Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth at the Hirshhorn is awesome, in the way the word is meant to be used. The exhibition is dominated by Kiefer's enormous canvases, with paint caked on and built up; lead and wire elements hanging from them; nuclear submarines, sunflowers, cages, window frames, skis attached. Kiefer's usual palette of blacks, browns, and greys sets a consistently somber tone, as do the now-expected lines (furrows, railroad tracks) that draw the eye up to high, dark horizons. The paintings are complemented by similarly imposing, mysterious sculptures-- a massive book with wings that's rooted to the ground, a bookshelf with its volumes crushed by meteorites, books made of lead whose pages are as tall as a man.

The show spans several decades of Kiefer's output and fits a vast array of sub-themes under its broad heading. An exhibit of Kiefer's star paintings and would be enough to delve into for hours, but they are broken up among paintings of his studio, representations of odd Godheads, palettes superimposed over landscapes, sunflowers displayed in books and ruined halls. There's so much on offer, and yet it's an incomplete picture of his art: the recurring images of charred, cracked and riven earth refer back to his earlier works on the Holocaust and post-Holocaust Germany, which are barely touched on. How does one get from the suffocating earth pictures to the evocative but mysterious heaven pictures? When did Kiefer make the leap and begin discussing the cosmos, and why? What is it exactly that he's saying about heaven? His heaven is even darker and more distant than his earth-- there is little escape there, and a lot of doom. The exhibition guide says that Kiefer's images "intertwine a complex range of sources, including alchemical treatises; Nordic, Greek, Egyptian and early Christian mythology; and mystical Jewish texts, often relating these subjects to modern history." So much is clear. But how and why he's moved from recent German history to the sweep of human history and beyond remains a mystery.

The final room has more light and buoyancy than the rest of the exhibition put together: in "Leviathan", a model of a nuclear submarine crests a purple wave on a sunny day; in "Nigredo, Albedo, Rubedo", golden metal sunflowers emerge from red, white, and lead books, on which the white crests against the red clay like waves breaking over rocks. While the sea is a turbulent, destructive force in some of the other works, here one thinks of the early days of creation and the forming of the earth from the void. And yet there is no commentary on what appears to be a new mood from Kiefer. I don't mind the artist and the art being a mystery, but I do mind the curators not bothering to tease it out a bit.

All that said, I loved the chance to see all these Kiefers in one place together, as I'd seen mostly prints and those a couple at a time. I went with an artist friend, and hearing her explain his techniques and delight in them added a whole new dimension to the experience. The Hirshhorn puts on some of the best exhibitions in town: the 2002-2003 Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera is still one of my all-time favorites, the 2003 Gerhard Richter show had an intriguingly different feel from its stop at MoMa, and Gyroscope, the exhibition of pieces from the permanent collection was just a hoot.


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