By Julia Clift
Kiefer Rodin pairs two eminent artists from different eras, highlighting shared themes of architecture, mutability, and eroticism in their work. The exhibition stems from Anselm Kiefer’s 2013 visit to the Musée Rodin’s storerooms in Meudon, France, where he was inspired by the 19th century sculptor’s abattis (sculpture fragments), plaster casts, erotically-charged drawings, and Les Cathédrales de France—Rodin’s only book. Through Kiefer Rodin, The Barnes strategically affirms Rodin’s impact on contemporary artists during the centennial anniversary of his death. Unfortunately, the show is burdened by facile work and the artists’ unsettling views of women.
The exhibition’s first room is devoted to Rodin. His sculptures, casts, abattis, and drawings, as well as proofs for Les Cathédrales and several original journals, are displayed in a dense but un-crowded installation. Kiefer’s response occupies the following galleries, taking the form of large paintings, phone booth-sized glass vitrines housing sculptural installations, and enormous, plaster-coated books.
Disappointingly, Kiefer’s work frequently suffers from heavy-handed symbolism, reading as cliché illustrations of ideas. For example, in a vitrine titled Sursum Corda, he piles several feet of soil over tiny plaster body parts. Out of the dirt sprouts a tree and a sculpted DNA strand—life literally springing from death. In A.R.A.K, two sculpted DNA strands run parallel, affixed to a painted backdrop. On small placards attached to the top of the canvas, Kiefer labels one strand with his own initials and one with Rodin’s, hammering viewers over the head with the notion that he and Rodin are kindred spirits.
Kiefer strikes a richer chord in pieces that derive meaning through formal relationships. Three large paintings in Kiefer’s familiar style feature drawings of the stories-high towers that he constructed in Barjac, France. The tower-depictions are layered into rich surfaces: bubbling, peeled, crusted and cracked. We can’t tell if the towers are eroding from or emerging into the picture. The effect holds a powerful suggestion: there’s little to distinguish creation from destruction, they’re simply two sides of the same coin.
Rodin frequently created sculptures by re-assembling loose abattis. This aspect of his practice, the constant piecing together and breaking back down of limbs, resonates with Kiefer’s career-long emphasis on life’s perpetual cycles of growth and decay. Kiefer pays homage to Rodin’s method through vitrine sculptures like Sonde, which poetically join fragments of disparate objects into a new, enigmatic whole.
Throughout his career, Rodin studied, drew, and wrote about Gothic cathedrals in numerous notebooks. It was a life-long passion that culminated in his book, Les Cathédrales de France, which pays homage to the structures through idiosyncratic text and illustrations. For Rodin, cathedrals represented precious monuments to the skills and knowledge of the past, and he frequently compared the cathedral to the human body. But his interest in the buildings, and in their connection to the body, seems mainly architectural. A pair of drawings displayed near Rodin’s cathedral notebooks show his similar treatment of the female form and a profile of architectural molding. Against the soulful sculptures, the drawings feel oddly cold.
Rodin’s more erotic works hang nearby in the gallery. Rendered in various combinations of graphite, watercolor, gouache, and ink, the drawings contain powerful energy and are often formally exquisite. In a few, Rodin faces the female subject’s genitals toward the picture plane, inviting viewers to act upon her body. Not all of the erotic drawings feel so unequivocally objectifying, but when the works are considered overall, along with Rodin’s penchant for comparing women’s bodies to inanimate décor, it produces a whiff of misogyny.
Kiefer responds to Les Cathédrales de France, and to Rodin’s depictions of women, through massive artist books. On the plaster-coated pages, Kiefer’s illustrations relate a woman to a cathedral, but the nature of that relationship, or any meaningful implication behind the linkage, is unclear. The women are portrayed nude in Gothic archways, splayed bottoms-up over stained glass windows, even poised for vaginal intercourse with Rodin’s beloved spires. All jokes aside, where is the message here?
At Kiefer’s solo exhibition at Gagosian this past spring, I remember feeling unsettled by the ubiquity of his drawn female “muse;” it read like a sexual object from Kiefer’s own fantasies, compulsively re-iterated. Seeing Kiefer’s figure drawings again at The Barnes, next to Rodin’s own drawings of sexualized women, the issue became clearer. Kiefer lacks the deep knowledge of the body that Rodin earned through decades of observation. One could argue that Rodin’s drawings, like the work of Egon Schiele, speak to eroticism as an aspect of the human condition, but Kiefer’s drawings are woefully unskilled and fail utterly to transcend their perviness.
What’s sorely missing in the exhibition is Kiefer’s work in Barjac: a massive installation of buildings and passageways that blur the line between sculpture and architecture. Literature describing the complex consistently notes the temple-like atmosphere within many of the constructions. Barjac reveals Kiefer’s interest in the solemn space that spiritual shelters enclose. The Barnes addresses Barjac peripherally, through the catalogue and public programs, but its absence in the show is a lost opportunity. A concrete tower erected in the gallery, or a room transformed into a Barjac-esque temple, would have made for a far more interesting response to Les Cathédrales than Kiefer’s books.
One can find beautiful works by both artists in Kiefer Rodin. In the exhibition’s best moments, ideas evoked by each artist engage in compelling dialogue. Unfortunately, a sizable portion of the show revels in representing women as sexual or aesthetic objects. At a time when myriad allegations of sexual misconduct are forcing Westerners to reckon with the consequences of our patriarchal culture, it’s difficult to dismiss this aspect of the show. Most problematically, much of Kiefer’s work lacks fortitude. Notable exceptions, like the three tower paintings, rely on Kiefer’s own, un-hampered vernacular—it’s when Kiefer’s goal of engaging with Rodin over-directs the work that things fall apart.
Julia Clift is a Philadelphia-based artist and educator.