Anselm Kiefer

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State of Paint

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Joseph Montgomery at MassMOCA

The provocations and ideas about the state of paint are plentiful in Jed Perl‘s recent essay in the New Republic, The Rectangular Canvas is Dead: Richard Diebenkorn and the problems of modern painting.* Using the occasion of the Richard Diebenkorn show, The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966 to unify his discussion (a show that is in its last day at the De Young Museum in San Francisco before heading to the Palm Springs Art Museum, October 26-February 16 where I will see it later this year,) Perl continues to court the controversial, the curmudgeonly and the insightful. But I’ve been thinking about the essay all week.

Perl starts by referencing a show of very small paintings—many only two inches on a side—by a young painter named Eleanor Ray. He describes her work as bringing a “tightly controlled painterly panache to her itsy-bitsy glimpses of the view through a window.”

The sizes of the panels…suggest a reverse hubris, a pride in how much she can do with so little. There is something about Ray’s hunkered-down facility that strikes me as symptomatic of a fearfulness that overtakes all too many serious painters today. As much as I worry about the power of the trashmeisters who now dominate so many of our galleries and museums, I worry more about an atmosphere that makes it so difficult for painters who are actually engaged with the possibilities of brushes and pigments to feel free.

He has a point, and it is one I can nod with some acknowledgment. But he doesn’t stop there. He takes these issues—of tiny works and of Ray’s “reverse hubris”—into another valence:

Eleanor Ray is in her mid-twenties. That is a time in artists’ lives when they ought to be trying things out, unafraid to make a bad painting. The best artists—the greatest artists—are not afraid to fail. As for Ray, instead of allowing herself to experiment, she remains armored inside her minuscule vignettes. Why this should be I can’t say for sure. But I have a theory. I wonder if Ray, coming of age at a time when painting is said by so many to be dead or dying, believes that the best she can do as a painter is keep a few tiny embers alive…The trouble is that the sizes of the paintings are designed to wrap up any unresolved conflicts in a perfect little package. You cannot really access these paintings. They’re so damn small that they feel as if they’re in lockdown. There is a sensibility here, but it is imprisoned. Whatever interesting conflicts and contradictions the subjects might provoke have been squared away without ever really being addressed.

Painting, which for centuries reigned supreme among the visual arts, has fallen from grace. I am quite sure that Eleanor Ray is aware of this. Every serious painter is…Ray is not alone in going into a defensive posture. With her lyrical painterly postcards, she strikes me as too willing to accept the idea that what has vanished in recent years, perhaps never to return, is painting as an expansive and foundational value or idea—as something worth boldly working for. There is no fight in her work. Behind the elegance of her effects, I sense the sadness of defeat. She is much too young for that.

I didn’t see Ray’s show, but Perl is addressing a larger set of issues than just this one body of work. A big part of his criticism is related to size and scale. Small does not have to stand for fearfulness, a lack of fight, a giving in to defeat. It has been my experience that small format work can achieve the “expansive and foundational value or idea” right alongside the supersized installation, and one of the best places to see that demonstrated right now is at MassMOCA.

Most visitors are coming to MassMOCA to see work by high visibility artists: Xu Bing‘s massive Phoenix and the installations by Anselm Kiefer in the newly opened Hall Foundation building. Both Xu Bing and Kiefer are international art stars, and they use scale to speak boldly about contemporary issues including social and political injustice, over industrialization, the death of values and tradition.

But the epic and larger-than-life is after all just one approach. Also on view at MassMOCA are works more intimately sized but also compelling, fearless and brave. Joseph Montgomery‘s Five Sets Five Reps is wall assemblages have a muscularity all their own while also exuding a playful inventiveness. These pieces are exciting and feel like they could climb right off the wall and into your body. Life’s Work features the singular works of Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera. Philips’ visual transmogrification of a Victorian novel, Humument, is a tour de force of intimacy, playful seduction and mastery. Both Philips and Montgomery are fabulously gifted artists, and I spent more time with their works because they were so complex and compelling.

For years on Slow Muse I have advocated for the both/and. This is not just a liberal pluralism that can be dismissed for its unwillingness to make distinctions. My both/and is actually its own kind of subversion, but a subversion nonetheless.

