Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Anselm Kiefer at Gagosian

First stop on our Chelsea gallery tour was the Gagosian Gallery on 24th Street to see the huge show of Anselm Kiefer's work that closed last Saturday, December 18th. Titled "Next Year in Jerusalem," the work engendered both raves and pans from reviewers. Chief among the pans was the review by Roberta Smith in the New York Times, although she begins by admitting that Kiefer "knows how to put on a show."

The exhibition was arranged around a large steel shed called "Occupations" that contained 76 large-scale photographs from 1969 of Kiefer making the "Hitlergrusse" (raised arm Nazi salute) in front of European sites of historic significance. The photographs were mounted on lead backed with burlap and hung from the ceiling of the shed like clothes hanging in a closet. Viewers could look into the shed from several partly opened doors but could not enter. The shed was reminiscent of a boxcar, a barracks, a prison or a meatlocker.

(Note: all images will enlarge when you click on them.)

These sheets of lead and burlap with photos were 10 or 12 feet wide by 8 feet high. There were 76 sheets in the shed.

Kiefer giving the Hitlergrusse. The saluting photos were visible at each end of the shed.

The rest of the exhibition was contained in a "labyrinth" of 25 glass and steel vitrines, some more than 20 feet high. On the walls of the gallery were large landscape paintings and shallow glass vitrines holding thornbushes, ferns and painted backdrops. The large paintings contained layers of "ash, lead, snakeskin and other distressed materials" according to the gallery website.

Tall vitrine containing photographs mounted on strips of lead giving the effect of filmstrips

Close up of "film" and "film cannister"

Smith's major complaint seems to be that Kiefer is overly dramatic or theatrical and too easily accessible by making "effective middlebrow art as catharsis, spectacle with a message. As with many a successful Broadway drama, we leave feeling that our heartstrings have been exercised or at least manipulated."

She describes the show as ..."the dustbin of history expanded into giant prop storage in a theater where death and destruction prevail, but various ancient faiths offer the possibility of redemption. And yet really giving in to the work requires suspending the suspicion that religion and faith are not part of the solution. They are most of the problem."

One of the huge vitrines with the fuselage from a plane (real or recreated?)

Titled Lilith's Daughter

Given the prevalent Murakami, Koons and other widely ballyhooed "art" extravaganzas, I think Smith is too harsh on Kiefer. At least his work provides more of a meaningful message than glitz and conspicuous consumption. Her description of the show as "a museum of devastation" was exactly the way I felt walking through the arrangement of enormously tall glass vitrines that were filled with ashy grey or rusted relics evocative of a hideous past. This was a museum of the Holocaust and among the upturned soles of shoes, child- and doll-sized clothing, bent and twisted ladders, clay-covered sunflowers and other terrible mementos of an evil force, I sensed the obsessive drive of the artist to recover or reproduce these objects. Of course he was trying for effect, and he was getting it from me. I found it very moving as evidence of that terrible occurrence and other devastatingly destructive events. Of course viewing the show with Binnie, who is Jewish, made the Holocaust connection even stronger for me. Binnie told me about her father taking her to see a Kiefer show many years ago and what an impression the work made on him.

Shoes and rocks

Kiefer is a German, born in 1945 at the end of World War II and is not Jewish but has studied the Kabbala and other esoteric philosophies. His use of the title "Next Year in Jerusalem" apparently refers to redemption. This is a phrase that is repeated at the end of the Passover Seder and "reaches forward to the coming of the Messiah and to complete spiritual redemption, represented by Jerusalem." (quoted from My Jewish Learning) Or, according to another source, " Jews believe that in the future Jerusalem will become the center of worship and instruction for all mankind and consequently become the spiritual capital of the world." (quoted from The Messianic Era. Handbook of Jewish Thought via Wikipedia)

Titled "The Red Sea"

I can understand that some Germans feel the weight of historical guilt about the Holocaust and the rise of Hitler just as some Americans feel guilty about enslaving African people or massacring Native Americans. There is plenty of guilt to go around when it comes to man's inhumanity to man. Kiefer means us to remember what we collectively have done so that we will not do it again. As the gallery press release says, Kiefer makes "a visceral confrontation between history and the present that is lodged in the stuff of memory."

