As I tried to dodge an enormous flying book, I fell into a rabbit hole and woke up in a burning attic. As I feverishly tried to escape the doomed structure, I noticed a wrecked plane surrounded by a fiery forest. After running through a medieval brick corridor, I found myself in a desolate, snowy field. A fallen angel lay in a pile of burnt, oil-soaked straw. As I stared at the angel, I stumbled into what must have been God's bookcase. The books were huge and made of lead, bigger than me and punctured by meteorites. Star maps, long numbers and abstract poppies filled their pages. I noticed a flurry of specks flying toward a light in the distance, and as my eyes followed their path, I realized they were sunflower seeds flying to escape the tragic destruction behind us. I passed another airplane, not wrecked but abandoned. To my far right was an Egyptian pyramid radiating copper wire, and to my immediate right, a treacherous ocean furiously tossed a golden submarine about. It was as though the sky had cracked open and rained down upon the little boat, and it struggled to remain just below the waves. The waves were angry, tempered only by a subtly sexy and calming streak of purple light. I noticed another huge book and hurried past a starry sky to crawl inside its pages, hiding until the fight between Heaven and Earth subsided.
Nope, it wasn't a dream.
It was my overactive imagination spurred by German artist, Anselm Kiefer's current exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern art, titled Heaven and Earth. Dramatically laid out, the exhibit offers a seeming passage through another world. It begins with Kiefer's Attic series of drawings, created in the late seventies when he inhabited an old wooden schoolhouse. Using genuine charcoal (actual fire remnants), he rendered expansive images of wooden interiors and dead forests pierced with symbols of good and evil. The creeping transformation of Kiefer's work starts to become evident in The Hierarchy of Angels, an extra-large-scale wall piece created over two years in the eighties that incorporates a huge propeller and rough rocks made of curdled lead. It looked as if the burnt site of a plane crash had been ripped from the ground and hung on the wall.
Kiefer works with thick, endless layers of very specific media including oil, lead, burnt wood, plant material, straw, and clay. Heavily caking the material onto canvases, Kiefer creates life-sized landscapes that appear as though you could walk right into them. The pieces employ alternating images of life and death and call into question the viewer's personal notions of microcosm versus macrocosm and the influence of the universe on humans. Though he uses plants and images of living organisms, they are presented in a wintry, desolate state. One enormous painting is flanked with a gargantuan dead sunflower at least 15 feet tall -- a symbol of thriving life that once was.
The huge books made of lead are just as described -- taller than the average human with slumping pages splayed open far enough to crawl inside. Kiefer uses masses of lead, a medium he acquired an enormous supply of when he purchased the roof of the Cologne Cathedral in France. I could've spent hours looking at two pieces titled 6th Trumpet and Leviathan, which hung together toward the end of the exhibit. Like many of Kiefer's wall pieces, I wanted to stare at them from far away, then see them up close, then soak them in from a distance again. I have now visited the exhibit three times and each time I've discovered new things about the work. Not to be missed are Kiefer's smaller paintings. Equally as powerful as the larger pieces, they made me want to cry. With textured and uneven brushstrokes and empathetic titles such as Everyone Stands Under his Own Dome of Heaven and To the Unknown Painter, they seemed to converse with my soul.
At the end of the exhibit, there is a short documentary about the artist. In the video, Kiefer admits that he wanted to be a poet, which makes sense since most of his pieces incorporate lovely handwritten text reminiscent of my grandmother's script. He creates his work alone, "the old-fashioned way," with his own hands and only calls upon assistants to help him lift things. He talks about a desire to create spiritual art that uses no material, which is fascinating since he currently uses material in excess. Though his toolkit is far from traditional, it is carefully chosen to create artistic arrangements that evoke interpersonal connections and provide meaning and symbolic dichotomy. In viewing the video piece, you will also learn how many trucks it took to get the roof of a cathedral to Kiefer's studio.
Anselm Kiefer, Heaven and Earth runs through January 21, 2007 at theSan Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third Street in San Francisco.