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* Thank you to friend and Slow Muse reader Tim Rice for bringing this essay to my attention. His upcoming show at Don Soker Gallery in San Francisco opens in October 5.

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Tom Philips

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Tom Philips

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Tom Philips

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Installation view of Tom Philips’ Humument

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Joseph Montgomery

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Joseph Montgomery

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Joseph Montgomery

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Installation view of Joseph Montgomery’s Five Sets Five Reps

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Kieferland


Anselm Kiefer in the documentary, “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.” (Photo: Alive Mind Cinema)

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Rubble is the future. Because everything that is passes. There is a wonderful chapter in Isaiah that says: grass will grow over your cities…Isaiah sees the city and the different layers over it, the grass, and then another city, the grass and then another city again.

–Anselm Kiefer, courtesy of Neversmorgasbored

Sophie Fiennes‘ film, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, features German artist Anselm Kiefer during a time when he was living and working near Barjac, France before moving to Paris. Kiefer purchased land that was once a silk factory and together with a band of swarthy assistants began constructing and deconstructing a landscape that is “a monument to the human will to self-annihilation and a rehearsal for the apocalypse” in the words of New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis.

From Dargis’ review:

Mr. Kiefer and his team burrowed into the earth, dug tunnels, constructed an amphitheater, painted (and threw dust and broken glass on) canvases and kiln-fired lead sculptures that look like books, turning the sprawl into a massive atelier he called La Ribaute…The movie offers the only chance that most of us will probably have to visit what he left behind, this strange, eerie Kieferland.

Kieferland IS a world quite different from my own. For anyone who is a maker and has seen any of Kiefer’s massive works—usually distressed into altered states that are visually stunning while also overwhelming—the how did he do it? question is always in the back of my mind. I have the same query when I approach the work of many of our most epic (grandiose?) art stars (“startists” like “starchitects”?) including Richard Serra, Donald Judd, Michael Heizer, Matthew Barney.

So yes, my maker’s curiosity would keep me in a seat at the ICA for several hours while Fienne’s camera wanders this oddly cinematic, unsettling landscape. She pans for 20 minutes before we encounter any of the humans who have created this under and above ground complex of grottos and postindustrial pavilions. And when we finally do see Kiefer and his assistants at work, the camera keeps its distance, neither invading nor engaging with anyone. The musical score is heavy and ominous, mostly music composed by György Ligeti and insistently dark.

The film is ekphrastic and as much about Fiennes’ sensibilities as it is about Kiefer’s. While I usually admire the ambient and the nonlinear, I wanted a better view into the nuts and bolts of Kiefer’s genius for fabrication. While I was surprised and oddly delighted to see Kiefer pouring molten lead by hand from a pre-industrial cauldron or watch him break pane after pane of glass wearing sandals and shorts, the glimpses into his process were few.

And encounters with his philosophical foundations as well as his personal life are kept to a minimum. At one moment in the film two young boys wander past the camera, but no reference is made to them.

From Dargis’ review again:

The boys, like so much in “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow,” are never addressed by Ms. Fiennes, perhaps because to do so might force her to employ banal documentary strategies, like identifying people. Instead she tosses in some introductory text and sets her camera loose. And because she won’t or can’t engage the complexities of the art and the arguments that have long surrounded it (involving, for instance, Mr. Kiefer’s appropriation of Nazi imagery), she embraces a silence that nonetheless clamorously draws attention to itself through the cinematography and some of the same music that Stanley Kubrick used in “2001.” It’s unfortunate that in gliding through these ravaged spaces while dodging time and its traumas, she embraces the role of tourist rather than of the vigorous, questioning participant that Mr. Kiefer’s work solicits and demands.

Well put.

The film did disrupt and provoke an ongoing struggle for me that also plagues most makers I know: The issue of large vs small in artistic expression. Epic vs lyric. Grandiose vs intimate. So I was bemused by a recent email declaration from my wise friend Harvey Roy Greenberg: “I have of late for reasons I know not why been much meditating on ‘infinite riches in a little room’”.

To be discussed further in a future post.