Titled "Jacob's Dream"

Writer Marina Warner, who wrote an essay in the exhibition catalog, said about Kiefer:

Kiefer's apocalyptic vision has been central to the dilemma about what to remember and how to remember it, to the tensions around oblivion and commemoration. He's an artist of memory, and his work touches to the quick of the Post-Nazi, post-Holocaust state of acute anxiety -- in Germany and far beyond.

Roberta Smith disparaged some of the titles of the installations, however, I found titling to be the least successful part of the exhibition. First of all, they were scrawled on the vitrines as if they were some kind of shipping notations rather than titles of the works. Secondly, they were in German and the penmanship interfered with the legibility. I paid little or no attention once I decided that it was too hard to decipher them even though I had the checklist. (The other impediment was that Gagosian did not translate from German.)

One of the large paintings of mountains and fields. Binnie and I interpreted the marks in the foreground to represent Jews killed in the Holocaust since there were numbers appearing among them like the tattoos inked on Jewish arms.

Kiefer's statement about the show must have lost something in the translation because it sounds garbled to me, but here it is:

There is a special border, the border between art and life that often shifts deceptively. Yet, without this border, there is no art. In the process of being produced, art borrows material from life, and the traces of life still shine through the completed work of art. But, at the same time, the distance from life is the essence, the substance of art. And, yet, life has still left its traces. The more scrarred the work of art is by the battles waged on the borders between art and life, the more interesting it becomes.

This is the piece that I found most affecting. The piece is titled The Shekhinah, which is the spirit of God, and above the dress is the Kabbala Tree of Life.

The dress is pierced by sheets of glass and glass is shattered around the base of the vitrine

This white dress reminded me of Emily Dickinson's white dress. I see it as a symbol of purity and innocence that has literally been shattered. (too literally?) And of course it evokes Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when a series of attacks against Jews resulted in death and destruction and the taking of 30,000 Jewish men to concentration camps.

Perhaps what Roberta Smith and some others find objectionable is the overly literal rendering of the objects that too directly evoke the Holocaust. After all, one of the great aims of art is to broaden the specific to the general and/or to involve the viewer in interpretation by making some room for differences of perception.

Perception of art varies widely. For example, one of the reviews of Kiefer's show, by David Finkle in the Huffinton Post, calls Kiefer "the greatest living artist." While I certainly wouldn't go that far, I found this exhibition very impressive. The materiality of the 3D objects was very effective and the installation in vitrines beautiful and a wonderful way to both present and protect the work. Separating viewers from the pieces also conferred mystery on the objects and made them more precious like holy relics.

These huge aluminum sunflowers, although coated in plaster, turn their heads upward seeking the sun and offering a feeling of hope in the midst of decay.

One of the bits of information about Kiefer that said a lot to me about him was that he refused to come to the U.S. while George Bush was in office. Fortunately for Gargosian, Kiefer was able to attend the opening of this exhibition in November since the coast was clear.


Jenny Learner said...

Thank you for sharing this exhibit and your words.

Nanci Hersh said...

I am so excited to have found your post. A good friend of mine told me if I only saw one show this year... this should be it. Unfortunately it was closing very shortly after so I didn't make it.

Going to savor these images and read your commentary when I have a moment to take a break with a cup of coffee....

Thank you for taking the time to post this exhibit in depth.

Anonymous said...

Nancy this is a fascinating post; since all I could do (before this) was look at the Gagosian web site, I didn't get the context or scale. Nothing like visiting in person. So thanks once again for allowing me to appreciate NYC vicariously and also for your informative and personal interpretations.

Nancy Natale said...

Thank you, Jenny, Nanci and Lynette for your comments. This was a hard topic to take on because of the love/hate views of Kiefer's work (mostly love) and the vastness of the installation. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Marilyn Banner said...

My New York friend told me that this was worth coming up to see (from DC) but I couldn't make it. I had no idea, until I saw these images, and read your comments, how totally incredible and moving a show could be. I love Kiefer's work - but have never seen a show of this magnitude, nor read such a useful commentary on a blog. This is a huge gift. Thanks so much!

nancy egol nikkal said...

Your post and the images are excellent. Thank you. I was at the Kiefer exhibition and, being in the gallery, made me feel the omnipresence of Kiefer's message. It was sobering, disturbing and overwhelming. He is bearing witness. I know a German, born after WWII, who said: We are tired of having to take blame. It's tough for young Germans. I don't have an answer but am glad for Kiefer's brilliance and for his reminding us. I think Kiefer is one of the most brilliant artists alive today and I wrote about the show at artofcollage.com.