A nearly non-descript building in a half-developed neighborhood of Miami houses some of the most imposing art works of the last four or five decades. Covering the range of an extended Peter Fischli and David Weiss from the mid-sixties to a gigantic Anselm Kiefer installation of six months ago, from a large scale Magdalena Abakanowicz to a bare but imposing Sol LeWitt, the collection is the esthetic statement of a single man. The scope and depth of the collection bears the name of its founder and “onlie begetter,” Martin Z. Margulies. Its many instances of solid esthetic experience, its several lasting satisfactions, invite reflections on how such success fares in a world where too often contemporary art looks, and is treated, more like a blue chip investment than an occasion for questions about how the public and private worlds of art viewing can be harmonized.
What set of features would best define a successful personal art collection open to the public? It might seem easy to answer by just combining desirable features from both realms. But such a mechanical splicing won’t do. Better to try and imagine a way in which certain personal features not only combine with, but also strengthen public ones. The Margulies satisfies the criteria for a public institution by operating on a non-profit basis and donating a percentage of its admission fees (which are themselves admirably modest) to charities, namely support for shelters for women at risk, and a youth center for kids from one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods. On the personal level, Mr. Margulies has won out in several ways. First, he has bought boldly, and with an eye to top quality. Second, he exhibits – or his collection does – a singular emphasis. Here I would point to his willingness to think big. By big I don’t mean big in scale only, but big in terms of imaginative spirit and conceptual daring. Big physical scale can often and easily convey these attributes. Such physicality is perhaps the chief aspect of any large scale, but it also runs the risk of a sort of visual bombast. The collection avoids this by using its space well, avoiding catchy juxtapositions, but not eliminating altogether the grouping of works by a single artist, as is the case with its superb emphasis on works by Anselm Kiefer. Finally, Margulies has not frozen his collection in amber, like the Gardner in Boston, for example, or canonized idiosyncrasy, like the Soane Museum in London. Instead he mounts temporary exhibitions that change a few times each year. (I was fortunate in that my visit allowed me to see the newly opened display1 of Kiefers, more of which below.)
The visit begins when one enters the door of the retrofitted warehouse and sees the grey painted cement floors and the generally understated atmosphere; no industrial chic allowed. On the right is a room with a single large sculpture; on the left stands, in a partially open space, two hundred and fifty human-sized sculptures. The former is a bronze “Seated Woman” (1969-81) by Willem de Kooning (yes, that de Kooning). The story of its making and acquisition is presented in a wall tag, and it involves de Kooning having first made a plaster cast, complete with fingerprints and curves that torque along dozens of axes. Many years later the piece was removed from the studio and taken to be cast, the metamorphosis from white plaster to dark bronze suggesting an alchemical madness. The piece could unreasonably be read as an answer, and a rebuke, to Rodin. Here is yet another place where modern sculpture leaves behind the last struggles with classical esthetics. In its final bronze version the figure measures about eight feet tall and surely would register its weight in tons. As with his paintings, de Kooning has staged a dance between abstraction and a sensualized surface. The patina is a fairly medium brown tone, but the bulk of the figure radiates a darkness, emphasized by all the curves, the ones that outline her majesty and the ones that reticulate it. She is more enthroned than seated.
Turn around and your gaze falls on Magdalena Abakanowicz’s “Hurma,” two hundred and fifty figures, rendered in burlap and stiffened with resin. The title in Arabic means “woman”, or “sanctity,” and in Finnish, “rapture.” Ambiguity is all. Each figure seems dressed in the same way, evoking images of crowds in a death camp, the grimness of which is heightened by each figure ceasing just at the line of its shoulders. Headless and neckless, rough textured mannequins forever frozen in a stance of mock attention: thus we greet the stuff of nightmares. How different in appearance from the white unclothed and often armless figures one sees from time to time in department store windows, being readied for the consumer’s choice items. The Margulies group resembles a number of similar installations that appear elsewhere with equally abstruse titles. One series, for example, the largest of which is in Chicago’s Grant Park, the artist calls “Agora”, the Greek word for space. Abakanowicz is a multi-talented, multi-media artist, highly prolific for the last fifty years, and her impact can be devastating.
The two openers, so to speak, the lone woman and the huddled crowd, demonstrate contemporary art’s scorn for safe reactions. A short distance beyond the Abakanowicz stand five of George Segal’s life-like sculptures, called collectively “Depression Bread Line” (1991). Segal could rightly be viewed as a safe artist, but not in this case. Dressed in similar attire, a long outer coat and a shabby fedora, the drained petitioners stand waiting in a soup line, framed by the storefront whose door is closed, as if the group needed sustenance not as yet available. This installation stands out from other Segals that embody a similar esthetic; here it is the faces of the men that expand the scale. They each possess a stoical chalky green face, rather like patinated bronze. This ironic undercutting of the class-derived value of official statuary is itself undercut by the distinctive individuality of each man. Separation in the midst of seriality plays differently here, a sharp change from Segal’s usual uniform use of plaster casting in the faces of his individual subjects. The Depression era changed the ideal of the common man into a mass harnessed to a common fate. Margulies, in a number of pieces in his collection, doesn’t shy away from a socially aware, even politically committed art.
The Segal and Abakanowicz works integrate elements of sculpture and installation art. This merging of the genres or media occurs throughout the collection. Another example that uses elements from more than one medium is a wall hanging by John Chamberlain, whose crushed and welded automobile parts are among contemporary art’s best known “informe” sculptures. They usually sit on the floor, however. Here they hang like a painting on the wall. Nearby is a Jannis Kounellis work, “senza titolo” (1999), and this, too, merges painting and sculpture. It is a series of three wall mounted metal shelves, each laden with a burlap sack of plaster. Looking like a literalized metaphor for the process of making objects, the assemblage of plaster and metal beckons us to reconsider which material serves which purpose, and what shapes come from what shapings. One recalls the phrase “off the shelf” to refer to complicated but ready to use technical instruments.
Many humans realize there are only two kinds of people in the world, those whose inestimable bad luck has so far kept them from seeing a Fischli and Weiss, and those fortunate enough to have seen one or more. The one at the Margulies is the longest I have ever seen, and I’ve replayed portions of it in my mind ever since. The fortunate viewers know well how the display (spectacle, performance, or enactment) perfectly allegorizes human experience (fate, theatre, or regimen). The assembly of gimcrack actions, involving motion and incineration, manifest a range of tonalities, from raw humor to admiration to wonderment like a child’s glee. The extended sequence of collisions and propulsions goes on for thirty minutes, while the camera dollies alongside and occasionally zooms in. There are wheels and catapults, slides and liquids, all aimed at moving things along. The title of the thirty-minute film that records the multiple operations, “The Way Things Go”(1987), is as gentle and as focused as an allegorical title can be. What we see and cheer on is a series of actions, not activities, the distinction being necessary so we can unflinchingly comprehend that we are always in the hands of “outside” forces. (Actions:objects::activities:persons.)
So a one-way daisy chain, composed of various movements involving a little handmade object skillfully arranged to pass on the energy of the first propulsive “tip,” makes for a remarkable display of actions at and through a distance. What are all these actions-set-in-motion that we end up marveling at? They include collision, propulsion, oozing, tripping, igniting, flooding, releasing, dropping, rising, rolling, sliding, falling, hanging and, in the ad man’s lovely phrase, many more. They occur with one item or force greeting a solid and static object which has been engineered to respond in such a way that its transferral of action takes place in an exactly predetermined way. The actions thus serve as an illustration of how objects hold their existence even as they shift positions and change states. Most of the objects are small (there are a few automobile tires, and a big black plastic bag, but nothing much larger than that). This would seem to undercut the idea of large scale forces, but the democracy of object-hood points to the universal laws of motion that apply cosmically, and comically. Every object will be moved by a force, every force will be met by an object.
