropriating the Roman eagle and salute, were in fact aligning themselves with an earlier era of state-sponsored savagery .
Proceeding from such controversial experiments, Kiefer’s work has been marked by a simultaneous coming-together and pulling-apart, the sowing of chaos within rationalism and order. At his best, he presents the precarious balance between light and shadow with clarity and restraint, and in this regard, I have always considered his Frauen der Revolution series to be among his most beautiful and affecting works.
The piece from Die Frauen that I had previously seen was a relief sculpture from 1986 composed of large rectangular lead supports, simple lead picture frames, glass vases and dried flowers. Its classicism and simplicity were stunning, especially in the face of the cumulative encrustations weighing down many of Kiefer’s surfaces.
The installation of Die Frauen from 1992/2013 at MASS MoCA is similarly clean and classical, even though it looks as if an entire hospital ward had been moved into the gallery space, with twenty lead beds lining the walls, and a large photograph printed on a lead sheet hanging at the far end of the room.
Each bed is associated with one or two names scribbled on a scrap of paper and stuck to the wall — Mme Roland, Cécile Renault, Charlotte Corday, Mme Danton — women on both sides of the revolution, but now all vanished, marked only by sinkholes in each of the mattresses, which are filled with rubble, stones, and other debris.
With the exception of an artist’s palette on the bed labeled “Mme de Genlis” and “Charlotte,” the installation is free of the obvious symbolism that often mars Kiefer’s work. The piece’s significance instead derives from its sensitivity to form, texture, color and material process, such as the striations left by evaporated water around the interiors of the depressions in the beds.
The large photograph on lead is a blowup from the same period as the Besetzungen series, showing the artist in a trench coat, his back turned to the camera, trudging toward a barbed-wire fence suggestive of a concentration camp.
Despite the charged subject matter, the image’s effect is muted and subtle, implicitly tracing the historical lineage of the Enlightenment, which precipitated the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” as well as the Reign of Terror, to the industrial-scale devastation of Nazism and the Holocaust — a leap that subverts Kiefer’s Neo-Romanticism with a gritty fatalism, following the law of unforeseen consequences to the end of the line.
Anselm Kiefer is on view spring, summer, and fall, weather permitting, at MASS MoCA (1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, Massachusetts) through 2028.