Even by the standards of what we’ve come to expect of Gagosian’s cavernous, ambition-boosting 24th Street Chelsea gallery, Anselm Kiefer’s recent exhibition, his first in New York since 2002, was striking. Installed densely enough to overwhelm, it was dominated by 17 glass- and-steel vitrines, some nearly 20 feet high. Their surfaces hand-lettered with titles mostly referring to Biblical figures and events, they contained sculptures (all works shown were completed in 2010) assembled from various battered objects, among them muddied dresses in various sizes; a blasted manual typewriter and damaged books; the midsection of an old fighter jet; and a little airplane lodged nose-down amid tiny trees held up by long wires, like marionettes.
There were also large, shallow, wall- hung boxes with dioramalike depictions of wintry forests augmented by actual thorny brambles and additional real ele- ments-a snake skin, a pair of ghostly skis and, in several examples, what look like mastodon molars. A half-dozen commanding canvases lined the walls. Most challengingly, there was a hulk- ing steel container that resembles both a boxcar and a meat locker, its frigid lighting dimly illuminating a few of the dozens of hanging sheets of lead inside, each bearing a newly enlarged photo from Kiefer’s notorious “Hitlergruss” series of 1969. They show the young artist with his arm outstretched in the Nazi salute at picturesque sites in places occupied by Germany during World War II, including the Colosseum in Rome. Among a host of unanswerable questions the show raised is whether rousing spectacle can be distinguished from bombast, or kitsch.
It’s hard to dismiss the melancholic grandeur that Kiefer can achieve, espe- cially in the paintings, with their ravaged, stubble-strewn fields or heaving gray seas rushing back toward fantastically distant horizons. In several, the outstretched wings of a giant bird span the sky; in one, a pocked middle distance of indeterminate terrain suggests a wall riddled with bullet holes, each a delicately bloody red. Since the many looming vitrines obscured sightlines, one was forced to stand a little too close to many of the paintings for comfort (and, sometimes, visual coher- ence). Their impact was thereby only exaggerated: the experience was of an oil-on-canvas equivalent to Imax.
But the works in the vitrines descend to pure sentimentality and beyond, their Old Testament references, kabbalistic diagrams and, above all, profound morbidity deployed for reasons that are dismayingly unclear. For starters, why was the show called “Next Year in Jerusalem,” a phrase (lettered on the entrance wall in both English and phonetic Hebrew) that derives from the Passover recitation of the story of the ancient Jews’ flight from slavery in Egypt? Also a clarion call of pre-state Zionism, it can only seem mischievous- ly provocative at a time when Israeli development in Palestinian neighbor- hoods of East Jerusalem remains one of the biggest obstacles to peace in the region-and, arguably, to sympathy worldwide for Israel, and for Jews.
The confusion is symptomatic. In the advancing 21st century, when the term “postwar” has surely begun to lose its meaning and Germany’s wartime trauma heads few lists of pressing geopolitical concerns, Kiefer’s symbolic world has begun to seem both nostalgic and artificial, producing a growing disproportion between the physical scope of the work and its expressive reach.
Photo: View of Anselm Kiefer’s exhibition “Next Year in Jerusalem,” showing The Destruction of the Temple (left) and Merkaba (right), both 2010; at Gagosian.