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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

My friend and fellow blogger Sally Reed (and the writer behind Butter and Lightning) recently posted a very moving message about grief, suffering and loss. I hope you will take a moment to visit her site and read it in its entirety. In her most recent post she included an exquisite poem by Jane Kenyon which I have included below. It speaks for itself.


There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

–Jane Kenyon

About Jane Kenyon (1947 – 1995): An American poet who was New Hampshire’s poet laureate when she died from leukemia. She was married to Donald Hall, also a poet. During her lifetime she published four collections: Constance (1993), Let Evening Come (1990), The Boat of Quiet Hours (1986), and From Room to Room (1978). She also translated poems by the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

The Blue Flower, A.R.T.

Tom Stoppard’s last two plays, Coast of Utopia (a 3 play trilogy) and Rock ‘n’ Roll, explore the historical periods preceding significant events as a way of contextualizing and unpacking those outcomes. To make sense of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Stoppard placed his 9 hour Utopia trilogy in the years between 1833 and 1866 when philosophical debates were raging in pre-revolution Russia. RnR tracks the role that popular music played in the democratic movement that emerged in Eastern Bloc Czechoslovakia between the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

To hold to a historical orthodoxy while still creating an engaging theatrical experience is not a trivial accomplishment. Stoppard, a master of the theater of ideas, is well positioned—probably more than any living playwright—to deliver up both history and theater. Speaking personally, both these plays have impacted me deeply, transforming my view of the evolution of these two major historical events.

The Blue Flower, currently playing at the A.R.T. in Cambridge, takes on another historical arc—the transition in Europe from the Belle Époque at the turn of the century through the end of World War II. Conceived, composed and written by a musician and a visual artist, Jim and Ruth Bauer, the production approaches the tumultuous events of this period primarily through the lens of art. The lead characters are based loosely on three artists—Franz Marc, Max Beckmann and Hannah Höch—as well as a scientist, Marie Curie.

Ruth Bauer’s sensibilities as a visual artist permeate the production as well as the narrative point of view. There are art tropes throughout, from the Blaue Reiter’s defiant rebellion to Dadism’s absurdist response to the Great War. The staging and the styling of the production are fragmented and collage-like, a kind of grand gesture homage to Kurt Schwitters. It is rare to find so much art consciousness in a dramatic stating.

In a particularly brilliant move, the lead character Max Baumann, (inspired by Max Beckmann) refuses to speak his native German. For most of the play he communicates in an invented language, Maxperanto. Not only is his refusal to speak the common tongue a powerful statement of political and cultural defiance, it is also an adept metaphor for the artist’s position in a world gone mad.

The musical score, mostly minor keyed, is poignantly crafted and expertly performed (Bauer describes his eclectic sound as “Kurt Weill going tête-à-tête with Hank Williams”.) The music also serves as an emotional bridge between events that took place over 100 years ago and the incomprehensible mess we are grappling with now. Our world seems every bit as fragile as Weimar and also poised for catastrophe from polarizing politics, short sighted policies and institutions that no longer work.

The program notes are some of the best I’ve encountered and in many ways are required reading to step fully into The Blue Flower experience. The contextualizing provided is thoughtful and insightful.

Here are a few sample passages from Jim Bauer’s accompanying commentary:

Weimar, the fragile German experiment in democracy after World War I, became a classic and singularly tragic confrontation between traditionalists and modernists, conservatives and liberals; between those who believe that what is past is pure and those who believe that what is new is better.

By and large, events from the early part of the twentieth century lie hidden in the long, deep shadows cast by Hitler, the Holocaust and World War II. Like a three-legged colossus, they stand so large in the middle of the century that it is difficult to see past them. But it is only by peering into those shadows that one can see how the twentieth century took shape and how the twenty-first may yet be sculpted.

We have always lived and, it seems, will always continue to live in or between two wars: whichever the last one was and whatever the next one will be.

In the beginning of the Weimar period, ballast for heavy grief and suffocating remorse was provided by a weightless sense of relief, a buoyant feeling of optimism. there was a burst of creativity, a sense of freedom, adventure and open horizons, a feeling that the world could be made anew. The Weimar spirit was driven in part by the possibility and thrill of creating things instead of destroying them, building them up instead of tearing them down…But Weimar was also a world fractured into many pieces and deeply divided: outwardly blooming with hope but inwardly trembling with fear of and gnawing doubts about the horrors of the past and the shadows those horrors cast on an uncertain future.

With a demagnetized compass and a broken rudder, society swirled freely about in a political, economic and cultural maelstrom until Hitler, wasting little time and with a keen eye for opportunity, found a way to make things appear simple.

