When I was 16 I took my girlfriend, Amy, to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I didn’t know much about modern art, though I knew I liked Picasso’s Blue Period. Amy was a sensitive girl who was excited about what her Great Neck art teacher called the “avant-garde.” As we rounded a corner in the museum, Amy suddenly cried out – embarrassing me – “There’s a Jackson Pollock!” I didn’t know what a Jackson Pollock was, and anyway, I was in the middle of telling her a joke. “Oh, Johnny, isn’t it beautiful?” she said, turning to me, her sensitive eyes shining. “Huh?” I replied. “What’s so beautiful about it? It looks like vomit.” It’s extraordinary what young men can’t imagine.
Forty years later, in 1998, I would take my 13 year-old daughter to the massive Pollock Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and somewhere in the middle of the gallery that contained Pollock’s late “drip” paintings, I turned to her, my eyes now shining, and said, “We’re in a cathedral.”
I go to museums to re-acquaint myself with art I’ve known and loved, and to encounter new art I can add to that list. However, when I repeatedly – in print and in person – cross paths with an artwork (say, Diane Arbus’s Identical Twins), my admiration becomes reflexive and habitual, and I find myself merely paying my respects to an artist who once set me on fire. Saint Diane. A couple of years ago at The Art Institute of Chicago (my first and only visit), I turned a corner and there was Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. I thought, I’m standing in front of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Me. Standing here. The real Nighthawks. An absolutely famous thing. If I touched it, I’d be arrested. Should I touch it? To be honest, it might as well have been Van Gogh’s Starry Night – or, for that matter, Robert De Niro. I could barely see the painting through the shimmering layers of its celebrity. But that was OK. I was experiencing a famous moment – on my own.
Will I ever tire of Anselm Kiefer’s triptych, Untitled, at the North Carolina Museum of Art? I don’t think so, for I can’t imagine ever knowing this work. Darkly fabulous, and colossal in size, Untitled creates its own environment – you must either accommodate yourself to it, or walk away. Like a symphony, it can be apprehended only in successive stages. What is it? Something unusual – half-painting, half-sculpture: scorched canvas, oil, straw, lead splatters, shellac, stones, charcoal. If Pollock’s work foretold the end of art as we knew it, Kiefer’s frames the untellable story we are always on the verge of forgetting: The horror of war, our wars, their wars, but specifically the horror of post-war Germany, where Kiefer was born.
What do we see? Look closely. A desolate field, flooded. Grey besmirched earth. Pendulous boulders that seem to extrude from the canvas. A ladder reaching to the sky. Does this ladder suggest an escape from the thick serpent that lies coiled beneath it? No, this ladder – Jacob’s? – is too feeble to bear the weight of human memory. We did this, we can’t flee, we must remember.
Untitled cannot quite be anticipated, no matter how many times it is seen. It cannot be captured by the mind, by a phrase. Stand in front of it and say nothing. Walk away and come back. Forget about “culture.” Forget about Renoir. Forget about Warhol. This is another thing entirely. It is a witnessing. It is terrifying and beautiful, and it is more than we deserve.