Anselm Kiefer is among the most notable, erudite, and elusive of contemporary artists.
His new 15-year installation at Mass MoCA, features a massive heap of crumbling concrete slabs studded with reinforcement rods; an array of lead-sheeted beds; and a gallery of 30 enormous paintings, their surfaces thick with muddy pigments to which toy boats have been fastened and foreign words and numbers written.
Kiefer seldom grants interviews or allows his picture to be taken. What can the man be thinking?
Of war mostly, it is said, a theme that has consumed his thoughts since he was born in Germany in the final moments of World War II and grew up grappling with its aftermath.
The Mass MoCA installation, in an austere concrete and aluminum-clad structure built on the foundations of an old storage tank, and a separate exhibition of Kiefer's early work at the Williams College Museum of Art, aim to untangle the ways he and his art came to be what they are. The shows should be seen together, but the Mass MoCA pieces alone offer a powerful sense of Kiefer's epic vision.
It is one that grew out of his nation's post-war experience of physical and economic deprivation, shame of defeat and guilty knowledge of horrific atrocities against the Jews. It was a knowledge and responsibility many Germans tried to
bury as they sought to rebuild their country and rejoin the international community.
But artists tend to pick at healing sores, looking for social truths and cultural per-
spectives. Kiefer was among these.
A law student in Freiburg in 1965, he abandoned that academic track after three semesters to take up art. He studied painting under a number of teachers, most notably Joseph Beuys, a sculptor, performance artist and political activist, whose use of cultural myths to interpret history was an inspiration.
Kiefer worked in many media -- paintings, prints, books, performance -- to explore his own psyche and that of his nation. He figures in many of his early images on view at WCMA, most notoriously in a 1969 performance piece called "Occupations," in which he is shown giving a Nazi salute, illegal in Germany at that time, in various public places.
He went on to critique how Hitler and his fascist cohort distorted Germany's ancient
myths of Teutonic valor into a foundation for claims of German superiority over other ethnic groups, particularly the Jews, with murderous results.
But he didn't distance himself from these atrocities,
claiming that while he wasn't alive during the war, he couldn't know how he would have acted had he been there
Kiefer's sources are mainly literary, often poetic. Paul Celant (1920-1970), a Romanian Jew who survived the Holocaust and wrote powerfully about it and German
guilt, was a major influence. Handwritten quotations appear in many of Kiefer's works, less as labels than elements of his compositions. He also made bound books, first of paper, and then of lead, saying books are vessels that carry ideas, language and cultural memory.
The WCMA and MoCA exhibitions together show how his vision grew from the personal to the national to the universal.
At WCMA, Kiefer's symbolism gets particular attention. The tree, for example, is a link between heaven and Earth; the oak represents the German nation; rivers like the
Rhine, hold special meaning.
Barren, plowed landscapes bloodied by war; ashes that represent voices of the dead; dried sunflowers signifying memories; naval vessels caught in the cycles of war: All play symbolic roles in Kiefer's work.
At Mass MoCA, his 80-foot, six-ton concrete slab construction, "étroits Sont Les Vaisseaux" ("Narrow Are the Vessels") unfolds as a cresting, crumbling wave studded with lethal-looking steel rods. Its title refers to a verse by the French poet Alexis Leger (1887-1975), who wrote under the pen name Saint-John Perse. In it, Leger/Perse speaks of an endless wave of war rolling over the globe since the ancient battle of Troy, a wave that can also represent the inexorable power of love and desire.
It was this massive artwork, displayed on the Southport, Conn., lawn of Kiefer collectors Andrew and Christine Hall, that launched the Mass MoCA project. After complaints from local historic district officials about its appearance resulted in a court order in 2007 that it be removed, the Halls loaned it to Mass MoCA, built ties with the museum, and went on to finance the current installation through their Hall Foundation.
The array of 20 lead-sheeted beds, called "The Women of the Revolution," was inspired by the writings of Jules Michelet (1798-1874) on the lives of women who played important roles in the French Revolution. Each bed bears a name at its head and has an oval, vagina-shaped indent at its center cradling a pool of water and/ or pebbles or an artist's palette or seedpods or simply calcified stains spreading outward like an aerial landscape. Of the names, only that of Charlotte Corday, a noblewoman who stabbed the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat to death in his bath in 1793, was familiar.
The gallery of paintings, actually a self-contained steel pavilion within the larger exhibition space, was conceived in 2004 and exhibited elsewhere before being reconstructed here. In it, Kiefer takes an idea developed by Russian poet Velimir Clebnikov (1885-1922) that historical events, like naval battles, occur in cycles that can be mathematically calculated -- in this case, every 317 years -- and turns it into a series of grim, haunting images of boats sunk or washed ashore amid roiling whitecaps. As in "Narrow Are the Vessels," he also incorporates references to love and desire, this time through gloves and flowers and words.
The entire installation space with its white walls and cement floor is an austere foil to the gritty, pungent materiality of the artworks themselves. Heavy, somber and yet visually compelling, they are grim, but not despairing visions of futility and regeneration in human existence.