Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Kyle Chayka revisits Anselm Kiefer’s Velimir Chlebnikov.
The summer before I went to college, in 2006, I worked as a guard at the Aldrich Museum, a contemporary-art museum an hour from where I grew up in the Connecticut woods. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, and I’m fairly certain it always will be. For ten dollars an hour—a royal sum for a teenager whose only other gig had been making cider donuts at an apple orchard—I and five or six other guards, some retirees and others fellow students, stationed ourselves in the airy galleries to make sure none of the guests touched or collided with the art on display. Mainly, our responsibility was to have conversations with visitors reassuring them of the validity of the curatorial decisions: Yes, this is art. When there was no one around to question contemporary aesthetics, we sat on foldout stools and read, drew, or knitted. (In this way, I made my way through most of Haruki Murakami’s oeuvre.)
That summer, one of the galleries on rotation—we switched locations on the hour, so over the course of a day every guard got a full tour—was a two-story-tall corrugated-steel pavilion built on a cement plinth outside on the museum’s grounds. The pavilion was a work by the German artist Anselm Kiefer, a painter and sculptor known for the gnarled surface of his huge canvases as well as for his gothic sensibility: an atmosphere of fallen historical grandeur pervades his work. Inside the rectangular pavilion’s towering metal doors, the two side walls were hung with thirty paintings arranged in grids, covering every inch.
The paintings were oceanscapes, with cresting waves built from pounds of caked oil paint in dark oranges and grays. Most of the canvases were affixed with oxidized-lead models of industrial ships or submarines, crumpled and beaten as if beached, somewhere between floating and sunk. It was impossible to gauge the size of the paintings. Stretching toward the ceiling, they loomed ominously, themselves about to crash.
“Velimir Chlebnikov” was the name of the series, after the obscure early-twentieth-century Russian futurist poet and mystic. Chlebnikov theorized a cycle of history in which momentous sea battles occurred every 317 years, back to the Trojan War—hence the ocean-faring vessels. Fitting such mythology, Kiefer’s paintings were inscribed with names like Leander, Hero, and Aphrodite. On some canvases, a white glove made of metal hung above the surf, fingers pointed down: the hand of God, time, a ghost.
In aggregate, I spent days of my life inside this installation, contemplating the paintings in awed silence. When guests walked in, I could often see this awe wash across their faces, too. Witnessing these epiphanies, as visitors realized that contemporary art could be accessible and even deeply moving whether you think you know anything about art history or not, was one of the job’s many perks. I was offered the guard position after participating in the museum’s weekly after-school workshop for high school students, and I prided myself on some small degree of connoisseurship: the ability to tell a Braques from a Beckmann and a working definition of appropriation. But what living with an artwork day in and day out teaches you is that you don’t need any superficial information or instructional interpretation; certain pieces will affect you no matter what, sending a ripple streaming through the rest of your life.
In the Kiefer pavilion, I inspected every detail of the cracked paint, gauging where its sense of timelessness came from. Were the paintings inside the isolated building ruins made in advance, relics from our inevitable decline? During storms, rain would beat an apocalyptic patter on the metal roof, making the painted oceans even more present. When the pavilion’s chill became pervasive, I would step outside into the sunshine, back to a present in which bank trading in subprime mortgages was about to crash the economy—not that anyone knew it at the time.
Kiefer has followed me over the ensuing dozen years, or I found myself following him. You’re likely to run into his work in major museum collections anywhere in the world. Around 2010, I encountered a particularly striking installation, Etroits sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow Are the Vessels), at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, where “Velimir Chlebnikov” is now permanently installed. (I highly recommend making the trip.) Composed of huge sections of undulating cement, rebar, and debris stretching eighty feet, the piece looks like a sidewalk in an earthquake. Scratched on a nearby wall in shaky handwriting is a line from the French poet Saint-John Perse, who wrote the verse referenced by the work’s title: “One same wave throughout the world, one same wave since Troy / Rolls its haunch towards us.” Through Kiefer’s work, history becomes an inviolable force, invisible and yet omnipresent, a force to which we are all victim.
In the past year, I’ve often found myself thinking of sitting inside the metal pavilion, partly out of a desire to recapture the meditative quiet and relative simplicity of that point in my life, but also reflecting on the meaning of the Velimir Chlebnikov paintings as I, and they, age. I don’t know that as a teenager I had yet felt the sensation of being carried away by the tide of history that the canvases portray, of the uncaring cycles of the planets and their endless numerical orbits, the futility of centuries of human conflict. But recalling the work is a reminder that now, I do.
Kyle Chayka is a writer living in Brooklyn.