Mass MoCA and Anselm Kiefer: Agony’s Chapel

Stephen Kobasa
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kiefer 1aThe wreckage is confined as if it were a crime scene display, solitary in a warehouse, awaiting the jury’s visit. This the antechamber to the installation of work by Anselm Kiefer now in place at MASS MoCA for the coming decade. The building on the former factory complex that was converted to house it was once a water storage tank for nearby boilers, and there is a sense of a pool having been drained to reveal these still decaying fragments on the floor, now making their long return to dust.

Above: Anselm Kiefer, Étroits sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow are the Vessels), 2002, concrete, steel, lead and earth, 60 x 960 x 110”. All photos: Arthur Evans. Courtesy Hall Art Foundation © Anselm Kiefer. xxxxxx

Elihu Vedder, ‘The Questioner of the Sphinx’ (1863). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The 2002 work entitled Étroits sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow are the Vessels), with its protruding rebar, suggests the fossilized remains of an unknown species of monster, exhumed by some puzzled scientist. Or it is the once animated rubble of a broken assembly line, where some death-making industry assembled its brutal gadgets. There are sheets of lead that cleave to the concrete as if some preposterous war memorial  had  been wrecked, its inscriptions now melted by fire into something indecipherable, but evoking the despair promised by Shelley’s Ozymandias to all those deluded by the arrogance of power. Kiefer’s confrontation with a German past, defined by state violence ending in a wasteland, reaches into our present where the same definition still operates, and our willingness to tolerate it grows more and more refined.

In the gallery which runs parallel and behind this one, rows of beds are arranged as they might have been in a ward of the asylum where the Marquis De Sade produced his plays. The Women of the Revolution (Les Femmes de la Révolution), a work begun in 1992 and extending over the next eleven years, kiefer 2bwith the poisonous lead here melded to both frames and absent bodies which have left their relic traces in multiple forms, is a series of variations on the legend of Procrustes where the occupants are tortured to fit the couches they lie upon.

Left: The Women of the Revolution (Les Femmes de la Révolution), 1992/2013 (detail). Lead beds: dimensions variable. Photograph on lead: 138 x 174”. Courtesy Hall Art Foundation © Anselm Kiefer

But these sleepers have been turned to stone and water and rust and dead flowers and a drowned palette where the paint has become strands of metal thread. This is the hospital of history that we all still live in, documents of a revolution which led to the extermination camps, with a large painted panel on the far wall of the space depicting the back of a uniformed figure walking along a barbed wire fence. You cannot see the murderer’s face; you would never recognize him in the street. He could be anyone. Us. This is exactly the point.

And where, then, inside this stark architecture of of human failing is there a sign of consolation? The enclosed room at the opposite end of the building might suggest that possibility. There is an immediate echo of something brighter, more convinced of salvation as well as damnation, in the shape of this space given over to Kiefer’s assemblage of paintings with the single title of Velimir Chlebnikov, from 2004.

Below:Velimir Chlebnikov, 2004 (detail), 30 paintings: oil, emulsion, acrylic, lead and mixed media on canvas. 18 paintings: 75 x 130” each; 12 paintings: 75 x 110” each. Hall Collection. Courtesy Hall Art Foundation © Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer Velimir Chlebnikov, 2004 (detail) 30 paintings: oil, emulsion, acrylic, lead and mixed media on canvas 18 paintings: 75 x 130 inches (190.5 x 330 cm) each 12 paintings: 75 x 110 inches (190.5 x 280 cm) each Hall Collection Photo: Arthur Evans Courtesy Hall Art Foundation © Anselm Kiefer

That would be Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua with its certainties of order and meaning and glory, but here inverted to read as a catalogue of mechanical slaughter, inspired by the Russian Futurist poet who envisioned endless cycles of naval warfare, and whose name gives the work its title. These panels are ruins of water, tainted by the underwater weapons they hide. The ocean is thick, stained by oil and burning, its gross floral decorations an evocation ofkiefer 3c those sunken wreaths thrown from the decks of warships by grieving families in memory of drowned fathers.

Right: Velimir Chlebnikov, 2004 (detail), oil, emulsion, acrylic, lead and mixed media on canvas. Hall Collection.Courtesy Hall Art Foundation © Anselm Kiefer.

But the silence being broken here is not just concerning conflicts that have ended long ago. As I write this, and as you read it, there are intercontinental ballistic missile submarines capable of effectively erasing all human life quietly moving in deep waters off one coast or another. They are oxymorons of beauty and mass murder. We never think of their existence. Yet they hold everything which we pretend to treasure at risk. That is why to stand here with these paintings is both gift and punishment. Kiefer knows better than any other artist of our time that hope is not allowed to forget the past that puts it in jeopardy; and that hope is not allowed to lie about the darkness now.

By Stephen Vincent Kobasa, Contributing Writer

Anselm Kiefer

Spring/Summer/Fall through 2028*


87 Marshall Street, North Adams, MA


* In a major new collaboration with the Hall Art Foundation, the keystone of which is a large and long-term exhibition of sculpture and paintings by Anselm Kiefer, MASS MoCA opens a 10,000 square-foot building at MASS MoCA specially re-purposed by the Hall Art Foundation and devoted to the art of Anselm Kiefer.

One Comment

  1. Kathryn Molnar September 27, 2018 3:29 pm

    Hello, I am looking to reach Mr. Stephen V. Kobasa, who was my English teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas high school in New Britain. Can you please help me to contact him?

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