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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


Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, now 80, is having a show of her recent work at Gagosian in New York. For a long time Kusama has been an enigmatic figure in the art world. She is famous for her obsessive dots and loops, covering furniture and entire rooms with stuffed “penises.” Diagnosed with the obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) Kusama’s art can be seen through a number of different lenses. A recent article in the New York Times by Alexi Worth helps contextualize that discussion. Here’s an excerpt from Worth’s article:


When the elevator doors finally opened, a potbellied man with a fringe of gray hair bounded into the room, followed by a crew of gear-laden assistants. Araki, the most famous Japanese photographer, was an ebullient self-caricature. Grunting, laughing, shouting orders and dirty jokes, he seemed a mischievous antidote to the notion of Japanese reserve. The assistants scrambled to set up a tripod and a pair of giant lights, and to seat Kusama in front of one of her radiant new paintings, so that Araki’s performance could begin: squatting, swiveling, lunging back and forth between Kusama and his equipment, he moved through the small, crowded space with an enchanting unpredictability. After 10 minutes, he was sweating profusely. The rest of us watched him, more or less transfixed. But Kusama sat motionless, silent, never smiling, showing no response to Araki’s virtuosic patter. For most of an hour, she stared unblinkingly into the cameras, her gaze projecting a fixed, dour blankness.

I had seen that look before. In a famous Hal Reiff photograph from 1966, the young Kusama, as beautiful as any pinup, lies naked on a sofa covered with hundreds of phallic protrusions, wearing only painted polka dots and high-heeled shoes. It’s her eyes that transform what might have been a frivolous Surrealist premise (Playmate in Penisland) into something unexpectedly somber and unsettling. In posed photographs, Kusama nearly always looks back at the camera with a similar odd, mute intensity. I had assumed that her deadpan was a deliberate choice, a way of managing her public image. Perhaps only Picasso, with his habitual black-eyed ‘‘power stare’’ (the mirada fuerte), controlled his own photographic demeanor as consistently.

Watching her with Araki, though, I began to wonder if Kusama’s gaze was less strategic than accidental: the look of a woman whose emotions were damaged, or at least inaccessible to her physiognomy, who simply could not smile. Of course, I knew that Kusama lives in a psychiatric hospital, a small white building we had passed on the way to the studio. But it had never occurred to me that her sense of humor, which seemed so central to the work of hers that I loved best, could have been rendered invisible by her illness. After Araki left, we sat back down at her conference table. I told her it seemed odd to me that a woman whose art was so often comic, and even outrageously funny, should smile so seldom. ‘‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’’ she answered. There was no anger in her voice, but she whispered something further in Japanese to an assistant. The assistant leaned over to me: that was it. The interview was over.

I had hoped, in thinking about Kusama, to sidestep the question of her mental condition, which I suspected had been mythologized and perhaps blown out of proportion in recent years by critics, by journalists and, above all, by Kusama herself. Instead, later that evening at my hotel, I found myself scanning Psychiatry Online, joining the legions of amateurs who have speculated about her strangeness. The starting point for all such investigations — given the silence of her doctors — is Kusama herself. In 1975, at the lowest point in her career, she published an autobiographical essay, ‘‘Odyssey of My Struggling Soul,’’ that included vivid memories of childhood hallucinations, depression and suicide attempts. ‘‘I don’t consider myself an artist,’’ she declared; ‘‘I am pursuing art in order to correct the disability which began in my childhood.’’

Probably more than any other living artist, Kusama’s case highlights the tensions inherent in the division between mainstream and outsider art. Is great art the conscious effort of brilliant minds, or is it an outpouring of freakish individuality? Kusama’s is clearly both. Claiming to be utterly uninfluenced by any other artist or school, she pictures her art-making as a purely therapeutic necessity: ‘‘art medicine.’’ And yet her artwork has been understood, by her friend Donald Judd and others, as a uniquely sophisticated response to the predicaments of 20th-century modernism. At times, Kusama can seem like a grandmaster who claims not to play chess but who just happens to feel like moving his pieces into winning positions. Of course, this invites skepticism: some people doubt the severity of her mental illness, while others blame the ‘‘gullible art market’’ for overvaluing the work of a woman who never properly understood what she was doing. Kusama herself, delighted by her escalating auction prices but paranoid about the least implication of indebtedness to any other artist, has retreated ever further into gurulike ambiguities. ‘‘When I work on a piece,’’ she told me in an e-mail message, ‘‘I have no conception of what I want to create. With my hands doing the work on their own, a work is finished before I know it. Thus, my fantastical works yet unknown to me are produced one after another. . . .’’