Anselm Kiefer is a German artist long familiar to Seattle audiences. Well-represented in local collections, Keifer was also the subject of a major show at the Seattle Art Museum in 1999, and there is a large Kiefer work now on display in the new downtown SAM. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin has just returned from a trip to Paris, where he visited Falling Stars , Kiefer’s largest and most ambitious exhibition to date, and he joins us with his observations.
Reviewers of Anselm Kiefer’s work – and there have been a great many, since he’s been exhibiting internationally since the early 1980s – generally fall into two main camps. There are the acolytes, who use words like “awe”, “reverence”, and “mythic” in describing his work, and make reference to the sweep of German history, the operatic ambitions of German culture, and the tragic implications of the Holocaust. For these reviewers, Kiefer is a heroic mastermind, whose outsized works are a fitting outlet for his gigantic ambitions.
Then there are the debunkers – fewer in number – who find fault with Kiefer for his technique, his pomposity, and the mismatch between his means and his ends. One of these skeptics, Holland Cotter, called his work “big and empty” in her New York Times review in 2002.
Having visited the just-closed Falling Stars exhibit at the Grand Palais in Paris, I’m more inclined to join the naysayers than the True Believers, but I have to admit that it’s almost impossible to be objective when faced with such overwhelming work in such a stupendous setting, surrounded and supported by the seminars, catalogs, and publicity befitting such a large-scale enterprise.
Let’s start with the venue. Though rarely visited by tourists, the Grand Palais is beloved and familiar as a Parisian landmark, an enormous steel-and-glass edifice along the Seine halfway between the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. Built originally for a world’s fair in 1900 along the lines of London’s Crystal Palace, it was used for art exhibits, trade shows and equestrian events in the years following, while slowly falling into disrepair. The current exhibition of Kiefer’s work marks the reopening of the main hall after a complete, and very costly, renovation. The new Monumenta series, sponsored by the government, will turn the entire domed, skylit space (almost exactly the size of a large cruise ship) into a showcase for one selected artist each year; with sculptor Richard Serra is the next in line after Mr. Kiefer. Kiefer titled his exhibition Falling Stars in reference to the night sky visible through the colossal glass canopy of the display hall, a space whose scale and splendor might well intimidate an artist without Kiefer’s energy and self-importance.
Kiefer’s installation consists of seven 50-foot, skylit, cube-shaped galleries set alongside three looming concrete towers brought up from the artist’s estate in the south of France. Each cube/gallery, sheathed in corrugated steel, is devoted to a particular literary or religious theme; and visitors approach the featured 30-foot paintings or sculptures as they would a shrine, brandishing the headphones and audio guide that are the now-universal technological accompaniment to art exhibitions of every sort, much as pilgrims might brandish a prayer book or votive candle on their entrance to Lourdes or Santiago De Compostela.
The surrounding, free-standing towers are composed of pre-cast, bunker-like cement houses, one set upon the other in a none-too-stable pile, here sprouting steel sunflowers, and there purposely tipped over and smashed on the floor in an obvious reference to the ruins of war-torn Germany or the wreckage of 9/11. The concrete rubble, bristling with twisted iron rods, bent antennas, and twisted steel mesh, also features giant sculpted books, their pages made from lead sheets, their forms bent and folded as though from the impact.
Lead books, in fact, are the central feature of the most successful of all the artworks in the exhibition, a colossal sculpture which shares the exhibit title, Falling Stars. Here giant lead sheets – formerly part of the roof of Cologne Cathedral – have been shaped into dozens of bound volumes set across rows of steel bookshelves, the books tilting and disordered as after a flood or an earthquake. Though their pages are empty of writing or signs of any sort, stuck between the pages, and extending every which way, are sheets of thin plate glass, as fragile and transparent as the lead is heavy and durable, and littering the surrounding floor in thousands of fragments and shards. It’s an unforgettable image, both compelling and frightening, and it’s open to the kind of wide-ranging interpretation that the artist explicitly wishes his work to inspire. What is it that’s destroyed by the upheavals of time and history, and what is it that endures? Is it the ideas and spirit of a particular time and place that is irretrievably lost, leaving us only fragments of disfigured structures as a legacy? Does the glass represent a way of seeing the world, or merely the weakest link in the chain of remembering? Are the books meant to be seen as an anchor, or – with their weapon-like glass extensions - a threat? We’re used to seeing books as something positive and progressive, but Kiefer’s attitude is much more nuanced and ambiguous.
Elsewhere, the artist’s efforts to use a combination of scale, physicality, and repeated imagery to express his visionary take on the world yield very mixed results. After reading the tendentious accompanying text to the house "Fog Land," for example, which references everything from Jewish mysticism and Aztec rituals to the poetry of the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, the painting itself – a huge, muddy affair 26 feet wide and 19 feet high – is something of an anti-climax. At the bottom of the canvas lies a crudely-painted, prone man, a stand-in for the artist that has appeared in his work for years, including SAM’s 1996 painting, "In the Order of Night," not currently on view, which contains an identical, figure in left-to-right reverse. Rising above the lying man are row after encrusted row of stripes of grey, ochre, and white, diminishing in size like furrows in a plowed field, while also shrinking in length to form a visual pyramid. Like many of Kiefer’s paintings, the surface of these stripes, made from a witches brew of acrylic, emulsion, sand, and earth (and exposed to the elements to further complicate the texture) has a life of its own, more like shingles or a lava flow than simple paint, but often, as in this piece, used in a monotonous and monochromatic manner. As though not trusting the power of his own painted imagery, Kiefer hangs an all-too-literal terra cotta heart in the middle of the work, suspended above the figure like the result of a pagan sacrifice or the embodiment of the “fog heart” in the Bachmann poem, an awkward add-on with no organic relationship to the rest of the piece. As a whole experience, the painting is far too barren an image to sustain its scale or its ambitions – big and impressive, but not smart.
Elsewhere Kiefer splashes garish spots of color on a similar ashen, corrugated landscape, the colored blobs – blue, violet, red, white – meant to symbolize the emergence of life from catastrophe, but the flowers are painted in the cursory, slapdash manner of someone in a hurry to move onto something else, who can’t be bothered with the niceties of depiction or illusionism, and who is confident his viewers won’t care. In a similarly offhand fashion, Kiefer hangs crude lead model boats on the surface of small paintings of stormy seas, with little sensitivity to the relationship between one material and the other. In fact, many of the marine paintings work better if one simply ignores the awkward ship forms resting uneasily on their surface, and instead appreciates the artist’s skill at suggesting weather, energy and apocalypse.
Kiefer himself confesses to being “bored” with painting, and it’s as a creator of environments and assemblages that he is currently most successful. I’m impressed with the pictures I’ve seen of the epic post-industrial ruined city that he’s building at this studio in southern France, but there are only hints of it in the current show. Perhaps Kiefer is searching for a middle path between painting and sculpture. In the two walls composed of framed collages made from real ferns, palm fronds, clay and plaster, there are certain images of real originality and power, with the artist finding color and expression using the actual materials of nature rather than their representations. Too bad the vision which animates the best of these ambitious works doesn’t sustain the whole experience or transform the space in anything like the way the artist intended. If there’s any stars that are falling, it is that of the reputation of Mr. Kiefer himself, who is not well served by such a fawning and over-adulatory display in the heart of Paris.