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From a film about Anselm Kiefer, “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow”

I have referenced my favorite description of artists here before, but it bears repeating:

Artists are continually torn between the urgent need to communicate, and the still more urgent need not to be found.

D. W. Winnicott

As intimately as I know that paradoxical space that Winnicott describes, I have also come to see that it possesses other features of polar extremes. State of mind, for example, is a fragile entity no matter what you do with your day. But it looms as a particularly large issue for anyone whose work is the pulling of fine angel hair threads from thin air—threads that weave themselves into poems, music, art.

Like someone with adult onset food allergies, I am much more cautious about what I read and see. While the line is a fine one between being an isolate and a person who practices thoughtful selective neglect, I am getting better at monitoring when I have been over exposed to the negative and the dark view. Each of us has our own water level. Perhaps mine is changing.

Here’s some tests of your tolerance: This excerpt is from a recent review of two books, Anna Porter‘s The Ghosts of Europe: Central Europe’s Past and Uncertain Future, and F. S. Michael‘s Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything, written by Jessa Crispin on The Smart Set, a thoughtful site from Drexel University:

Twenty years after the Velvet Revolution, Havel gave a public speech in which he assessed the current state of the free Czech Republic. “On the one hand everything is getting better — a new generation of mobile phones is being released every week,” he said. “But in order to make use of them, you need to follow new instructions. So you end up reading instruction manuals instead of books and in your free time you watch TV where handsome tanned guys scream from advertisements about how happy they are to have new swimming trunks… The new consumer society is accomplished by a growing number of people who do not create anything of value.”

The artistic and literary scene that flourished paradoxically under censorship and repression has died off. The public intellectual is, for the most part, no longer invited to the most important parties. Anna Porter writes, “Now that everyone can publish what they want, what is the role of the intellectuals?” and she can’t find an answer. It’s no longer the police state that’s attacking the intelligentsia — it’s disinterest and boredom. It’s distraction. It’s a trade off. And it’s one that we should be able to acknowledge and be allowed to mourn. When the historian Timothy Garton Ash visited Poland in the 1980s, he admitted to an envy for the environment there. “Here is a place where people care, passionately, about ideas.” The people of Central Europe traded in ideas for groceries and for not being beaten to death by the police. No one could possibly blame them, but at the same time, Havel and the other leaders had no sense of the true cost of democracy.

And this:

So Central Europe gave up one monoculture and installed another. It also happens to be the presiding monoculture of nearly the entire world: the economic story. But perhaps it’s easier to see the monoculture through the filter of Central Europe because the transition was so quick and total there. The economic story of the United States came on creeping, subsuming our culture so pervasively and gradually that it’s almost difficult to believe things here ever worked any another way. But East Berlin became West Berlin with the crumbling of one thin wall.

From another article on The Smart Set—A Question of Timing: The resonance of destruction past, manufactured, and yet-to-come, by Morgan Meis:

Everybody is talking about ruins these days. That could be a bad sign. Detroit, in particular, seems to have captured the fancy of the ruin enthusiast. Detroit has experienced a 25 percent reduction in population over the last 10 years or so. Whole areas of the city have been abandoned. You can see entire neighborhoods in ruin, skyscrapers in ruin, a vastly depopulated downtown area. Camilo José Vergara, a photographer specializing in urban decay, once suggested in the mid-1990s that large sections of downtown Detroit be turned into a “skyscraper ruins park.” It would be a testimonial to a lost age, preserved in stone and metal and glass. Today, people sometimes travel to places like Detroit and other Rust Belt locations for the sole reason of gazing upon the ruins.

Our existence is caught between competing vectors, strong forces driving life in completely different directions. Who could have calculated the cost of democracy on the cultural vibrancy of Eastern Europe? And how do we come to terms with the fact that ruins ARE fascinating, that a voyeuristic prurience in us does make “ruin porn” an apt term. Anselm Kiefer, one of my most admired artists, has built a staggering artistic oeuvre grounded in a foundational concept of ruination, writ large and small.

The life force you need in the “rag and bone shop” studio needs protection. It needs shoring up. A diet that can balance the dark with a healthy serving of the light. I’ve gotten better with time at figuring out which of my friends are the leaven in my loaf and which ones require a more limited exposure; which writers and musicians feed the maker in me; what practices—even the simple ones like a moment of quiet before starting to work—bring me into balance. And after all these years, I still feel like I am a beginner at being a guard at the gate. But getting proficient at gate guarding is more important to me now than ever before.

