Anslem Kiefer’s “Exodus” at Gagosian at the Marciano Art Foundation – Art and Cake

Exodus, 2022, installation view
Gagosian at Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles
Photo: Jeff McLane
Courtesy Gagosian

Anslem Kiefer’s “Exodus” at Gagosian at the Marciano Art Foundation

Gagosian at Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles
Through june 16, 2023

Exodus: the departure of the Israelites from Egypt…a mass departure of people, especially emigrants

The kabbalistic tradition is not one but many, forming a sophisticated spiritual discipline. It is a paradox of logic and mystical belief…part scholarship, part religion, part magic…For me, …a spiritual journey anchored by images.

Anselm Kiefer 2004 interview with Michael Auping

Written by Nancy Kay Turner
Anslem Kiefer’s stunning exhibit entitled “Exodus” at Gagosian at the Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles is nothing short of astounding. Operatic in scale, it showcases his gargantuan mixed media works (not affixed to the wall but instead on wheels like theatrical flats) that glitter menacingly in the darkened cavernous space. Dwarfing and humbling the viewer, these works are composed of industrial and natural materials that evoke a hell here on earth – a scorched earth filled with congealed and curdled materials that alternatively attract and repel the viewer.

Kiefer, born into the chaos, guilt and shame that was post-war Germany blends philosophy, mythology and folklore with elements of Jewish Kabbalah – with its emphasis on the mystical nature of numbers – to explore past and present catastrophic events. Not surprisingly, the very first piece one sees outside the inner chamber is a sculpture entitled Schechina,2008-11, Resin, plaster, acrylic, steel, charcoal, zinc, and glass (277 x120 x 124cm) that introduces us to The Sabbath Bride – hence the white wedding gown – who arrives in Jewish communities on Friday night. A distinctly feminine presence, the Schechina along with the ten serifot (crown, wisdom, understanding, loving kindness, mercy, compassion, endurance, majesty, foundation and realm), is understood to represent the Divine Presence of God. This allows for the representation of God without a forbidden iconic image.

Moving from this white hallway and white sculpture into the darkly ominous claustrophobic gallery has an immediate psychological effect of shock and awe on the viewer. One is confronted with works that overwhelm with their sheer scale, physicality and dense materiality. Thou didst blow thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead, 2020, emulsion, oil, acrylic, shellac, gold leaf, metal and straw on canvas, (840 x 950cm) is an epic representation that along with the biblical text suggests the parting of the Red Sea. But the ghostly gold-covered vessel buried in mud or sinking looks like a WWII German submarine. Einstein said that the separation between past, present and future is an illusion and clearly Kiefer’s work here amplifies that message by collapsing time, spiraling literally and figuratively up and down, back and forth. Past calamities, transgressions, diasporas, wars, famines and the stain of the Holocaust hover over this work like an evil specter. This melancholy work speaks to redemption and deliverance even as the thickened, coagulated rivers of lamentation course over the vast pock marked surface.

Kiefer has mined this territory before, but what’s new is the cramped intensity of the installation, the specificity of the Hebrew lettering etched into the surfaces like scratches in a prison wall and the blinding beauty of the gold leafed mixed media works. Exodus, 2020-1, Emulsion, oil, acrylic, shellac, gold leaf, sediment of electrolysis, metal, plaster, straw, wood, and fabric on canvas, is a stunning case in point. Tall, narrow and totemic, like a golden stele, Kiefer has embedded the chariots of the unhoused here – the omnipresent metal grocery shopping cart. These carts turn up in rivers in Los Angeles when they are no longer useful to transport belongings rather than groceries. They are a poignant reminder of famine and food insecurity among other looming contemporary crises here and abroad as refugees flee their countries and have no safe havens. The two brilliant gold leafed works both entitled EXODUS (intentionally all caps) reference everything from the splendid churches of Europe filled with gold ripped from the colonies to the gold that alchemists sought to create from lead (a material that Kiefer frequently uses). Even if you are as familiar with Kiefer’s work as I was, you will see the work anew in this exceptional installation. Kiefer’s unique brew of hope and despair, destruction and regeneration confound and unsettle the viewer, posing no easy answers to the spiritual questing and longing that are literally and figuratively ensnared in his crusty, oozing surfaces that scar the earth and wrench our souls.