“I getting big like sky!” This is what my youngest son said a couple weeks ago when I picked him up. It melted my heart. Yes, you are getting big, and yes, the sky is big. Here is some art, some big art, of the night sky:
In case you couldn’t sense the scale from that image (trust me, you couldn’t) it is more than15 feet by 17 feet. It is probably still hard to imagine. The first time I took my camera to photograph this at the Blanton, I brought my 50mm lense, which is great for low lighting conditions without using flash, but makes everything seem zoomed in. I couldn’t get far enough away to get the whole painting in one shot. This thing is huge. See? I had to scan an image to get the whole thing, my camera could only capture the bottom right corner.
I took my kids back to see this, hoping to get another sweet “big like sky” remark, but they only glanced at it as they tugged me down to the installation with the pennies that you can touch. Tactile over visual for those two.
On a trip sans children, I sat down at the base of this enormous work and looked up. The sheer size lends it grandeur, it is a bit like looking up at the night sky when out in the country, away from the city’s polluting lights. Up close to the painting, while you are dwarfed by its scale, you start to see the textures. Did I mention I like texture? Um, yeah. There are bits that look like tree bark or dirt cracked from dryness:
And bits that seem almost like a birds nest:
And one tiny dot of color:
But the part that makes me squirm a bit, that makes this piece sobering rather than just majestic, are the numbers. The first time I saw this work, I just walked by and thought, “huh. Weird. Numbers” and went looking for something more colorful. But once I happened past a docent led tour, and overheard the guide sharing how the numbers come from the NASA identifiers for stars.
Stars are numbered. For a fee, you can go name one of these stars if you like, but there are so many known stars, that scientists catalogue them by number because it is easier to manage.
And the Jews in concentration camps had numbers.
The artist, Anselm Kiefer, is German, and in the beginning of his career he created photographs that blatantly dealt with Nazism in Germany. This painting is more recent, and I do not know if he intended the correlation between stars and Jews, but the title, Sternenfall means Falling Stars, and if those two ideas are connected, this becomes a huge, black painting of mourning. Those fallen stars, the Jews, have become the parched earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
The tour guide made that connection to the Holocaust, I wouldn’t dream of taking credit for it, and at the time, there was a huddle of people around the work, and I wasn’t on the tour, so I didn’t sit and meditate on it. But later, years later, actually, I returned. I sat down on the gallery floor, the fallen numbers strewn behind the white “do not cross” line, and pondered.
In this context, black doesn’t just signify night, but grief and metaphorical darkness. And the caked textures feel heavy, not weightless like the sky. And I have no idea about the one dot of color, but perhaps you do. I sat and stared for a while, but not too long. I didn’t want to dwell on the monumental emotions. I didn’t want to feel like I did that time I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. I just wanted to “enjoy” some art.
So after soaking it in for just a bit, before letting my mind and heart run away, I got up and moved on. The penny installation is always a good distraction.
Is there art you appreciate, but don’t want to look at for too long? Have you ever had a tour guide say something that made you love an artwork you hadn’t given much thought to before?
“Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow” is a documentary about Keifer’s art. You can see the trailer here or watch it on Netflix. It’s still in my queue, so tell me what you think!
If you’d like to read about how a work this massive is transported and cared for, this article is an interesting read.
Update: The Blanton has special programming on Third Thursdays. On April 17th the Butler School of Music will perform Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Op. 4 for string sextet in the Susman Gallery, alongside discussion of Anselm Kiefer’s Sternenfall. Free!