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An excellent article about the Anselm Kiefer show (which I referenced in an earlier post) by poet and art critic Sue Hubbard is up on 3 Quarks Daily. It is sized for reading in one sitting, something I highly recommend to anyone interested in Kiefer, painting and/or contemporary art issues.

Here’s a passage about the Kieferian concept of oceans and words worth remembering:

For Kiefer the ocean suggests a primal, amniotic, pre-linguistic space, something without beginning or end, where time and space take on cosmological and existential meanings familiar from quantum physics…Many of the works include hand written texts, often the title of the poem scrawled like a repeated mantra across the surface. Kiefer has said that poems are “like buoys on the high seas. I swim from one to another, and with them I would be lost in the middle of the ocean. Poems are moorings in the infinite void where something emerges from the accumulation of interstellar dust: a bit of matter in an abyss of anti-matter.” His oceans are infinite spaces where numerous meanings intersect.

Hubbard’s final paragraph echoes many of the concerns I have discussed on this blog over the years:

Kiefer has said that: “in all the pictures in my mind, not even the most expert analyst could discover anything like a general idea or the God of living things. And without that, there is nothing.” He has been criticised for being theatrical – and it is a dangerous line that he walks – for there is always the possibility of falling into bombast and bathos. Yet in this increasingly frightening and unfettered world we need artists like Kiefer; artists with a seriousness of intent and vision who dare to look at the dark undercurrents of the human psyche, who are prepared to face what is tragic rather than endlessly celebrating what is glib, slick and ephemeral. In his essay Reframing postmodernisms, Mark C. Taylor argues that abstraction in art, following Greenberg’s dictates on painterly purity, gradually became empty formalism, which through Pop art and other commercialised movements lead to ‘the death of God’, or to put it in a more secular way, the erasure of the Sublime from art. It is this territory that Kiefer investigates. Yet it is as if, in this postmodern, ironic world, we are all too often embarrassed by his earnestness.

Note: Sue Hubbard has published two volumes of poems, Everything Begins with the Skin, and Ghost Station. Her novel, Depth of Field, was published in 2000. She writes about contemporary art for The Independent and The New Statesman.

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Anselm Kiefer’s ‘I Hold All the Indias in My Hand’ (Photo: Charles Duprat)

Anselm Kiefer is mounting a show at the White Cube gallery in London titled Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (The Waves of Sea and Love). With a nod to a 19th century Austrian writer, the theme of the show references the mythological Greek priestess Hero and her lover Leander who drowns in the Hellespont while swimming to be with her. The works feature large photographs of seascapes that have been “Kieferized”—altered by way of any variety of techniques, from coating them with chemicals to running them over with a truck. In addition to the seascape backdrop, Kiefer has added additional images such as obstetric implements, Euclidian drawings, a model of a U-boat and the presence of Kiefer himself.

Nicholas Wroe quotes Kiefer in a piece that appeared in the Guardian:

“It is a show about impossibilities,” he explains. “Putting a Euclidian diagram on a seascape is about the impossibility of capturing the sea. The sea is always fluid. The geometrical figure gives the impression of fixing it at a certain moment. It’s the same as us imposing constellations on the sky which, of course, are completely crazy and nothing to do with the stars. It is just for us to feel more comfortable. To construct an illusion for ourselves that we have brought order to chaos. We haven’t. I might have been born into a very literal sense of chaos, but in fact that state is true of all of us.”

And this:

Throughout the 1970s Kiefer devoted himself to Germanic myths. He explored the forests where early German tribes had defeated Roman legions and which were an “infinite vessel of mystery, of fairytales, of childhood memories”. He absorbed the romantic sturm und drang of Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes and skyscapes, and delved deep into Wagner’s music and his place in German culture. “My mother once made me listen to Lohengrin on the radio from Bayreuth and it made a big impression. I was attracted to the idea of the holy grail as something far away and enigmatic and a sort of destination where you desperately want to get to, but you know you will never arrive. That sense of longing came to me very early in my life. And art is longing. You never arrive, but you keep going in the hope that you will.”

