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I  was not prepared for the size of the thing—there had been little in the exhibition photographs to indicate its scale. I rounded the corner and there it was, two stories tall.

I was in the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in August, and “it” was one of Anselm Kiefer’s gigantic vitrines. The exhibit, called Regeneration Series: Anselm Kiefer from the Hall Collection, began with three of these glass cases like tall, narrow aquariums. The first and largest is called Engel-Sturz—Angel-Fall, or Fall of the Angels, perhaps a reference to Bruegel the Elder’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels.

Inside the case are three tiers of pale cotton dresses or shifts spattered with mud-colored paint. On the ground level, I confronted a substantial human-height pile of them, stiffened, half propped up with shellac or draped over rusted wire hangers so that they seemed like live or formerly live things, ghosts or the shells of ghosts, making leaden efforts at rising, or having collapsed, spent, or having fallen, the spirit departed.

Above the pile, already well over my head, a horizontal glass plate hangs suspended by wires from the ceiling of the vitrine, and on it two of the garments lay as if fallen from above—or perhaps lifted up from a wreckage—sleeves dangling from the sides of the plate like exhausted arms. I thought of a line from Wallace Stevens: “Like a body wholly body, fluttering / Its empty sleeves.” If these were once angels, they were now emphatically matter, spirit inextricable from paint-encrusted form.

Finally, at the top of the vitrine a small cluster of the dresses dangle on hangers from the glass ceiling, as if drawn up as high as it is possible to go and now suspended there, still eternally divided from the heavens above, perhaps sooner or later to tumble back down to the cracked earth.

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