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Ask an Art Critic: Jerry Saltz Answers Your Questions About Anselm Kiefer and What’s Killing MoMA

In his weekly column, Jerry Saltz dispenses art advice to all comers. Got a question for Jerry? Send it to artcritic@nymag.com.

Dear Jerry,

You said “keep your questions short.” Okay: The Anselm Kiefer show at Larry Gagosian: Thumbs-up? Thumbs-down? Why?

—C. Packard

Dear C. Packard,

It’s hard to imagine an artist more out of step with the current moment than the big kahuna of the eighties, an artist who mainly speaks with the dead poets represented in his work, a 65-year-old German who recently remarked that he has “the will to go all the way to the end in order to look for the thing itself.” So unironic, uncool, earnest, portentous, huge, and serious is Anselm Kiefer that it’s almost bad etiquette to like his work.

I think his first solo show in New York in eight years is really convincing, even if it often flirts with all-out kitsch, Tim Burton more than Richard Wagner, and what artist Jackie Saccoccio has called “Alice in Wonder-hell,” not to mention referencing questionable artists like Antoni Tapies and Miguel Barcelo. Kiefer uses scale, spectacle, theatricality, materiality, and especially the inherent extravagance of Gagosian’s gigantic Palace of Art and Ambition. As figurative and narrative as Kiefer’s work is, however, it’s quite abstract and poetic, seeming to bypass language and rationality while creating patterns of meaning via form, weight, color, texture, and compression.

This insanely over-the-top exhibition (with an even more over-the-top title, “Next Year in Jerusalem”) is a sort of walk-in mausoleum of enormous vitrines, containing objects like airplane engines, mummified wedding gowns, miniature submarines, and real sunflowers. It’s like an alien-specimen collection, a museum of cold nights and howling winds, and the warehouse at the end of Citizen Kane. A huge locker houses giant photographs of the artist as a 24-year-old giving the Nazi salute in places the German army occupied in World War II. It is the raw nerve center of this show, and it generates anxiety, grandiosity, gathering ironies, and gallows humor. Of course, it can also come off as ridiculous, grotesque, gauche, and overwrought. The amazing thing is that all of these things often (not always) transform into powerful positive content. Call it the Dyspeptic Sublime. Thumbs-up, with an asterisk.

Dear Jerry,

I read in this past week’s New York that you didn’t like the Museum of Modern Art’s new show about drawing, “On Line.” I agree with you about the show, but is there something overall about MoMA that you don’t like? (Other than that, as you’ve noted, it doesn’t display enough art by women in its permanent collection.)

—A Concerned Curator

Dear Concerned,

You’ve got good antennae. I am irked about something dogmatic going on at MoMA, something that’s widespread in many museums and institutions. I’ve taken to calling it “Curator Art.”

It involves creating shows that only convey one stylistically narrow, conceptually predetermined pedantic idea. Art that agrees with the thesis statement is included; anything off-message, uncanny, politically suspect, or aesthetically incorrect is shunned. In these shows, like is relentlessly paired with like; everything is made to make sense; no ends are left open; art is sorted and ordered, packaged and purged of uncertainty; turned into a lesson; or pared down to a single moral, political, or formal essence. These curators concentrate on preapproved, already lauded artists and gerrymander others out of the picture, as if they didn’t exist. Many biennials are filled with the same quasi-conceptual performative installation art and iterations of relational aesthetics that either were popular when these curators were young, were work their teachers taught them to like, or have already been picked by other curators. These shows aren’t visions of the future; they’re sheltered walks down academic memory lanes — ways to stave off or negate art’s inherent advantages of bad taste, messiness, unpredictability, and strangeness. These curators—and I should add that not everyone thinks or acts this way—continually use art to illustrate ideas. They forget that art hates being used this way.

“On Line” suffers from some of this. Last season, MoMA’s “Compass in Hand,” which supposedly “chronicled the state of [drawing] at the beginning of the twenty-first century,” was just more by-the-book post-minimal catechism updated. (One curator who reveres this kind of work summed up this curatorial practice when he admitted that his own taste in art is “The more boring the better.”) And up on the second floor, “Contemporary Art from the Permanent Collection,” organized by MoMA associate director Kathy Halbreich, has a bad case of the disease, though it's just got a boost from Jennifer Allora’s and Guillermo Calzadilla’s absorbingly poetic piano piece, installed by chief-curator-at-large Klaus Biesenbach in the atrium. Halbreich's show uses more than 120 works to illustrate ideas about process, post-minimalism, installation art, activist intervention, site-specificity, dematerialization, politics, gender, ethnicity, and current events. In other words, the show is about everything and nothing and could contain anything. At MoMA and elsewhere, curators obsessively examine these same ideas, often with the same artists. Making matters worse, there’s so much other work out there these days that is breaking free of or even integrating these ideas in new exciting ways. I could imagine a whole show of recent abstract painting and sculpture that would shed all sorts of light.

How did this happen? Maybe curators don’t want to rock the institutional boat. Perhaps it’s fear of pleasure, form, color, or of painting. There’s rarely much painting that isn’t quasi-formalist in these shows, and not much color. Perhaps it’s piousness, or fear of failing, discomfort with doubt, or just wanting to be liked by your colleagues. Indeed, many shows seem designed mainly for the same insular international set of institutional movers and shakers — professionals speaking to other professionals. By now these shows have become measured, prim, professionalized, decorous, and didactic. Most exasperating, as open as these curators are to art made by the so-called other, they’re almost totally closed to “otherness” in art.

Dear Jerry,

This week in New York Magazine, you complained that MoMA’s “On Line” show started with Picasso. Yet you’ve often said how much you love Picasso. What’s the problem?

D. Evans

Dear D. Evans,

Oh my God! This is the last question about MoMA I’m going to answer.

A philosopher — some reports say Bertrand Russell, some say William James, others say it’s apocryphal — was once accosted at a lecture by a questioner who insisted that the world was not a whirling sphere but a flat plate balanced on the back of a turtle. When he asked what the turtle was standing on, she responded, “You don’t fool me. It’s turtles all the way down!”

Well, this show opens with four Picassos, and if you ask MoMA why, they’d say that the giant Cosmic Tortoise of Modernism rests on Picassos all the way down. It keeps the museum’s master narrative intact, its articles of modernist faith affirmed. Oh, MoMA: You need help to break out of this sick he-begat-him lineage. It’s become pathological, oppressive, weird. It’s tub-thumping twisted history.

Okay, no more questions or comments about MoMA. I’ll say it one more time and then stop: Let’s take back the atrium this summer, in an architectural intervention or construction project, and build gallery space where that six-floor void is. That would add about a Whitney Museum’s worth of space and free much of the permanent collection, which is now sequestered more or less permanently in various Guantanamo-like storage facilities. Modernism could begin to tell its own stories.