The Fischli and Weiss construction shares a room with a piece quite different. Again scale comes into play, and merged media as well. Richard Long’s “Norfolk Ellipse” (2003) is the end result of Long’s trek into the countryside, where he gathers geological specimens that represent, pars pro toto, the processes and locales that contain them. Rearranged into an ellipse about twenty-five feet long and ten wide are two kinds of rough-hewn rocks, flint and chalk, all nearly hand-sized. The chalk pieces are pure white; the flint are largely white except where their coating is worn or chipped away to reveal the marble-like surface beneath. The chalk pieces are placed to form a smaller ellipsis, then surrounded by the flint pieces in order to create a containing band, as the variegated darker stones frame the pure white ones. The grace of the ellipse and the color harmony, reduced to only two shades, add to the feel of a humanly arranging hand and a resolute natural formation. The distance covered by bringing the rocks into a still place, where contemplation and deep seeing are joined, plays against Long’s meditative hike, with its planned serendipity.
A close cousin of Long’s seductive assemblage of rocks sits in repose in the next room. Michael Heizer’s “Circle” (1976) echoes Long’s “Norfolk Ellipse” title by using a figure based on geometry, but where the surface of the Long is densely corrugated Heizer’s is smoothly polished. Its substance is “pink Laurentian granite,” the color reminiscent of religious altars or the floors in a royal residence. Called “Circle” because that is the concept it enacts, the work features eight pieces, each about twelve inches thick and stacked in two groups, one of five and the other of three elements. The exceptional cleanness of the cut surfaces and the polish of the marble make the word appropriate. Adding to the elementary nature is the generation of the eight pieces, since each is modeled on a section of a circle. The eight pieces contain – or add up to – the mythic geometric figure that Euclidean thought seems to begin and end with. One is struck by the way the multitude of new surfaces is generated by the cut and placement of each piece and yet the mind wants somehow to have them rearranged, no longer stacked in two piles but returned to wholeness by the re-joining of their edges in the “proper” way. Heizer is best known for his mammoth earth art works, of course (I saw one, called “Levitated Mass” (2012), at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a huge 340 ton boulder suspended over a trench, at the extreme end of the spectrum of lithic material.). But his “Circle” feels massive in its own way, since its sectioning and stacking add lightness to its heft while adding complexity to its grace.
So the Margulies collection can be seen as delightfully containing and featuring works on different scales and in a wide range of media and esthetics. I also admired the way each expression, by challenging our usually settled sense of scale, could start to unsettle notions of regularized media, as painting, sculpture and installation almost seemed to vie for dominance. But when it comes to the struggles of scale and media, and their interaction, the most impressive force at work is that of Anselm Kiefer.
The two most recent works by Kiefer are “The Secret of the Ferns” (2007) and “Ages of the World” (2014). Each involves a massive sculpture accompanied by large-scale paintings, and since each by itself occupies its own room they take on much of the feeling of installations. They are deeply imbued with Kiefer’s sensibility, which is rooted in the object world as imagined in the structuring order of alchemy, and depicted as the preterite traces of spiritual realms. This sensibility has been operative in Kiefer’s work for decades, and has only increased in its evocative power and difficult reckonings.
“The Secret of the Ferns” may be the work that gambles most directly on a presence of beauty in the old sense. Forty-eight large-scale collages are painted in earth tones, and several include inscribed words and faded objects, frequently articles of clothing, and all display preserved ferns. They represent a range of religious actors (Kiefer writes their names directly onto the canvases). These include St. John (whose feast day is the summer solstice, and so he stands as a figure of rebirth through destruction; in Spain he’s known as St. Jean-de-Luz); Lilith, the apocryphal first wife of Adam whose legend is derived from Jewish mythology (used prominently by Kiefer in another Margulies piece, she is a demonic woman with special powers); and “Saturnzeit,” a key figure from the world of pre-Olympian gods.
