All that heaven and earth allow

Pub date December 5, 2006
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

(To read Marke B.’s take on Anselm Kiefer, “Crash and Burn,” click here.)

REVIEW Recently, in an Amish schoolhouse shooting, five girls were killed and five wounded by a man who was “angry with God” and haunted by thoughts of molestation.
One girl escaped. In the earliest versions of the story, nine-year-old Emma Fisher simply snuck out. It was later said that she misunderstood the shooter’s instructions in English and thought she was supposed to leave. A more recent variation has Emma hearing one of the schoolteachers’ helpers say to her, “Now would be a good time to run,” as the shooter messed with the window blinds. But the helper says she didn’t speak, and some Amish are suggesting the voice was an angel’s.
If that angel’s voice — poised at the edge of bloodshed, salvation narratives, and sociopathic dreams — had instead taken its ephemeral sound waves and rolled them around in clay, lead, ash, burned wood, India ink, and stars, the result would look much like the show “Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth” now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Kiefer is not interested in salvation, he says, but he wants you to see angels: angels with their wings weighed down with lead, angels in the form of flaming books, angels spiraling up and down between the heavens and earth. Kiefer isn’t angry with God — he wants to identify with a god whose creations and destructions dwarf mere human emotions. His massive works and their equally massive subject matter reveal Kiefer as a size queen in active defiance of the art world’s ongoing love affair with the bonbon. Nobody’s precious obsessions or daily life is represented here, unless it is the daily life of an all-encompassing godhead in the midst of cyclical death and rebirth. Is that interesting? It is gorgeous. Kiefer passes the acid test. His love of texture and pattern creates enough Rorschach blots of darkness and light to keep even the most ADD of us visually interested — never mind the titles, with their names of gods, stars, and emotional states. Osiris and Isis (1985–<\d>87), for example, contains porcelain shards enmeshed in its vast canvas, referencing a myth of fragmentation and a jokey half-assed attempt to cobble together the various parts of the sundered deity with circuitry and wires. Kiefer’s vocabulary is that of alchemy, hermeticism, and gnosticism, with a particular emphasis on the Jewish mysticism of kabbalah. Although kabbalah has been inseparable from western esotericism for centuries, Kiefer’s investigation takes on an added resonance. A German artist born in 1945, he has throughout his career addressed the wounds left by the 20th century’s most famous sociopaths. With gestures as slight as the introduction of a propeller onto a vast canvas in a work titled The Hierarchy of Angels (1985–<\d>87), Kiefer acknowledges and comments on his nation’s monstrous history. In work addressing the Jewish poet Paul Célan, he acknowledges the degree to which the Nazi dream of molesting the globe efficiently removed not only the mysteries and symbols of a people once integral to German cultural life but the people themselves.
Trafficking in the cosmic raises questions of whether it is necessarily apolitical, ahistorical, or irony free. It isn’t. Novelist Jean Rhys wrote that before she could even read she imagined that God was a book: “Sometimes it was a large book standing upright and half open, and I could see the print inside but it made no sense to me.” Kiefer seems to have shared that fantasy and reproduced it as multiple books: huge circular standing books full of star maps; crumpled, distorted books like crippled angels; charred and flaming books. All are filled with indecipherable but oddly familiar writing of lead, dried plants, clay, or copper wire. Vaporous patterns emerge, like imprints left by the dead, even in the utter blackness of seven burlap books whose hieroglyphics consist of oil, charcoal, and glue in Cauterization of the Rural District of Buchen (1975).
The schoolhouse Fisher escaped from was torn down; there is no hopeless memorial there now, just an empty field. Kiefer’s hellish earth is burned, scarred, frozen, scorched — just like ours. Maybe not so much like ours, his blackened ground is fertile and regenerating and has reached the nigredo stage in an alchemical process leading toward something fabulous. Imagining that the destruction of the planet has led or will lead to a kind of regeneration is a kind of mental escape from the sociopaths currently molesting the globe and maybe even a necessary one. On the other hand, maybe now would be a good time to run. Despite his preoccupation with stars, Kiefer isn’t ready to pack up the spaceship yet. Giving the title Faith, Hope, Love (1976) to a dense, dark, entangled work composed of ash, seeds, and ink may not be laugh-out-loud funny, but Kiefer’s humor is rarely human scale. “Wherever you go, there you are” is the angelic message of his Milky Ways and charred landscapes, which are always also internal states.<\!s>SFBG
Through Jan. 21, 2007
Fri.–<\d>Tues., 11 a.m.–<\d>5:45 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.–<\d>8:45 p.m.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St., SF
$7–<\d>$12.50 (free first Tues.; half price Thurs., 6–<\d>8:45 p.m.)
(415) 357-4000