Kiefer exhibits at MoCA

When artists take war and empire as their subject, they must ensure that the beauty of the work does not distract viewers from the cruelty of the enterprise. Anselm Kiefer has negotiated these lines wisely and with great feeling in his current exhibition at MASS MoCA, which opened on Oct. 20. It will run for two years, during which time visitors will have the chance to see his large-scale paintings along with a chain of undulating concrete slabs on the floor.

Kiefer’s paintings evoke war zones and battlefields as much through their color and tactility as through their visual representation. His three paintings hanging in MASS MoCA’s Fulkerson Gallery all have what looks like a horizon line near the top of the ten-foot high canvasses, dividing a brown, red and black sky from the raked landscape below. From a midpoint on the horizon, lines fan out and down the canvasses, crossing a splattering of oil, acrylic, emulsion and shellac that evokes the ravaged land. The texture of the thick material is like tree bark; the appearance is of blood-soaked mud and clay.

On the floor in the middle of the larger two galleries of the exhibition is Kiefer’s monumental concrete sculpture “Etroits sont les Vaisseaux.” Giant slabs of stacked concrete rise and fall like waves along the wooden floor. The undulations of the concrete give a sense of movement to otherwise hard industrial materials. They also soften the effect of the concrete’s rough edges and the piles of gritty sand on the slabs. Kiefer infuses these impersonal concrete chunks with the symbolism of movement and freedom, thus reworking the historical connotations of confinement and suppression.

Born in 1945 in Germany, Kiefer grew up in a country that knew concrete – and political – barriers all too well. His work expresses a desire to confront the harshest materials of the society around him and to alter their symbolism, while retaining their vulgar reality. During the 1970s, Kiefer studied with Joseph Beuys, whose has a sculpture on display in the Fulkerson Gallery along with Kiefer’s paintings. From Beuys, he learned the use of earthy materials such as shellac, the secretion of a mealy bug found in India and Thailand.

Along with his experience in a divided country, Kieffer’s work is filled with the depression, anxiety and longing for retribution of the generation that grew up with Hitler an extinguished figure in its history but still a burning presence in its conscience. How does a generation begin to respect its past when its entire history is overshadowed by the decade in which Hitler reigned? This is a question not unrelated to the issue and the potential danger of making art out of the brutality of war.

Since Kiefer became a well-known artist inside and outside of Germany, the media has widely disputed the value of his art. His work on display at MASS MoCA emphatically thrusts the issue in front of visitors. What is its value? Visitors can appreciate how one artist attempted to transform, while not forgetting, the meaning of barriers and war in his own country. The political implications, of course, are unavoidable. In a country building a wall on its southern border and waging a war abroad, we should look to Kiefer as quickly as we listen to politicians.