New York

Anselm Kiefer

Gagosian Gallery (21)

In cold December fragrant chaplets blow,
And heavy harvests nod beneath the snow.

A recognized part of growing older and more decrepit is the unpredictable way one’s memory starts (and stops) working. So, at Anselm Kiefer’s recent show, I was at first surprised to find myself recalling lines I last read years ago, from Alexander Pope’s epic satire The Dunciad, particularly since, when I looked at the poem later, I found it just as I remembered it: that is, unlike Kiefer’s work in almost every way. The Dunciad is dazzlingly light, bright, and swift on its linear feet; the Kiefers are emotionally and literally heavy, encrusted with pigment and weighted with clay and sand. The poem is ironical and razor sharp; the Kiefers are severe and solemn, a joke-free zone. The poem is precise and finely wrought, to a fault; the Kiefers are rough-surfaced, vast, and unevenly drawn. In short, Pope: neoclassical genius, Kiefer: just address the envelope “Blasted Heath.”

To square the circle, though, let’s drag in a third unlikely companion, Bob Dylan, who seems obsessed with time. “The end of time has just begun,” Dylan growled on his last album, Time Out of Mind, and the paintings and books Kiefer showed (all 1997) appear to focus on a similar theme: the title of one work, Your Age and Mine and the Age of the World, taken from a poem by Ingeborg Bachmann, explicitly contrasts human time with the timeless, while also hinting at a collapsing of the two scales. Indeed, Kiefer’s images show architecture that seems to be monumental and ancient yet is neither. The structures inspiring both the pyramid in Your Age and Mine and the massive mastaba-like piles in the other paintings are in fact contemporary and not that big, and they have no symbolic or memorial role, for they are stacks of bricks piled in a brickyard in India for storage and sale.

You could arrive at something close to this knowledge from the show’s three huge books, which include photographs that must have been the paintings’ sources. Washed out, dim, chromatically challenged, and scattered and stuck with sand, these pictures make the context and size of the brick structures marginally decipherable. Even without the photos, though, the paintings would have a quality of anticlimax: brilliantly realized, successfully harmonizing the part (every square inch a mottled complexity) with the enormous whole (the largest work is over 24 feet wide), they nevertheless connote neither majesty nor awe but enervation.

For a friend of mine with a persnickety color sense, this mood stemmed from their predominantly sandy tone, Big and Beige being as mistaken in painting, she felt, as in interior decor. Others simply found the works flat, or thought Kiefer was plumbing a genre he had already exhausted. And it’s true that his process in these paintings is in principle familiar and that he has addressed monumental architecture of ambiguous character before. It is also true that the works’ ashy palette—mostly burnt creams, duns, and dull blacks so closely related as to make figure struggle dumbly to emerge from ground—reveals its subtlety only close up and is none too inviting. Yet I don’t consider the works failures—something no less stifled and stifling, perhaps, but much more interesting.

Blossoms blow in winter, snow falls in summer—the end of time has begun. Collapsing the seasons, Pope, like Kiefer, is playing games with time. His target in the Dunciad is his era’s epidemic of bad writing—here, wrong-headed metaphors—and he doesn’t just describe them, he writes them; yet simultaneously he can’t help but produce heroic couplets of supernal elegance. This is the charge of satire: to demolish a form or style by realizing it as well as it is capable of being realized, while also producing pure nonsense. Which also means that pure nonsense can look seductively and exactly like art.

Kiefer’s paintings aren’t satire (unless I’m missing the joke), but they share its mechanism: an art form is masterfully handled, but only to announce its inability to mean. The result has something close to tragic weight, because the scope is so broad—Kiefer, like Pope, is measuring not just an art but a culture and a time. Yet his work is too dead for tragedy. It belongs to another, more idiosyncratic genre, a genre of aesthetically various works that nevertheless embody a single contortion: make an artwork that blasts everything away, and you’re still left with the art you’ve done the blasting with.

Like the Dunciad, like Time Out of Mind, these pieces argue eloquently for eloquence’s death. Formal and temporal paradoxes meld: if the end of time has begun, then finish and start, cessation and process, have fused. The creators of all of these works seem caught in an anxiety over the end and the continuance of their tradition, and in a pessimism spreading from their art form steadily outward. Time and art are over; you need time and art to say so. Samuel Beckett said it quickest: “Imagination dead. Imagine.”

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum.