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May 13, 2009, 11:24 AM ET

A Klee, a Klee, My Kiefer for a Klee!

The other day, I took a break from my serendipitous Ménerbian life of drawing, hiking, sitting in the garden while gazing out at the landscape, dining (oui, avec du vin), and then repeating all of that again, in order to travel by bus — with some supporters of the Collection Lambert, the contemporary art museum in Avignon — to the studio of the mega-famous, ex-pat German artist Anselm Kiefer.

The complex is located about an hour and a half out of Avignon, near Nîmes, in a village called Barjac. The outing set me back 100 euros, but the experience included a nice outdoor lunch, a four-hour tour (in two parts) conducted by a curator from the Collection Lambert, and some miraculous driving (those narrow roads! those curves! those precipices hanging over the river!) by the conductor of our huge motor coach.

“Studio,” mind you, is hardly the word for what we saw. Kiefer, who sky-rocketed to prominence in the 1980s (he’s one of the German “neo-expressionists” who helped restore painting — of a sort — to prominence after a couple of decades of conceptualism being the hot ticket in the avant-garde art world) constructed a vast estate out of what was at one time the location of a silk-spinning factory. (This whole region of France was famous for its silk until the world went global and cheaper Chinese silk destroyed the industry).

“La Ribaute,” as Kiefer’s place is called, consists of dozens of buildings — some huge, some small (if you think a four-car garage is small) — spread out over several acres, along with six-story tower-like sculptures, an underground labyrinth that simultaneously evokes the American southwest and ancient cave men, a cement approximation of the Naples opera house (he designed some sets for its production of Elektra), and giant playthings (a sprawling indoor pool and a long steel tube suspended fifteen feet up in the air) for Kiefer’s kids to romp in. (Note: After nearly 20 years of living and working in this place, the artist is now closing shop and moving his entire operation to Portugal. There’s a rumor the Guggenheim Museum is going to take over the estate as a monographic museum, but I couldn’t get that confirmed.)

A big part of big-time contemporary art is that much of the time it’s, well … big. Keifer’s art is no exception. In fact, it’s almost “The Rule” itself. Big is de rigueur for him, as it is for any artist who succeeds in making it into intergalactic contemporary art space. The work of such artists as Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra, Matthew Barney, Katarina Fritsh, and Takashi Murakami isn’t merely big, as in regular big, but Brobdingnagian. There are some notable exceptions (Bruce Nauman, for one, whose bigness is in the space it commands — mostly recently, with “sound art” pieces — rather than in materiel). But a big part of super-success in contemporary art is super-simple: Make the art super-big.

I started the tour exclaiming, with everyone else, “Wow!” “Holy Cow!” (or a similar expression with “Holy” in it), and, because I’m in France, “mon dieu!” The sheer scale of just about everything set out for viewing (Kiefer has constructed individual tall, cinderblock buildings to house single paintings and sculptures) made it so I couldn’t begin to connect anything to my idea of an artist’s studio — you know, a place where an artist goes to be alone with her soul, not together with a construction crew. The only place I know of that rivals Kiefer’s compound is the ranch owned by the late sculptor Donald Judd. It’s a former Air Force base on the flatlands of Marfa, Texas, that Judd dedicated to minimalist art and is now run by Judd’s Chinati Foundation. Unlike Kiefer’s spread, however, Marfa plays host to art copasectic to, but other than, Judd’s own.

We visitors wandered around in the heat and dust, stopping to enter huge glass-walled, greenhouse-like structures housing supersized installations, or to peer at single works through giant glass doors in the single-work buildings — which struck me as sarcophagi for art. We listened while our guide enthusiastically described the art. (His French was way too rapid for me, but fortunately, Gwen Strauss, who’s the directrice of La maison Dora Maar, came along as well and generously translated for me the essence of what he said.)

Kiefer’s aesthetic vocabulary — whether it shows up in “sculpture,” “painting” or “installations” (actually, for him, these all blend into one) confines itself to drab grays and beiges along with bits of black and white. Using rough materials like concrete, lead frozen in its melted oozy form, other random metals, straw, lead-covered sunflowers, dirt and broken glass, the artist produces art haunted by tragedy — particularly, the dark, ugly tragedy of Nazi Germany. (Kiefer was born in 1945 and the critical consensus on him is that he’s part of a generation trying to “work through” what it means to be born of a previous generation that brought such horror upon the world.)

In the Wölfflinian scheme of things (“Principles of Art History,” the pendulum swinging back and forth between classic and romantic, etc.), Kiefer falls into the category of romanticism. He’s not, however, the solitary stroller, caught in a deep reverie about the beauty of nature, but rather the weepy young Werther spiraling down toward death.

Spend a day with a lot of Anselm Kiefer’s art, and I’d wager you, like me, would end up seeing it as the kind of bombast that results when a romantic gets hold of — not to put too fine a point on it — entirely too much money. By the end of the visit, I saw only a colossal cemetery of pompous, decadent art. I even began feeling sorry for Portugal for having to host Phase 3 (following those in Germany and France) of Kiefer’s career. As someone else on the tour put it, “This place could easily be called, “Disneyland: The Dark Side,” or — in a subsequent, nastier remark — “What I’m seeing is a messy Albert Speer.”

On the bus back, I found myself desperately yearning for a Paul Klee watercolor — one of those tiny abstract grids in the six- or seven-inch range. Suddenly, they loomed large in my mind.

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