Sunday, June 23, 2013


Anselm Kiefer is the Anti-Walt Disney.  Instead of the plastic glee of Disneyland, all based on misconceptions and denials, Kiefer confronts the destroyed Europe of his childhood.  The exploded, the ashen, the deserted -- the little “world” Kiefer has made from an abandoned silk factory looks like Pompeii except there are not even lava castings of people -- only buildings and debris.  Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, was a series of coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria on November 9, 1938.  The streets were full of broken glass from shop windows and homes.  But Kiefer throws in a twist: on each glass shard of his shattered stacks he writes the designations of a star, according to the NASA-supplied formula which records the myriads by means of number code.  Later, when he creates multi-media works of children’s dresses something like white muslin pinafores, he tucks glass shards like spears into the pockets and then numbers the pockets as the children in the camps were numbered.  He is an artist of chaos, but in the chaos the small detail is all the more powerful.

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (streams on Netflix) is a 2010 Sophie Fiennes documentary film about this creation of a gesamtkunstwerk (a total world) outside Barjac, France.  Sophie, more properly known as Sophia Victoria Twisleton Wykeham-Fiennes, is an English film director and producer and, yes, she’s the sister of those handsome Fiennes actors.  They all appear to belong to the kind of artsy crowd that loves nihilism (Goth is for kids) and expresses their feelings in many art forms.  Americans pay them little attention, being more acquainted with the suburban green deserts of California.  No one has speculated yet on what will grow over that sterile turf, tended by illegal immigrants.  I mean, aside from chlorinated swimming pools and Big Box stores.

Kiefer works on “many levels” in the most literal sense.  He’s creating underground catacombs as well as tottering towers.  After the camera has toured his “environment”, we are permitted to see how they are made.  The towers of “rooms” are cast by pouring concrete between shipping containers, the kind one sees on boats and railroads.  The tunnels are supported by drilling deep holes several feet across, pouring them full of concrete, then clearing away the crumbly dirt around them with cute little green excavating machines.  I’ve fancied a small Bobcat front-loader ever since I drove one on a ranch, but these are much more clever. Made in Paris.  

In the warehouse where a huge gray “sea” yards and yards across was being moved around by a crane in order to affix equally gray battleships to it, there was a calico cat on top of the debris, but it wasn’t part of the plan and fled.  Too vivid.  The work appears to be much fun to create, especially when the crew is melting metal, burning bundles of books (very neat and efficient), and breaking sheets of glass as big as a man can carry.

Then there is a section in which Kiefer is interviewed in his library, a sensible space filled with ordinary book-packed metal shelving like stacks, through which his two small sons dash, shushing each other as they go.   With his buzzed head and black t-shirt, the artist looks much like Tim except that instead of jeans he wears white yoga pants.  Sandals, not sneakers.

He says his goal is to create art that can NOT be hung over a sofa to match the wallpaper.  In fact, at one point he made a “painting” that included an actual sofa, to spare the bourgeois the trouble.  (My cousin once asked my brother, earning his MFA, to paint her something for over her sofa.  He supplied a garish misshapen nude that was never hung. She would not like Kiefer’s work but is not in much danger of even knowing it exists.)

Richard Randall, the academic artist who taught us how to cast and patine bronzes, did a response to the Vietnam war that was similar.  He took the doors off old boxcars, ran over them with tanks, machine-gunned them, and covered them with neon graffiti.  Hung high on a white museum wall and spotlit, the doors were both handsome and shocking.  But Kiefer’s work takes a while to “see.”  Scraped-bare painter’s palettes and books with sheet-lead pages are sunk in tarp-held ponds on sagging bunks in a mock barracks with the names of revolutionaries and feminists written in a frieze along the wall.  Mural-sized paintings of blasted and burnt trees are coated in real ash.  They made me think of George Gray, another artist who taught us, showing us how to use Frank Reilly’s set of gray oil paints to work in grisaille, all based on values instead of color. (  

The suggestion is WWII black and white war journalism. I don’t make these connections as a way of diminishing the work, but to increase awareness that this is not outsider art.  Rather it is an exploration and intensification that in the end leaves the viewer with a sad sensitivity to the subtle variation of silvery destruction.  It is menacing, foreboding, insidiously terrifying.  The plants of the location already move in to cover it.

Underground, Kiefer makes paths.  Aboveground he piles up rooms.  When people protest that they don’t know where to put such works, he is unsympathetic, saying they need to be dedicated enough to provide the right kind of space.  Absorbing as it is to look at these works -- enter them, really, -- esp. after one has looked long enough to get a feel for the sumptuous silk of ash, the concrete aggregate flecked with shreds of straw, the sequential pools of light in tunnels, the yielding sheets of lead, the glittering glass -- it becomes even more fascinating to watch the total concentration of Kiefer’s face.  When he’s calling to the men to change the angle of a crane or throw the glass sheet harder, he’s totally involved in what the materials do or might do.  

One of the most interesting is a cave-out meant to be covered with a spill of molten lead, but the metal chilled too soon.  Kiefer and his helper fired up huge propane torches and remelted the metal “on the roll” until it trickled down the earthen slope.  Slabs, crevices, surfaces, and the inevitability of gravity.  Kiefer tells about buying very ancient sheets of lead that had been near-upright on a roof -- the metal, which is in reality an incredibly slow liquid (think mercury), was thicker at the lower end.  Glass will do the same over centuries and centuries.

Maybe every war is essentially a genocide.  The two “world” wars, being European and industrial, had a cold technical urban aspect, quite unlike the tropical countryside genocides in Africa or SE Asia, machetes wielded in exhausting orgies against one’s familiar neighbors.  The genocides of famine and disease, underlain by industry, slowly shift along like molecules of glass or lead, thickening at the bottom.  Deadly dust sifting down until the grass comes to cover it all.

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