By **John Sevigny**
In September 1994, Hurricane Andrew slashed through Miami, my hometown, flattening much of the city and displacing thousands of people. As if tragedies were meant to come in pairs, a close friend and two acquaintances were murdered by a National Guardsman sent south, ironically, to help rebuild the city. Their bodies were left on the Florida International University campus west of town. The triple homicide deserves more than a passing reference here, but it’s a story that would fill a book. In any case, the man responsible (and I call him a man only as a biological description) is serving three, consecutive, 99-year-sentences in a Central Florida prison.
Suffice to say, it was a dark time for me, a mid-20s wannabe photographer, somewhat directionless, but with my chest pounding with ambition. To get away from what was a dire environment, I left for Richmond, Virginia where I shacked up with a friend who had moved there a year earlier.
It was in a tiny art museum in that fallen Confederate capital (appropriately) that I “discovered” a bleak, enormous, crumbling landscape by German painter Anselm Kiefer. It seemed the visual equivalent of The Wasteland, by T.S. Eliot, and the opposite, perhaps, of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, donated to the French at the end of World War I, perhaps as a celebration of a peace that would not last.
A student of mad but simple Conceptualist Joseph Beuys, Kiefer sought, in the 1980s, to literally paint pictures of the social, cultural and physical wreckage left behind in Deutschland after World War II. At that post-Hurricane-Andrew, post-triple-homicide moment, however, his work resonated with me in far more personal and deeper ways. Kiefer’s painting was more than merely German, and more than merely “eighties.”
Kiefer is a power puncher, and his landscapes, Baroque and yet simple, are the closest any twentieth-century painter ever came to portraying hell on earth.
It was about hidden scars, open wounds hidden beneath the social and historical fabric of mankind, and it provoked a great sense of disaster and disorder that seemed dead-on correct in the aftermath of the Reagan-Thatcher nightmare, in the age in which the only superheroes were stockbrokers and criminals like Oliver North, at a time in which my hometown looked a lot like a Kiefer painting, and three bodies, brutally murdered, were not yet cold.
Kiefer’s work had thick but barely perceptible roots in the nihilistic Dada movement of World War I, to Impressionism, to Conceptualism, and of course, to Neo- and Abstract Expressionist art. His all-over painting reflects Jackson Pollock, and tips its hat to Monet, but Kiefer is neither a self-destructive American alcoholic, nor an aging garden painter quietly seeking his muse in the crystalline French Sunlight. Kiefer is a power puncher, and his landscapes, Baroque and yet simple, are the closest any twentieth-century painter ever came to portraying hell on earth.
Sad, then, that Kiefer has been framed as a 1980s painter of historical tragedy. Like a number of less important, less talented artists who exploded onto the scene at the 1980 Venice Biennale—for example, Georg Baselitz—Kiefer presumably made a mint during the decade of decadence.
But his 1989 piece, Twilight of the West, which measures almost four-by-four meters, reveals that his work remains relevant, and more universal than anyone thought, more than three decades after it was created. Waste. Decay. The scorched earth. Flags in the dust, as William Faulkner might have said, again, referring to the Confederacy. The painting, which just as easily might be categorized as a collage or a sculpture given the wide blend of materials used, and the fact that, like most of Kiefer’s work, it crumbles to dust even as it hangs in an archival collection in Australia, shows railroad tracks stretching toward the centerpiece of the piece, the impression of a manhole cover. The West, Kiefer says, is heading straight for the sewer. It was in 1918, when philosopher Oswald Spengler wrote the controversial text The Decline of the West that inspired the painting’s title in 1989. It was in World War II when Germany, and much of the rest of the world went mad, and railroad tracks led to concentration camps and the brutal division of the nation, which lasted well into “peaceful times.” And it is in 2010, as the fall of Lehman Brothers Bank becomes a historical anecdote, and images of Haiti, a nation ravaged by empire, rattle like bare bones of injustice in our faces every night on TV.
Twilight of the West, along with much of Kiefer’s dead landscape work, resonates in Mexico where some 17,000 people have been killed in a bloody drug war declared by an incompetent president. It resonates in the United States, where eight years of Bush economic policies and government waste have left the rust belt rustier than ever and the rest of the nation looking just as bad, and in some places worse. It resonated during Vietnam, when terms like “scorched earth policy,” (implying not a savage military tactic but something akin to a vote at a town meeting) made headlines as daisy cutters and napalm ripped Southeast Asia to pieces for no good reason.
The fall of Rome is a slow thing, Kiefer reminds us, and future generations will look back at his work, once America has lost its superpower status once and for all, and see something in this painting that they recognize, just as I, in 1994, saw something tortuously painful in Kiefer’s work that had nothing to do with Germany or the nightmare of the 1980s, and everything to do with my own life, and the natural and unnatural savagery it contained at the time.
Copyright 2010 John Sevigny
John Sevigny is a photographer and writer who lives and works in Mexico. He is a former Associated Press and EFE News correspondent. He has published photographs and articles in the Houston Chronicle, the New York Times, People, the Dallas Morning News, and many other newspapers and magazines. He has exhibited his photography in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota and Illinois in the United States, and in Monterrey, Saltillo, Guadalajara, Xalapa, Cordoba, Zacatecas and other cities in Mexico. He has a blog called Gone City.