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Anselm Kiefer's Velimir Chlebnikov, a series of 30 paintings devoted to the Russian philosopher who posited that war is inevitable, is on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. (MASS MoCA)

Kiefer's Bleak Horrors Of War Fill An Entire Building

by Karen Michel
Nov 23, 2013 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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The Women of the Revolution is both sensual and full of foreboding. Narrow are the Vessels is made of concrete, rebar and rubble. Neighbors objected to the work when the owners, Andy and Christine Hall, displayed it in their front yard.

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Anselm Kiefer was born in 1945, in the Black Forest of southwest Germany, just as the Third Reich was collapsing.

"I was born in ruins, and for me, ruins are something positive," Kiefer says. "Because what you see as a child is positive, you know? And they are positive because they are the beginning of something new."

That history is always present in Kiefer's sculptures and paintings. One of the major figures in post-World War II German art, Kiefer has works in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Australia, among many others.

Now he's one of only two artists to have a building dedicated to his work at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

The Conflict That Brought Kiefer To MASS MoCA

The works in Kiefer's pavilion focus on war and its aftermath. The first piece is an 82-foot-long undulating sculpture of concrete, rebar and rubble that falls and builds to lap at the viewer's feet. Titled Narrow Are the Vessels, it arrived at MASS MoCA through a dispute.

Like the other two works on view in the pavilion, the sculpture is from the collection of Christine and Andy Hall. The couple lives in a historic district, where they first installed the expensive, 80-ton piece of rubble.

The neighbors weren't happy with the new display on the Hall's front lawn, so they appealed to the town's historic commission.

"They took the position that this work of art was a structure, and we took the view that it wasn't a structure, it was a work of art," Andy Hall says.

That didn't go well. Three years later, instead of continuing the fight, Hall approached MASS MoCA Director Joe Thompson.

Thompson mounted a temporary exhibition, but Hall, who has an art foundation, suggested doing more: Transform one of the buildings on the MASS MoCA campus to house three large works from among the hundred or so Kiefers in the Halls' collection, and show them with a 15-year renewable lease.

Thompson says the museum gets the benefits of the Kiefer collection and none of the liabilities.

"The Hall Art Foundation is taking care of these Kiefers," he says. "They're paying for the heat, light, power, the security, that's their responsibility, not ours. That's just the greatest possible model in the world."

A Reminder That War Comes Back

For viewers, the good news is that instead of selling the work or keeping it in storage, the Halls decided to have it shown to the public — unusual at a time when institutions and other collectors are selling works to other private collections. It's a bright sign that offsets Keifer's generally glum work.

"Kiefer's a poet of war and destruction and his outlook is bleak," Thompson says. "I think he's cynical about human nature and where it ends up."

That cynicism is evident in the other two large works in the building at MASS MoCA. One of them, Women of the Revolution, is composed of more than 20 metal single bed frames, each draped with a lead sheet, an effect that's both sensual and foreboding. In each bed is an indentation, as if left by a former inhabitant, filled with liquid.

The third installation, Velimir Chlebnikov, is a series of Kiefer's paintings devoted to the Russian philosopher who posited that war is inevitable. For Kiefer, images of a war-pocked Germany remain vivid.

"I'm able to imagine that, you know? I'm able to imagine such a horrible, horrible time," Kiefer says. "It can come back. It can come back every time."

Visitors can see Kiefer's imaginings at MASS MoCA through Dec. 2, after which viewings will be appointment-only until April. They can also visit another Hall Foundation-sponsored show of the artist's earlier, smaller works at the nearby Williams College of Art.

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