Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art October 20, 2007 – December 31, 2008
What is it about Anselm Kiefer’s art that inhibits unfettered admiration? I write this as a longtime fan, someone who was left reeling from his big show at Mary Boone in 1982. Of the dozen or so artists vying for prominence in the 1980s under the mantle of Neo-Expressionism, Kiefer seemed to have single-handedly legitimated and fulfilled the promise of Postmodernism. His compression of history, legend, myth, philosophy and literature, exploding like a thunderclap in the Minimalist void, had gone the farthest to restore painting’s bloodline of pan-disciplinary signification.
And yet, try as I might, I couldn’t ignore an abrading kernel of doubt. Not about the operatic worldview he had opened up for contemporary painting, but over his cavalier manner in exploiting its possibilities. The single-point perspective dominating his vast, furrowed fields created a powerful but easy effect, flirting too often with bombast. His dirt-encrusted books evinced a queasily ingratiating antiquarianism. And when he attempted a hand-painted image, the results were usually slapdash and clumsy, especially if compared to his success with slower, tougher techniques, like the powerful woodcut “Grane” (1980-1993) in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
Still, this brief list of misgivings feels churlish once I stop to consider the freedom and depth of imagination represented by Kiefer’s restless forms, or the vitality of his ambition—hell-bent for thirty years—to thrust visual art, and painting in particular, into the center of the cultural conversation.
If anything, the current exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art brings these deliberations into tighter focus. While the museum has announced on its website and press releases that the title of the show is Anselm Kiefer: Sculpture and Paintings, once you get into the gallery, the wall text reads Anselm Kiefer: Sculpture and Paintings from the Hall Collection, referring to Andrew and Christine Hall of Fairfield, Connecticut. At this point you would be forgiven for feeling hoodwinked into traveling to northwestern Massachusetts to view a private collector’s vanity show, but that would be an unfair characterization. The works on display share a consistently high level of quality and are worth seeing under any context.
The overriding theme of the exhibition is war, overtly cited in its centerpiece—a mammoth sculpture in concrete, steel, lead and earth titled “Etroits sont les Vaisseaux” (“Narrow are the Vessels”) from 2002—as well as the three large paintings on the walls surrounding it. 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.
The piece itself, a long horizontal column of undulating concrete sections bristling with rusted rebar, might be taken for a salvaged highway median if not for its impossibly tight curves. Its title refers to the long poem Amers (1957) by Saint-John Perse. A brief quotation from the poem, in its original French, is written in charcoal high on the wall of the gallery’s far end: “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” (translation from the museum’s wall label).
Like much of Kiefer’s work, “Narrow are the Vessels” is at once too much and too little, affecting and irksome, clear on the surface but puzzling underneath. Rendered as they are in concrete, the “waves” pressing forward do appear inexorable, yet the choice of material feels like a tease. Why represent the ocean’s fluidity with something so hard, dry and static? There is no attempt at verisimilitude. Even at the piece’s climax, which cantilevers like a cresting wave, the concrete never transcends its identity as a building material. No matter how you approach it, the sculpture remains ungainly and earthbound, devoid of the sea’s awesome beauty and capricious terror. Rather, the power of “Narrow are the Vessels” lies in its associations, intended or not. My thoughts ran first to the destruction of the Berlin Wall, which signaled the end of one chapter of world conflict, and then to the infamous Highway of Death from the first Bush Iraq war, which ushered in another.
But this type of reflection is enabled when an artwork’s material is permitted to speak for itself, something Kiefer seems constitutionally disinclined to do. His conscious tie-in to Troy tells us what? That armed struggle among nations is a cyclical and permanent component of the human condition, a behavioral pattern set in concrete? The other piece in the exhibition referring directly to the Trojan War, “Die Nachricht vom Fall Trojas” (“News of the Fall of Troy”), an enormous, smoky landscape from 2005-2006 charting the network of Greek islands, appears content to stick to its subject—a missed opportunity given the possibilities presented by literature’s most illustrious trumped-up conflict. Kiefer’s propensity to treat a theme within the parameters of a broad cultural consensus suggests an intellectual complacency that feels part and parcel with the inattentiveness often on display in his craft. Fortunately, “Narrow are the Vessels” can state its case without footnotes, but it too suffers from a somewhat perfunctory execution. Its rhythmic swells never achieve a true abstract dynamism or variety of form, and its hollows feel accidental and inert. It comes off as an assemblage or a heavyweight piece of scatter art, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as you ignore its untapped formal potential.
In the adjoining room, three furrowed-field paintings from 2005-2006, all in oil, acrylic, emulsion and shellac on canvas and branded with typically high-blown titles—“Aperiatur terra et germinet salvatorem” (“Let the Earth Open and Bring Forth a Savior”), “Rorate caeli desuper et nubes pluant iustum” (“Let the Clouds Above Rain Down Justice”) and “Olympe—für Victor Hugo” (“Olympia—for Victor Hugo”) share the space with Joseph Beuys’ defiantly graceless “Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch” (“Lightning with Stag in its Glare),” dated 1958-1985. This juxtaposition of student and mentor is probably more serendipitous than planned: the Beuys has been installed in that gallery for years, routinely rebuking whatever temporary exhibitions dare to encroach upon it (despite its apparent permanent-resident status, it is actually on loan from the Philadelphia Museum).
Hanging from the ceiling like a titanic dustpan surrounded by writhing turds, Beuy’s towering, mud-colored environment of bronze, iron and aluminum is a symbolic construct derived from a fantastically arcane cosmology that can be easily, and perhaps wisely, ignored. Standing in its presence without trying to suss out its symbolism, the work seems to be about everything and nothing. Its abject, tragic, slapstick realism—in the most trenchant sense of the word—cuts to the core of experience with unapologetic inchoateness. Kiefer’s landscapes, in contrast, are anchored to the literariness of their titles, which he has characteristically scrawled along each picture’s top edge. Despite the paintings’ unruly surface expressionism, the liturgical and literary pedigrees of their references straiten them into a conceptual orderliness that shrinks back a step or two from Beuys’ ferocious absurdity. In this unintentional face-off between postwar Germany’s two most emblematic artists, it’s the old master who goes for broke.