Longing. That is the best word to describe a theme that carries through Kiefer’s massive body of work. But what is it actually? How is it different from other terms like nostalgia, sentimental, maudlin, bathic?

In an essay by Isabella Willinger, The Politics of Sentiment vs. a Poetics of Sentiment, a helpful distinction is offered. She references two types of nostalgia–restorative and reflective. “The practices of restorative nostalgia try to conceal cracks, ambivalences, imperfections – the signs of historical time – in order to simulate oneness.” On the other hand, reflective nostalgia “’thrives in the longing itself’ – it dwells on the ambivalence of human longing and belonging. Instead of recovering a fragment of the past for the present, this second type of nostalgia is more an experimentation with time and space.”

From Willinger:

Reflective nostalgia could either be seen as a mere sub-item in the discourse of a dangerous nationalist nostalgia or – in other scenarios – it can come to represent the emotion ‘longing’ that is not necessarily reliant on its troublesome nostalgic sibling. Longing, I argue, is an extremely reflective mode, the self-distancing aspect of which is at the core of imagination itself. Longing, then, could possibly be seen as a search for the utmost range of experience. The disposition or emotion ‘longing’ seen in such a light becomes an incredibly important experimental ground of our culture, and in fact culture in general. It reverberates in Walter Benjamin’s idea of the aura of the work of art before the age of technical reproduction. According to Benjamin, the aura consisted precisely in the unattainability – works of art were appearances of a distance, no matter how close they may be…From this perspective, longing becomes an oscillation between what is and what could be. Longing is about savouring different possibilities, about swaying back and forth in reflection, yet never quite arriving. In that way, it stands for the refusal of objectivity which postmodernism has discovered for itself. The rich semantics of longing, I am suggesting, stands exemplarily for the polysemy* of emotions in general.

I loved this circumambulation of thought.
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*Polysemy is the capacity for a sign or signs to have multiple meanings, i.e., a large semantic field.

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Installation view of Anselm Kiefer, Gagosian Gallery

Anselm Kiefer’s show at Gagosian in New York—big, ambitious, devastatingly bleak and yet subtly redemptive—brought Kiefer to New York. (A more in depth response to the show is posted here.) In early November he appeared at the 92nd Street Y to speak with the curator Sir Norman Rosenthal. In reporting on that conversation on the ever provocative and smart art site Hyperallergic, Kyle Chayka captured some of the highlights from that dialogue. As Chayka points out, you will have to imagine the German accent.

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On the arduous process of finishing a painting:

Some paintings were started in the 70s, and they’re still not finished. For me it’s not the question to find some finished thing, it’s a process. The process is the most important.

Kiefer likes to keep his paintings together because of this process, “the paintings speak to each other,” he says. The process is all part of the life of a work of art:

Paintings, operas, don’t stop for centuries. Works get discovered, rediscovered, and 50 years later in a different context, the painting could’ve changed completely.

The fact that his paintings sometimes fall apart, the tar-like chunks dropping to gallery floors, are just part of the works’ lives, parts the artist enjoys.

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On the purpose of a painting and the difficulty of fulfilling it:

It creates a new context. It is something different. It demonstrates another possibility of connection between things … When you want to create a new context, it has to be very well defined, otherwise it doesn’t work — it’s a cliché.

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The idea of loss and the past became an important focus of the talk, ranging from the influence of ancient cultures to the inevitability of disappearance:

Of course ancient culture is relevant. We come from somewhere. [Our] movement isn’t just into the future, it’s into the past and into the future at the same time.

There is so much lost. All the dinosaurs are lost. A lot of things disappear all the time … With a painting, there are 95 options to go forward, I have to give up 94 of them. Each decision is losing options. It’s a struggle.

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And the final question from Rosenthal, via Kant: is art a moral imperative?

I think art has nothing to do with morals. Art today can be immoral, in one hundred years it is moral.

