Art’s way of yoking together mystics, moguls, dirty money, and dreams of rehabilitation can cloud and confound the mind, triggering weird states of hypnosis.
A new installation of works by Anselm Kiefer at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams is a riveting case in point. The exhibit, in a converted water tank on Mass MoCA’s vast campus, qualifies as the museum’s most ambitious long-term installation since its Sol LeWitt Wall Drawings Retrospective, which opened in 2008 and is ongoing.
But it’s also a story that stirs into the same simmering pot the attempted rehabilitation of a great German artist, of a whole town, and of a British oil trader referred to by his peers in finance as “God.” The resulting potion, spiced up with eye of newt and powdered unicorn horn, promises to have a real kick. But will it taste funny?
The German artist is Kiefer, an artist in his late 60s hoping to entrench his once-faltering legacy. The town is North Adams, a once thriving factory town that fell into an economic quagmire and has lately sought redemption through art.
The oil trader is Andrew Hall, a financial whiz who was cast as a villain for commanding a $100 million bonus while working for Citigroup in 2008 — the same year that company took a $45 billion government bailout. Hall now owns 2,400 acres in Reading, Vt., where he raises heritage breed pigs, chicken, and cattle, and shows, by appointment, selections from his 5,000-work collection of contemporary art in a renovated dairy barn.
Kiefer’s massive works invoke not merely industrial ruins but the implosion of civilizations.
Kiefer made his reputation in the 1980s with works of staggering ambition and beauty, works that wrestled heroically with German history, myth, poetry, and civilization. That meant, above all, wrestling with the unraveling of that civilization in the Nazi era.
His materials — thick paint (lots of gray), straw, clay, lead, and salvaged industrial parts — along with his penchant for surfaces like ploughed fields and vertiginously deep perspective, made his work look unlike anyone else’s.
His art, at its best, resembles a double helix of ruin and hope, of catastrophe and spiritual recouping; and if you are never really sure which prevails, the scorched terrain or the elysian blooms, you know that the two are involved in some kind of appallingly intimate marriage.
Kiefer’s reputation crashed in the 1990s, and especially after 1993, when, after leaving his wife and children, he exhibited hundreds of handmade books purposefully stained with his own semen. Twenty years’ worth of the stuff.
A slightly less personal breach of decorum had catapulted Kiefer into public consciousness at the outset of his career: He exhibited photographs of himself in paramilitary costume giving the Nazi salute in various European locations.
But the 1993 show, not surprisingly, had the opposite effect. In the cool, ironic ’90s, Kiefer’s earnest grandiloquence (never mind his ostentatious onanism) was too much embarrassment all at once.
Suddenly, no one wanted to talk about him anymore.
His comeback has been slow but steady. If it looks more robust than similar comebacks by other art stars of the 1980s (David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl), it may be because Kiefer’s ambition has not abated. Quite the opposite. His massive works in cast concrete, lead, and other weighty materials invoke not merely industrial ruins, but the implosion of civilizations, whimpering empires.
Mass MoCA’s Kiefer exhibit, due to open Sept. 27, is in a converted 1 million-gallon water tank on the museum’s sprawling campus. That campus is itself a converted industrial ruin: the old Sprague Electric site.
Kiefer got to know North Adams on visits in the early ’90s and even contemplated living there. Instead, he moved to a derelict silk factory in Barjac, in the south of France, where he left behind a sprawling ruin of makeshift towers and labyrinthine tunnels when he moved to Paris in 2008.
The water tank is now double its original height (15 feet), has two long skylights, crisp white walls, and no windows. It will house an 82-foot-long Kiefer sculpture made from cast-concrete, exposed rebar, and lead. An acid-etched, galvanized metal shed, about 20 feet high, has been erected inside it to display a series of Kiefer’s large-scale paintings in a tight, salon-style hang.
All this, which is set to stay in place for 15 years, will be complemented for a short time by a show of Kiefer’s more delicate early works at Williams College Museum of Art, Sept. 21-Dec. 22.
The Mass MoCA exhibit came about after Hall and his wife, Christine, got into trouble with their neighbors in Fairfield, Conn. Angry that they had not been consulted before the Halls installed the 82-foot-long Kiefer sculpture titled “Etroits sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow Are the Vessels),” they sued, forcing the Halls to remove it.
The Halls got in touch with Mass MoCA’s director, Joe Thompson, who had previously seen and admired the work. A Kiefer exhibit featuring several other works from the Halls’ collection ensued in 2007.
It ran its course; but after the success of the Sol LeWitt retrospective, which proved Mass MoCA’s ability to go “deep and long,” as Thompson puts it, discussions began about a long-term Kiefer installation.
The result is all part of a larger plan to make Mass MoCA more flexible and compelling as a destination.
Building on the success of the LeWitt retrospective and the imminent Kiefer annex, a collaboration with the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in nearby Williamstown should bear fruit within two years, says Thompson. The Clark has a 20-year ground lease on a 10,000-square-foot building on the Mass MoCA campus. Further collaborations may be announced soon.
In the meantime, let the rehabilitation games begin!
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misidentified the location of a dispute between art collectors Andrew and Christine Hall and their neighbors. The dispute occurred in Fairfield, Conn.