Anselm Kiefer Lot's Wife: Tom E. Hinson

Anselm Kiefer. Lot's Wife, 1989.

Anselm Kiefer. Lot's Wife, 1989.

The German artist Anselm Kiefer, at mid-career, is the most disquieting painter active today. His provocative work, notable for its use of expressively rendered imagery and insistence on confrontational content, was essential to the revitalization of European art during the 1980s. Equally important characteristics of his oeuvre are its stunning physicality and long reliance on a wide range of materials such as bits of paper, staples, various metals, straw, sand, photographs, human hair, ashes, dried plants, and broken pieces of glass and ceramics. He is particularly gifted at employing and unifying incongruous elements and connecting age-old legends with contemporary concerns.

Lot's Wife[1] from 1989 is a major example of Kiefer's work of the past five years. This visually arresting piece, comprised of two abutted panels, combines his earlier interests in formal art issues, subject matter, and content (as seen in the lower portion of the composition), with more recent explorations of new media and abstraction (apparent in the upper section). With its riot of textures, visual density, and literal meaning, the bottom half provides a grounding as well as a contrast to the top unit, whose atmospheric appearance is physically less complex, lighter in color, and ethereal. Cloud-like forms appear to hover above a chaotic, devastated land scape. The painting comfortably carries its large scale and ambitious use of materials and themes, while engulfing the viewer. With an intense spirit of inquiry, Kiefer has established a tight balance between corporeality and content, observed and inferred. The piece makes itself felt, little by little, as the viewer peels back its encapsulated layers of information.

The underlying, dominant material in Lot's Wife is lead. Commonly associated with Kiefer's work, this metal is favored for its wealth of visual as well as referential qualities. In the Museum's imposing painting, sheets of lead foil were subjected to various treatments and then stapled and glued to a wooden substructure constructed from pine supports covered with several sheets of plywood. (It accounts for much of the painting's weight of 1,200 pounds.) The malleable metal was marked and distressed by controlled incidents such as being walked on and driven over with cars, trucks, or fork lifts. Footprints and tire tracks can be seen in the top unit. The metal's surface was also stained with chemicals-hydrochloric acid being a favorite agent of the artist.[2] This preparation enriched much of the lead surface with splotchy white marks, and the upper panel is additionally embellished with a glowing, bluish iridescence.

Around 1989 Kiefer produced a number of important pieces that significantly expanded how he had previously employed lead. He used its inherent chemical properties, altering its surface by applying a concentrated solution of sodium chloride. In Lot's Wife he created a flamboyant abstract composition, eccentrically shaped by pouring and physically manipulating the salt water slurry. When the sodium chloride solution evaporated, it deposited a white and yellowish crystalline layer of varying thicknesses. These buildups of salt attracted Kiefer not only for their visual qualities, but also because they helped to convey his compelling iconography and alchemical implications.

In the lower section, Kiefer applied paint on fabric, a continuation of his long attraction to the tradition of painting. The canvas, how ever, went through a lengthy and rigorous journey before being mounted over the lead substructure, obscuring much of it. Initially, the woven material was stretched, primed, and probably placed out of doors for a period of time. After sufficient aging, Kiefer thickly applied commercial stucco enriched with linseed oil and polymer emulsion with trowels or large brushes. In many areas he may have purposely added animal skin glue to induce cracks in the paint surface, which added to the layering effect. Somber tones of grays and blacks were applied and allowed to drip in numerous places. While still wet, the entire surface was dusted with a thin coating of ash. At this point, Kiefer intentionally burned the canvas with a blow torch, creating amorphously shaped voids. The fabric was then unstretched, flattened (including the tacking edges), and fastened with a commercial polyurethane adhesive onto its lead-covered support. To complete the composition, two small sections of canvas of a different weave and thickness were added to the lower right bottom and side of the larger piece.

The observable subject matter in the encrusted painting is a barren, scorched landscape, dominated by converging railroad tracks, one of Kiefer's favorite motifs. His photographs of the train tracks in Bordeaux, France, inspired these images of abandoned steel arteries. While the riveting motif is easily understood at a distance, when the viewer is pulled closer by the compelling, deep perspective, that recognizable imagery is transformed into intricately patterned abstract forms. As is true of the large, dripped canvases by Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Kiefer infused every square inch of surface with material and energy. Acting as a vertical element, the tracks provide a means of moving through the landscape, to ascend into the nebulous space contained in the top unit and return again Over this field of texture, Kiefer has used white chalk to write the painting's German title, Lots Frau. He also made a long, delicate vertical mark–centrally positioned–to which he attached the three dimensional twisted form of a heating coil, covered with a white substance.

The complex allusions contained in Kiefer's work are often indecipherably private and incorporate a vast range of iconography, including pagan and Christian mythology, history, and cultural references.[3] A controversial subject in his work has been the struggle for a personal, public resolution of his country's participation in the Holocaust. For Kiefer, the railroad tracks are symbols of the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps. Another essential theme is the destructive, transformative powers of fire, with its intense heat. For the artist, transformation of the land is a metaphor for human suffering. The burned canvas and the coating of ashes reinforces the bleakness and desolation of his barren painted landscape.

The painting's title, of course, refers to the Old Testament story of Lot's wife who was turned into a pillar of salt for disobeying Lot's warning not to look back at God's destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. A sixteenth-century drawing by Maertne Van Heemskerck renders this Christian allegory with angels leading Lot and his two daughters away from the burning, razed city, while his wife, isolated and motionless, stares back at the fiery inferno. Obviously, Kiefer handles the biblical story metaphorically, using the salt encrusted panel and altered canvas to suggest the story's cataclysmic ending.

Clearly, Kiefer's theme also has environmental overtones. He uses the biblical allegory as a warning about what may be expected if we do not become more environmentally conscious and responsible. The salt could, however, represent life-supporting as well as destructive qualities. The heating element alludes not only to changes in the global environment, but refers to the intrauterine coil that inhibits human fertility. It thus becomes a symbol for the looming infertility of the land and humankind.

In Lot's Wife Kiefer reinforces his reputation as a most physical and metaphysical painter. The work's pictorial appeal is established by the beauty and virtuosity of his technique. His power of conceptualization and deft use of substances effortlessly combine to produce a work filled with multiple associations. Numerous levels of recognition and perception can be uncovered in the work itself, revealing a remarkable union of materials and ideas.


1   CMA 90.8 Lot's Wife (Lots Frau), mixed media, 350 x 410 cm, 1989. Anselm Kiefer, German, born 1945. Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Fund. Provenance: Anthony d'Offay, London. Exhibition: The Cleveland Museum of Art, June 1991: Notable Acquisitions (cat. CMA Bulletin 78 [June 1991]), p. 109, illus. Publications: Interpretations: Sixty-Five Works from The Cleveland Museum of Art (Cleveland, 1991), p. 40, illus.; CMA Handbook (1991), p. 157; The Cleveland Museum of Art: Masterpieces from East and West (New York, 1992), pp. 176-1 77, illus.

2   Information on Kiefer's working methods comes from notes made on February 13, 1990, when William Leisher, former executive director of conservation, Art Institute of Chicago, inspected the painting. Leisher was the conservator in charge of the retrospective exhibition organized in 1987 by A. James Speyer of the Art Institute of Chicago and Mark Rosenthal of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

3   Mark Rosenthal, in Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat. (Chicago and Philadelphia: The Art Institute of Chicago and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1987), comprehensively discusses Kiefer's subject matter and its implied content.