July is the month we say goodbye to some regular writers who have aged out or are moving on to other projects. We’re extra thankful for Julia today—she’s been writing with us since August 2016.

Should you happen to walk by any one of Anselm’s Keifer’s (1945-) large paintings, make sure to look on the floor underneath it. More often than not, you will see the work deteriorating before your eyes. Small specks of white powder or even larger bits of plaster continually drop off of the mammoth but structurally shaky panels. 

Anselm Kiefer. Lots Frau. 1989. Oil paint, ash, stucco, chalk, linseed oil, polymer emulsion, salt and applied elements (e.g., copper heating coil), on canvas, attached to lead foil, on plywood panels (137 13/16 x 161 7/16 in.) Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund 1990.8 (Cleveland Museum of Art)

Counterintuitive though it may seem, it’s works by modern masters—like Keifer—and not paintings by older generations of artists that are in the greatest danger of a quick decay. Dissatisfied with the limitations of more traditional (and often more stable) media, some artists in the twentieth century incorporated a host of unorthodox materials into their process. Bits of ash, salt, stucco, and a copper heating coil are hidden in plain sight in Kiefer’s Lots Frau, a painting in the Cleveland Museum of Art. 

Detail: Heating Coil

Even though it’s a bit of an ongoing nightmare for the people who have to keep the painting from falling apart, I love this work exactly for the way it embodies loss. I see loss in this work through three lenses: the materials and creation process, the work’s connection to history, and the biblical allusion contained in the title.  

Material and Process

Anselm Kiefer came of artistic age when conceptual art was all the rage. However, Kiefer felt drawn to painting, and his teacher encouraged him to follow his instinct. Lots Frau is distinctly pictorial. The work is a landscape—with a clear, expansive horizon line that alludes to German Romantic landscapes (a genre Kiefer knows well). 

[3] Caspar David Friedrich, Moonrise Over the Sea. 1822. Oil on Canvas. (1′ 10″ x 2′ 4″), (Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin)

But, there is something performative in Kiefer’s art-making process. It’s not just the final product that matters—how the materials came together also means something. Kiefer scorches, stains, burns, slashes, and sends electric currents through his canvases. He will often place the canvas on a lead backing because he likes how lead reacts when heated. The crystalized sky in Lots Frau is a result of chemical reactions occurring on the lead. Kiefer also appreciates lead’s alchemical history; people used to believe lead could be transformed into gold. This metamorphosing element in the material represents Kiefer’s bigger idea that art is spiritual and transformational. Lots Frau is always changing. As the lead continues to oxidize and gravity pulls loose bits of material off the canvas, the painting continues to change.

Detail of sky

Historical Context

The materials in Lots Frau contain equally potent allusions to tragic moments in history. Much of Kiefer’s body of work from this time period grapples with the legacy of the Holocaust. Kiefer was born two months before the end of World War II, but as a German citizen he didn’t learn about the trauma of Holocaust until he was an adult. Through his artwork, especially his landscapes, Kiefer wrestles with what it means to share culpability as a member of a nation that committed genocide.

Landscapes are inextricably bound up with notions of the fatherland. The land often bears the scars of war long after details of war have faded from human memory. Lots Frau is irreparably damaged landscape. Kiefer’s destructive process makes an eerie allusion to “scorched earth” military policy—an attempt to destroy resources before an enemy can weaponize them. Hitler adopted this tactic when he ordered German troops to destroy their own infrastructure before the Allies invaded. Sometimes scorched earth campaigns targeted farmland by pouring salt into it. So in Lots Frau the ash and salt are reminders of the destruction of war. 

Auschwitz

The most harrowing allusion in the painting is unavoidable—the train tracks. The ragged tracks in Lots Frau echo the very real tracks that led thousands of Jews to their deaths in concentration camps. Within this context, the ash in the painting is a reminder of the visceral loss of human life. 

Lot’s Wife and the Big Questions

However, Lots Frau has ramifications beyond Germany. Kiefer often inserts allusions to well-known myths or stories in his works, which broadens the scope of works to include general reflections about universal human experiences of guilt, regret, despair, and the power of regeneration. 

Here, the title is key: Lots Frau, or, in English, Lot’s Wife, a reference to the Old Testament character who fled Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot’s wife, disregarding God’s instructions, looked back at the burning cities and was transformed into a pillar of salt. 

Detail “Lots Frau”

Once again, materials become the salient point in the artwork. The reference to Lot brings up a host of questions about what it means to take part in destruction. Does regret immobilize forward momentum? Can we ever escape the repercussions of trauma? Do voyeurs share guilt with perpetrators? Even as Lots Frau raises these questions, the materiality of the work presents a redemptive answer. Fire destroys, but also purifies. Some things must be reduced to ashes in order to form new growth. Lots Frau doesn’t present a clear answer or even a clear question. But as a work of art it does the important work of making us think critically about all kinds of loss. This, all by itself, is a kind of transformation, and paradoxically a step toward healing and wholeness.

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