Anselm Kiefer has a thing for ruins.
And the acclaimed German painter, who visited Albright-Knox Art Gallery yesterday for a rare public appearance on this continent, found plenty of ruins to revel in during his brief time here.
Before the talk, Kiefer took an escorted trip through Silo City, the post-industrial complex of grain elevators and rusting structures that has recently become a cultural playground. Like many artists before him, going back to Le Corbusier, Kiefer was struck by the overwhelming grandeur and visual force of the structures, stopping his two-car caravan every few moments to get out and snap more pictures of the rusting buildings that line Buffalo’s post-industrial corridor.
“Today I saw the silos and I was very impressed,” said Kiefer, who considers himself a kind of connoisseur of ruins. As a kind of vague teaser to the crowd, he added, “I can tell you, in the next 10 years, you will see some paintings.”
Whether or not Buffalo’s grand industrial relics make their way into the work of the pre-eminent European painter of his time, it’s clear that Kiefer’s visit to Buffalo was far more productive than the standard parachuting-in of an international name for some boilerplate questions and a bit of wine and cheese.
It was the perfect confluence of Kiefer’s lifelong interest in decay and destruction – a key concept in the gallery’s most recent Kiefer acquisition, “Der Morgenthau Plan” – and the current hopeful moment in Buffalo.
“Ruins are the beginning of something,” he said. “Not the end.”
During the hourlong talk, meant to celebrate the final weeks of the gallery’s innovative and ambitious exhibition “Anselm Kiefer: Beyond Landscape,” Kiefer danced deftly around questions from Albright-Knox director Janne Sirén about the loaded beauty and symphonic violence that underlies his work.
He parceled out little nuggets of insight throughout the afternoon, careful never to reveal too much about his thought process or his working methods, and maintaining the meticulously cultivated and peculiarly German air of slightly standoffish mystery that has intrigued so many of his fans.
He spoke of the way he uses beauty as a delivery system for much darker ideas, about his evident Messiah complex and about the way he wants to draw people into his large-scale paintings “like butterflies are attracted to honey.”
In a short interview after the talk, while sipping from a glass of 12-year-old Armagnac, Kiefer was more blunt about the dark themes behind his work and his grim outlook for the human race. I asked him why, as was recently reported, he removed a painting from his recent “Der Morgenthau” series because he found it “too beautiful.”
“I care about what I feel, and if the painting is too positive, then it’s not reality. I want to say what I’m feeling, and I feel that the human being is wrong constructed,” he said in his clipped English, pointing to his brain. “There will never be an end because there is a wrong construction in the human being’s brain.”
But what makes Kiefer such a beloved artist is not necessarily his searing intelligence or the considered way he deals with the disturbing themes at the heart of his work, but how he has managed to reach past the patrolled borders of the art world to seduce a bigger audience. The audience is seduced not by the darkness of his ideas but by the sheer scope and skill of his work.
That very bald appeal to new viewers, which very little contemporary art would deign to make, is a refreshing acknowledgement of the limits of artwork that only talks about its formal predecessors or concerned more with its own place among the greats than with the experience of the individual viewer.
Since last fall, that ineffable appeal has been evident every day in Albright-Knox’s grand east gallery.
Visitors enter the room with a look of wonder in their eyes, drawn there from the other side of the gallery by a slice of electrolyzed turquoise paint glimpsed through an open doorway. They look at Kiefer’s hulking painting “Von der Maas bis an die Memel, von der Etsch bis an den Belt” as you might look at the roaring Atlantic itself.
“I’d never seen a painting so large. It was overwhelming. It wasn’t a window on the world, it was the world itself. I felt like I could walk right in,” said Heather Ackerman, a Buffalonian who became a fan of Kiefer after seeing the Albright-Knox show. “I think what I responded to was the universality of awe in nature. I appreciated the references to German history, and understood the context, but I have my own memories of sitting in fields of Queen Anne’s Lace, and witnessing a thunderstorm on the sea.”
In the moments after the talk, a Chinese photography student named Shen Linghao made a beeline for the artist in the gallery’s lobby carrying a comically enormous copy of Kiefer’s life works.
After persuading Kiefer to sign his autograph – a huge, calligraphic scrawl that stretched across two pages, in his typically grandiose style – Linghao ran outside to show off the book to his friend. It was an extremely heartening gesture, one rarely accorded to visual artists: a fanboy pursuing his artistic idol with all the fervor and glee of a tween at a One Direction concert.
“He broke the boundary between painting and installation. He put it together to create a new thing. I think the creation is, this is very important to artists. You need to create new things,” he said, adding that he expected Kiefer to be serious and severe, as his reputation indicates, but was impressed with his humor and easy manner.
Kiefer’s visit, he added, taught him something new about the connection between life and art.
“Sometimes life is also art, and you don’t need to put just attention on your work,” he said, still beaming from his encounter with Kiefer. “You should put attention on your life. This is what I learned.”