North Adams

Anselm Kiefer at Mass MoCA

Imagine a corrugated metal shed in which two facing walls tower twenty-five feet high and extend fifty-eight feet in length. Each interior wall is paneled with fifteen six-foot by nine-foot Anselm Kiefer paintings that rise three feet high. Layering seems an apt metaphor not only for this work, Velimir Chlebnikov (2004)—whose shed stands inside the gallery building, inside the museum, inside the grounds of a former factory campus now occupied by MASS MoCA—but also for the two other Kiefer works that share the Hall Art Foundation building.

Left and Right: The two walls of painting of Anselm Kiefer’s Velimir Chlebnikov. Velimir Chlebnikov, 2004 (detail); steel pavilion, 300 x 330 x 689 in.; 30 paintings, oil, emulsion, acrylic, lead, and mixed media on canvas; 18 paintings, 75 x 130 in.; 12 paintings, 75 x 110 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield.

Left and Right: The two walls of painting of Anselm Kiefer’s Velimir Chlebnikov. Velimir Chlebnikov, 2004 (detail); steel pavilion, 300 x 330 x 689 in.; 30 paintings, oil, emulsion, acrylic, lead, and mixed media on canvas; 18 paintings, 75 x 130 in.; 12 paintings, 75 x 110 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield.

The mass and material of each of the three installations bury the visitor in strata, not only in painting above painting above painting, or Kiefer’s signature accumulation of paint and other media, but also in the layers of undulating, rusted-rebar-spiked concrete snaking eighty-two feet in Étroit Sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow Are the Vessels) (2002), and twenty lead beds arrayed in The Women of the Revolution (Les Femmes de la Révolution) (1992/2013). In Velimir Chlebnikov—based on the eponymous 18th-century Russian poet and futurist’s mathematical proposition that great naval battles occur at 317-year intervals—visitors find themselves deep in a pictorial representation of this history, and under an unsettled ocean, black, gray, white, and ochre, studded with three-dimensional replicas of naval vessels. In The Women of the Revolution, the gray beds are draped with lead sheets and arranged in two rows, facing each other. They evoke the inescapability of hospital wards, psychiatric institutions, Dickensian orphanages, and cemetery graves, alluding as well as to the shrouding of women in history. The surface of the lead is stained with the colors of mineral deposits, tracing strata even here.

The two other Kiefer works that share the Hall Art Foundation building at MASS MoCA with Velimir Chlebnikov. Left: Étroits Sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow Are the Vessels), 2002 (detail); concrete, steel, lead and earth; 60 x 960 x 110 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield. Right: The Women of the Revolution (Les Femmes de la Révolution), 1992/2013 (detail); lead beds: dimensions variable; photograph on lead: 138 x 174 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield.

The two other Kiefer works that share the Hall Art Foundation building at MASS MoCA with Velimir Chlebnikov. Left: Étroits Sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow Are the Vessels), 2002 (detail); concrete, steel, lead and earth; 60 x 960 x 110 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield. Right: The Women of the Revolution (Les Femmes de la Révolution), 1992/2013 (detail); lead beds: dimensions variable; photograph on lead: 138 x 174 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield.

It is difficult to extricate the experience of any of Kiefer’s artworks from either their thick, dark, heavy materiality or from their historical resonances to warfare, atrocity, and revolution. So it is strange to discover a simultaneous but completely different experience: play. The panels in Velimir Chlebnikov, for example, appear at first to document the movements and wreckage of enormous naval vessels mid-ocean. From a distance, however, many of these seascapes seem to reveal themselves as beaches or ponds, a trick of the eye that recasts the warships and submarines as models or toys propelled by the hands of children. And when viewed from above, the beds in The Women of the Revolution seem to represent not only the places where bodies might rest, but also, applying a radically different sense of scale, a landscape. The shift is unavoidable as each bed’s central cavity seems no longer to represent the imprint of a revolutionary woman’s body but instead records a desert crater, bomb site, or blasted heath. If these associations seem distant from the content of play, they are “playful” because they take the “bed” and turn it into what it is not, a landscape.

Two panels from Velimir Chlebnikov, which resemble the open ocean of naval warfare, at times seem to shift in scale to reveal a pond, cove, or estuary with model ships. Velimir Chlebnikov, 2004 (detail); steel pavilion, 300 x 330 x 689 in.; 30 paintings, oil, emulsion, acrylic, lead and mixed media on canvas; 18 paintings, 75 x 130 in.; 12 paintings, 75 x 110 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield.

Two panels from Velimir Chlebnikov, which resemble the open ocean of naval warfare, at times seem to shift in scale to reveal a pond, cove, or estuary with model ships. Velimir Chlebnikov, 2004 (detail); steel pavilion, 300 x 330 x 689 in.; 30 paintings, oil, emulsion, acrylic, lead and mixed media on canvas; 18 paintings, 75 x 130 in.; 12 paintings, 75 x 110 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield.

This shifting of perspective and scale suggests that Kiefer is not only referring back to history but also to childhood—not only to primordial battles and human attempts to make sense of them, but also to games that start with the imagination of toddlers. From one moment to the next, my impression of the work changes: I am buried in the sense of the material, with repeating canvasses paneling a chapel-like space or repeating beds lining a ward; in another, it is my finger that moves the toy boat, my hand that tumbles a stone into a crater.

Kiefer, however, does not leave visitors to their own devices. As the exhibition brochure explains, “(W)e find a single word inscribed in one painting . . . Aphrodite, and near it, among one of the few canvases without a ship affixed, the words Hero and Leander. Aphrodite, goddess of fertility and sexual rapture, arose, according to the poet Hesiod, from the foaming sea churned up when Cronus castrated his father, Uranus, casting the severed genitalia into the ocean. Hero and Leander were lovers in Aphrodite’s court, whose secret nightly rendezvous required swimming nearly a mile each way across the treacherous Hellespont.”[1]

Two of the beds in The Women of the Revolution showing could be mistaken from above for desert or mining landscapes, shifting in scale from intimate to massive. The Women of the Revolution (Les Femmes de la Révolution), 1992/2013 (detail); lead beds: dimensions variable; photograph on lead: 138 x 174 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield.

Two of the beds in The Women of the Revolution showing could be mistaken from above for desert or mining landscapes, shifting in scale from intimate to massive. The Women of the Revolution (Les Femmes de la Révolution), 1992/2013 (detail); lead beds: dimensions variable; photograph on lead: 138 x 174 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield.

But most people don’t know anything about Cronus or Uranus and think of Aphrodite in terms not of fertility but love. And the story of Hero and Leander, if people think about it at all, represents a tragedy of love akin to Romeo and Juliet. (Leander drowns after he gets lost and Hero kills herself by jumping into the sea.) Keifer’s visual and verbal references to Chlebnikov’s arcane mathematics, to his military history, and to the mythological sea battle between Cronus and Uranus requires the viewer to read into the panels other histories and the relationship among love, hate, and despair. None of Kiefer’s symbols, it seems, remains stable. So the upside-down gloves that adorn three of the Chlebnikov images might read as a hamsa—a sign in Islamic and Jewish lore that protects against evil—or the hand of an unseen power (a god or dictator or admiral), or the lost “hands” of battle (that is, the sailors), or the hands of children pushing toy boats. Similarly, the beds frame the women revolutionaries, whose names Kiefer has scrawled on the installation’s walls, as wounded and warded together; the orphanage-like arrangement reminds us that their histories have been abandoned.

The Kiefer works evoke many associations, some explicit, such as the reference to the goddess Aphrodite (written in Greek in the image on the right), others ambiguous, such as the glove hanging (in the image on the left). Velimir Chlebnikov, 2004 (detail); steel pavilion, 300 x 330 x 689 in; 30 paintings, oil, emulsion, acrylic, lead and mixed media on canvas; 18 paintings, 75 x 130 in.; 12 paintings, 75 x 110 in. Courtesy of MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield.

The Kiefer works evoke many associations, some explicit such as the reference to the goddess Aphrodite (written in Greek in the image on the right), others ambiguous such as the glove hanging (in image on the left). Anslem Kiefer. Velimir Chlebnikov, 2004 (detail); Steel pavillion, 300 x 330 x 689 inches; 30 paintings, oil, emulsion, acrylic, lead and mixed media on canvas; 18 paintings, 75 x 130 inches; 12 paintings, 75 x 110 inches. Courtesy of MASS MoCA , North Adams, MA, and Hall Art Foundation, New York. Photo: Saul Rosenfield

If it is difficult to emerge from the exhibition without feeling the weight of all these layers, the works equally instill a sense of buoyancy. The works are beautiful in the way of the old wood, old stone, and weathered steel discovered in churches or tumble-down houses. Kiefer asks us to be aware of the stories he recounts: Chlebnikov’s, Jules Michelet’s 1854 study of women who played a role in the French Revolution, and the French Nobel Laureate Alexis Leger’s poetry in Étroit Sont les Vaisseaux. But the works also demand that we inhabit our bodies. Despite the writing they incorporate, Kiefer’s artworks are not apprehendable as written histories. They are legible primarily as the sensation of weight, the layer upon layer. Kiefer scrawls a Leger quotation on the wall, “Une même vague par le monde, une même vague depuis Troie, Roule sa hanche jusq’à nous” [One same wave throughout the world, one wave since Troy rolls its haunch towards us].[2] And so we feel these works as we feel—and perhaps, fear—the rolling of this wave, a commentary as much on the feeling as on the nature of history.

Anselm Kiefer is on view at MASS MoCA through 2028. This year, it closes for winter on November 2, 2014.

[1] MASS MoCA,Anselm Kiefer,” Exhibition Brochure. North Adams, MA: Hall Art Foundation and Mass MoCA (2013), 3–4.

[2] Both the quotation and its translation are from the MASS MoCA exhibition brochure.

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