This is a thought provoking, slow fused work. An evening of light entertainment it is not. In that sense Don Aucoin’s review in the Boston Globe misses the point altogether. Anyone concerned about the state of the world will find The Blue Flower deeply moving.

The Blue Flower runs through January 2011.

The blue flower of the title references a romantic concept originating with the poet Novalis that symbolizes the artist’s longing for perfection.

Agnes Martin

Am I no longer young,
and still not half-perfect?
Let me keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still
and learning to be astonished.

–Mary Oliver

This came to me by way of Jill Fineberg, author of People I Sleep With. It captures the essence IMHO.

Martin’s studio (she passed away in December 2004)

i’m on the look out for other ways to be with the world since I’ve put myself on a Lenten program of no political reading or discussions. Too bleak. Too close to hopeless. So here’ a bit of advice on “attainable felicity” from the author of our greatest American novel, even after all these years, Herman Melville (from a piece by Sean Kelly in the New York Times):

Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author [Melville] encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived. The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events.

In the way of a small homage to Melville, Jay Parini offered this paean to the master himself. (Parini’s latest historical novel, The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville, was recently released):

I believe Melville had his finger on the American pulse, understood our yearning, our ambivalences, our sense of being cut off from Europe yet somehow wedded to its traditions. Melville understood that Americans are all on a quest, for knowledge, for wealth, for “power” in all its broad expanses. Moby-Dick is our major novel. It is our Odyssey, and Melville our Homer. In “Bartleby the Scrivener,” an incomparable work of art in miniature, we learn all we need to know about the American experience of business and drudgery and obsession. Again and again, Melville holds a mirror up to our souls.

We won’t discuss the theory that the same Mr Melville may have actually pushed his wife down the stairs…

Sean Scully, “Wall of Light Beach” (2001). Oil on canvas. 40”× 50”. Private collection. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In Robert Hughes’ The Mona Lisa Curse, there is a thoughtful exchange between Hughes and painter Sean Scully. Their brief conversation touches on many of the distinctions I have been writing about here over the years.

Hughes states his belief that painting is exactly what mass visual media is not—about specific engagement, not general seduction. And that, says Hughes, is its enduring relevance to all of us, how everywhere and at all times there is a world to be reformed by the “darting subtlety and persistent slowness of the painter’s eye.”

The way Scully positions his work is very simple. He sees a polarity that began in the 20th century between “making art that is like everything, and making art that is different from everything.” His work holds to the latter, creating a kind of sanctuary. He wants to make work that is “spiritually informed and powerful.”

These two polarities are in opposition says Scully. Art that is interactive can be striking and dramatic, but that comes at a great cost. Art is a place to to go, not an escape into entertainment.

I liked the way Scully described how paintings work:”The way a painting seems to work in the culture is very slowly and subliminally. It is almost dormant on the wall—you can walk right by and ignore it. But every time you come back to it, it lights up, it reengages.”

Incidentally, Robert Hughes first alerted me to slow art (slow painting and slow musing) with a quote my him that I found several years ago:

What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and making whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn’t merely sensational, that doesn’t get its message across in ten seconds, that isn’t falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.

You can view the Hughes/Scully video clip here.

“Kama”, a painting that was just recently sold

Crispin Sartwell’s small book, Six Names of Beauty, is a personal meditation on a theme that continues to compel and evade comprehension. In that sense it is a literary journey that is refreshingly nonlinear, more rhizomatic than arboreal. Although Sartwell is a devotee of Arthur Danto, his approach to this complex (and highly charged) topic is not standard art criticism. Instead he contemplates beauty by riffing on words for beauty taken from six different languages and cultures—English, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, Japanese and Navajo. The six chapters are each free form and personal, finding linkages in unexpected ways.

Here are a few passages that spoke to me:

Often it is said that painstaking realism in art has been rendered unnecessary or uninteresting by the camera. But the opposite is the case. In circumstances where the world can be repeated mechanically, the handcraft of realism becomes all the more poignant and perverse, all the more deeply expressive of love for the world. To find again the world of things, to live and work in collaboration with that world, forms a traditional and a remaining task of painting.

Beauty came in the twentieth century to seem like a flimsy and obsolete or even trivial value, a kind of frippery, perhaps nothing more than a particularly poignant or elaborate prettiness. In a world dedicated to industrial production and its critique, in a world beset by war, genocide, and nuclear holocaust, beauty as an occasion for pleasure seemed frivolous and politically suspect.

Picasso and Pollock would have rejected the idea that they painted in order to give people pleasure; they painted to change the world. They tried not to please but to overwhelm…Pleasure, in other words, and beauty with it, have become banal.