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Anselm Kiefer at Gagosian

Kiefer pierces my circle of empathy, that field we all carry around us that determines who and what we care about. It is not that our work shares a similar sensibility. Hardly. Kiefer is a legend in his own time, and his art goes grand, epic and high concept as dramatically as any artist working today. But the firehose intensity of his presentation to the world doesn’t eliminate some exquisitely subtle, lyrical turns, and it is that particular aspect of his work that has kept me engaged and compelled all these years. The pavilion of his aesthetic is generous, and he makes room for a full array of artistic proclivities—political, historical, postmodern deconstructionistic, cerebral, visceral, dramatic, installationist, even painterly. Come on in, there’s room for everyone at Kieferpalooza.

Kiefer’s current exhibit is at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea and is his first in New York in eight years. The cavernous space holds 25 massive vitrines containing sculptures that are evocative of destruction, dessication, desolation, detritus. On the walls as a contextual frame to the floor pieces are massive Kieferesque one point perspective landscape paintings.

The major leitmotifs running through the show are Old Testament narratives and the plague of war (references to WWII, historical and present day Middle East.) The absence of saturated color is a perfect statement of a parched landscape that has been discarded and abandoned to the entropic forces that will eventually break everything down. This scorched earth apocalyptic vision is Kiefer’s signatory style, and no one does it quite like he does.

And yet like most Kiefer exhibits, the oversized bleakness is not without some pockets of reprieve and pleasure. His work confronts but it doesn’t empty you out. There is still room to be amazed, to relish in the magnificence and mastery of his mind and eye. His material handling is breathtaking, a lineage that can be traced to his mentor from a previous generation, Joseph Beuys. No one else makes lead sheets appear rubbery and supple, or move from found to fabricated objects so seamlessly.

From Roberta Smith’s review in the Times:

The German artist Anselm Kiefer knows how to put on a show. The dour and dusty copse of art with which he has forested the vast Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea may elicit awe, skepticism or disdain — or perhaps a conflicted combination of all three. But its initial power is hard to deny…To wander among these works is to participate in a performance piece of the artist’s devising. The sheer density of the installation gives it an almost interactive, relational-aesthetics quality. As we gawk, peer and crane, decipher the titles and mull over the allusions — all the while avoiding collisions with other similarly engaged people — we form a cast of extras trapped in some museum of devastation.

It’s the dustbin of history expanded into giant prop storage in a theater where death and destruction prevail, but various ancient faiths offer the possibility of redemption. And yet really giving in to the work requires suspending the suspicion that religion and faith are not part of the solution. They are most of the problem.

The show (titled Next Year in Jerusalem) is up through December 18.


Degradation in Keifer’s hand is rendered mysterious, transformative and transcendent


Subtleties abound in his work, with attention to extraordinary detail. The clothes of Lilith’s children, mottled and lushly textured.


Kiefer creates an entire meat locker of lead sheeted paintings, hung as the dead and dessicated skins of animals

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Here’s a well deserved shout out for Mass MoCA. One of my all time favorite museums, this innovative, expansive and lively space is celebrating its 10 year anniversary. That’s no small feat.

(A piece about its inception is posted on Slow Painting, excerpted from an article by Geoff Edgers in the Boston Globe.)

Here are a few shots from a recent visit:

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The extravagant installation of Sol LeWitt walls

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(No hurry on seeing these–the LeWitts will be on view through 2033)

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Riki Moss and Thalassa Ali, day trip companions

And from the Anselm Kiefer exhibit, Sculpture and Painting:

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A few words on Kiefer’s work by Ken Johnson:

Mr. Kiefer’s career-making move was to draw an analogy between two big ideas: transforming raw materials into art and transforming the raw history of Germany into a mythology of redemption and rebirth. These transformations are not literal. Rather they happen in the viewer’s mind. We see his paintings as expanses of viscerally physical raw material, and at the same time we see them as big, artistic pictures and mythic images. The thrill is not in one or the other but in holding both views in mind at the same time.

That, in a sense, is the lesson of Mr. Kiefer’s art: that we can see through a kind of parallax vision, literally with one eye and spiritually with the other. We are all alchemists. Every day we perform mental acts that transform inert objects into things of meaning, beauty and desire, reviving the world by creative acts of imagination. The lead and concrete in Mr. Kiefer’s works remain just lead and concrete if we are unable or unwilling to see them otherwise.

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