But before we address such tangled questions as “how can someone paint a myth?” and “is such recourse to mythic structures bound to be ironic?” and “shouldn’t all forms of pre-logical thinking be under suspicion?”, we might reflect on what art can be made out of mythic thinking. Seventy or more years ago different schools of myth criticism were widely adopted in literary studies, and many writers and scholars built enormous structures of interpretation based on a specially adapted form of mythology. The leading exponent, so to speak, of this field was Northrop Frye, but many others, from Leslie Fiedler to Rene Girard, were active and admired for using a kind of hermeneutics of transcendence to anchor their understanding of mythical works. In such a milieu, poetry like that of William Blake or music like that of Richard Wagner, far from being thought reactionary, was treated as a harbinger of modernist culture. Clearly Kiefer’s aesthetic ideology invites comparison with such figures, but at the same time his creations differ from literary and musical works. In any case, myth criticism in its broader cultural uses has for many people exhausted its potency. Of course the immediate and solid response to the charge of exhaustion (or its opposite, pomposity) is to say that Kiefer is to be seen and judged less by what he assumes and more by what he produces. Not is it believable, but what does it look like? If the terms are so framed, one is much more likely to answer with praise and a full portion of visual delight. As is the case with Blake and Wagner, the highest gamble for such artists is to so plumb the depths of an egocentric fantasy that it ceases to seem merely “personal.”
“The Secret of Ferns” which seems to me the most successful of Kiefer’s works at the Margulies is first of all visually quite gripping, as its forty-eight surrounding paintings are hung flush in rows; each of the room’s two walls bears two rows of twelve each, one atop another. They heroically enlarge the scale of the world of flora, and are also intellectually challenging. By using as his central symbolizing object the ferns — which Kiefer says are the earliest trees and thus the earliest forms of terrestrial life — he incorporates the idea of evolution, with all its concomitant forces, such as adaptation, symmetry, integration, and transcendence. The mythic figures of human culture in Kiefer’s imagination — the St. John, Lilith and Saturn figures — are thus joined with different religious narratives, but with the suggestion that they are all manifestations and variations of one another, a frequently recurring supposition of mythic thought.
Of course the focal object, the very “subject” of the paintings, is not a religious rite, but rather a depiction (in very subjective terms) of the residue of religious myth-making. This is why Kiefer continually returns to collages of burnt wood and caked earth, and backgrounds that seem calciferous or parched. The range of “organic detritus” in the collages includes “charcoal, dirt, ash, straw, lead, plaster and cracked terra cotta,” as the museum handout details it. One paradoxical view would see Kiefer as a religious artist who cannot jettison his need to confront the failure of religion. This is where we turn to see what it is that the fern paintings surround. What sits in the middle of the room (or installation) are three very roughly modeled cement structures (each about five feet square and seven feet high); one stands alone and the other two are stacked together. They resemble the huts used by shepherds or pre-industrial tribesmen to shelter them from the elements. Kiefer invokes by such crude forms an ancient time period. But by fashioning the huts out of crudely cast cement he also conjures up the sense of a post-apocalyptic era, and so intimates that religion is there at the beginning and the end of the human story. As does any conscientious mythmaker, Kiefer spins an origin myth and its apocalyptic counterpart. Thus much of his painting shows an implicit affinity to the chthonic musings of a philosopher like Heidegger, whose mindfulness works on a pre-logical level.2 Of course, this accounts for the mistrust Kiefer sometimes inspires and the resistance to his ascendant reputation as the most important living artist.
Four other Kiefers in the Margulies merit close examination, and all echo or directly refer to the Holocaust. The most dramatic — some would say melodramatic — is “The Language of Birds” (1989). It features a set of extended wings, made of metal and with a twelve-foot span, that evokes an aura both imperial and sacerdotal. The imagery is used to recall an esoteric writer, Fulcanelli, a French alchemist whose book on Gothic cathedrals argued that the structures contain an encrypted account of alchemy, suggesting that the highest forms of worship contain the darkest secrets. “Your House Rode the Dark Wave” (2005) is based on a Paul Celan poem about the Holocaust, called “The Only Light.” The title here directly quotes a line from the poem, which tells of the deportation of Jews while imagining a second miracle by which the chosen people survived the Flood. The painting is starkly black and white and is heavily painted, collaged with a group of tree branches which suggests a forest blasted by war, a boy’s metal toy boat, and a wooden chair. Here the collaged elements also include Kiefer’s usual range of sand, straw, hair, and ashes. The items in the collage assert a dark materiality even as they offer themselves as testimony to grim thoughts.