The great figures of Modernism are virtuosi of their media, and though a gesture may be apparently random it is always recovered into an overweening intentionality. Their art makes a beauty that draws on a lust for power, and our experience of the beauty they created reveals our dark desire to be overwhelmed, as well as a reflection of our own sense of powerlessness or desire to resists and impose power.

Most of the world’s art has been made for purposes that could widely be described as spiritual; that is as true of Western as of non-Western art…The most profound religious art crystallizes and treats the deepest, most focused, most total yearning.

Beauty calls to desire in every possible configuration: the desire to possess to love, to enjoy, to gaze, to use, to lapse into silence or unconsciousness, to let go. But desire characteristically is as much committed to its own intensification as it is to its object: in that sense, desire is a craft. To desire is to feel intensely the life within yourself. Everything that lives reaches or hopes. Our longing expresses our irremediable loss, but also our impossibly beautiful aspiration.

Photo from the town of Marwencol by Mark Hogancamp

Marwencol is utterly compelling. At some level I want to just leave it at that and tell you to do whatever you can to see this documentary (a schedule of cities and theaters where it is playing in limited release can be seen on the film’s website.) But the film is so rich and so complex I can’t just leave a one line tribute to such a fascinating and unforgettable experience.

Filmmaker Jeff Malmberg and his crew hit pay dirt when they found Mark Hogancamp, a man who had been badly beaten by a group of young men outside a bar in Kingston New York in 2000. He was in a coma for nine days and suffered brain damage that included a complete loss of memory and identity. When Hogancamp’s medical coverage ran out, he had to find his own way of recovering his life. The approach he came up with is remarkable and unforgettable at so many levels—the politics and complexities of identity, the nature of art making, the power of storytelling, the permutations of therapy, the sociological/demographic determinates in life, the elemental essentiality of the self.

Outside his rural trailer home, Hogancamp has created a fantasy town he calls Marwencol (taken from names of characters—Mark, Wendy and Colleen). Set in Belgium during World War II, the town is populated by dolls that are accoutred in era-appropriate attire and living through wartime scenarios. Hogancamp creates his narrative with characters that are stand ins for many of the people he knows from his circumspect life in Kingston. He himself becomes a kind of GI Joe Wounded King, playing out adventures in romance and survival against the German SS soldiers that mirror many of Hogancamp’s own struggles. This backyard therapy/fantasy takes on a whole other dimension when Hogancamp begins photographing tableaux of his town residents. These photos are hauntingly evocative without being in the least self conscious or intentionally “arty.” (At one point in the film a downtown hipoisie comments on how Hogancamp has created a narrative without a trace of irony, something extremely rare in the current world of art.) No, there’s no knowing wink with regard to this “installation.” Hogancamp’s creation speaks directly to the Roberta Smith equivalent of Occam’s razor for what makes art meaningful (and a line immortalized repeatedly in my postings here since it appeared in her New York Times article last spring): “Art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.”

The full story is a complex one, with some unexpected revelations that unfold as the film progresses. There is so much to cherish about this film and the remarkable Mark Hogancamp, but one of the most moving aspects of the telling is how pure the connection is between Hogancamp the man and Hogancamp the maker. He blends these two domains with such an absence of self consciousness, emotional distance or downtown tude that it is almost startling. In the current landscape of media distortion, manipulation and depersonalized fragmentation that flattens what it means to be a human being, this deeply nuanced portrait of a life—that still leaves room for the incomprehensible mysteries as well—is an extraordinary achievement.

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

Photomicrograph of different components of the rat cerebellum, including Purkinje neurons in green, glia (non-neuronal cells) in red, and cell nuclei in blue. (Image from Hello I am Here.)

Carl Schoonover’s Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century was reviewed in the New York Times on November 29, and the rippling outward hasn’t stopped. Schoonover is a 27 year old Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Columbia. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the images he was working every day, he thought non-neuroscientists as well as non-scientists would be amazed by the visually rich landscape he was exploring.

A number of coffee table books have been published that feature microscopic imagery, and of course I am seduced by any and all images of life in the substrata. But this book combines visually stunning imagery with thoughtful and compelling content as well. Each chapter features an essay by an expert in the field (and a foreword by science writer Jonah Lehrer). The microscopic images are fantastical and explosively lively, but I am also engaged by a compendium of exquisite drawings by Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934). All in all, this is a feast.

Diffusion MRI image of a patient who has suffered a stroke in the thalamus. This has resulted in major disruptions to certain axon tracts, some of which are visible at the bottom of the figure.

Drawing by Santiago Ramón y Cajal