“Lilith’s Daughter” (1986) focuses on one of the figures from “The Secret of Ferns,” but includes the conceit that the daughters of the first bride of Adam were demonic, instructed by their mother in the dark arts. Lilith’s several appearances in the Old Testament generate much speculation, and the painting (actually a gouache) is collaged with simple dresses, sized for wearing by young girls. Their ghostly presence as garments suggests that each of the dresses was dreamed by a different person, their diaphanous and faded tones establishing an aura of preternatural ghostliness. Kiefer’s cross-reference to the several appearances of Lilith in “The Secret of Ferns” shows his myth making in the most direct way. The tonality of painting when applied to the idea of Lilith exudes a pathos that is less aggressive than Kiefer usually achieves, and one sees a melding of the ghostly, the long lost, and the tenderness of maternal love.
The concluding Kiefer, so to speak, is “Ages of the World” (2014), the most recent of his works. Like ”The Secret of Ferns,” it occupies a room of its own, and stands as a gigantic juxtaposition of two elements. In “Ferns” the paintings surround an object; in “Ages” two paintings flank an object. But “object” can hardly convey what has been assembled and installed in this case. Kiefer has constructed – or caused to be put in place – a seventeen-foot high pyramid of mostly flat objects, placed horizontally and without any obvious support but their own weight. The various items in the pyramid are largely hidden from view, though they appear to be mostly canvases, pieces of walls or doors, rolled up length of cloth, a few stalky flowers and two precariously perched and randomly placed boulders. Two large black-and-white gouaches flank the structure, and reproduce images of it. Running down each side of both pictures are the names of the chronological ages as defined by geologists. The reverberating meanings of the pyramid and the geologic names suggest an evolutionary scheme in which culture culminates in a point, but what really matters is the assembly of unused or no longer desired items and now vastly empty stages of time. Kiefer has pictured a process where the canvases grow smaller in number and extent, and the teleological purpose has gone missing. The pyramid (which is only such in its rough edged outlines) suggests a recurrent ancient image of dead royalty with a promise of rebirth (or some sort of after life), but the products of art and culture are a heap of detritus that supports only more of the same, but smaller and smaller in scope. The work scales up, and scales back. It gives pause to the very notion of collection.
Margulies himself first desired two Kiefer works – “Ages” and “Ferns” – after seeing them in two important exhibitions. In each case, at London’s Royal Academy and Paris’s Grand Palais, respectively, the collector acted with quick resolve to acquire the work, regardless of the arduous task of moving and installing them. In the “Ferns” the two stacked cement huts come within an inch of the ceiling of the room that houses them. As for “Ages,” whatever else it appears to be, it seems barely to fit where it resides. These two installations are housed where Margulies has made room for them, generously offering them to the public and further defining his style as a collector. They are the most impressive art works in the collection, but less on the basis of size than on the way they carry and convey their own sense of conceptual scale.
The idea of a privately owned collection of expensive contemporary art is both an old idea and a newly energized one. Each such private collection has a distinct status when it comes to bridging the private/public divide.3 Questions of intent and operational rules and long-term goals all come into it. Are the opening hours generous? Is the collection housed in a place remote from the travel routes of the average museum goer? Are tax abatements part of the arrangement with the local municipalities? What effect do such places have on the prices for sought-after contemporary art? (Many well admired public museums are hard pressed to afford acquisitions in today’s market.) Many living artists are producing works that are demanding and rewarding, with both aspects heightened by the very contemporaneity of the work. The great traditional museums, such as the Metropolitan, the National Gallery and the Louvre, take us back in time even as they assert their presence; many of them are part of the public patrimony and so are deeply public in the richest way. Contemporary art museums – at least those which spring from a private individual’s wealth and ego – are themselves icons of personal power, and they evoke the feel of ongoing renewal for the makings of art, here and now. Finally, such collections can be rich in a distinctive way and what they offer the public is part of the commonweal, though its relation to the patrimony needs to be spelt out. It always matters where the artist’s imaginative embodiment ends up.