The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has turned William Shakespeare’s phrase, “much ado about nothing,” completely around. With little fanfare it has acquired and recently put on public view in the Bloch Building German neo-expressionist Anselm Kiefer’s whopping 149 x 220” painting, Lichtfalle (Light Trap), completed in 1999.
“We’d been looking for a Kiefer for quite some time,” said Nelson director and CEO Julian Zugazagoitia. “The word was out; the Nelson was interested. One major challenge was to wait for the right one.”
He has found in a masterpiece in Lichtfalle.
The painting depicts a portion of the night sky. For viewers standing before it, the work’s size and muted charcoal and umber background bisected with diagrammatic chalky lines create a feeling of peering through an infinity window into the void. Scattered over the rough surface are white strips of hand- painted NASA numerical designations assigned to stars. In the center of the work is a steel animal trap filled with more strips of numbers, as if alluding to the vortex of a black hole in space upsetting the order of the universe.
Kiefer’s overarching project since the 1980s has been pictorializing the turgid history and associated myths of Germany, focusing particularly on the barbarity of the Nazi regime and its legacy to contemporary Germany. His vision is grand and poetic even when he is depicting the most inhumane events.
By the 1990s Kiefer had broadened his view of historical specifics. Painted at the end of the decade, Lichtfalle exemplifies this more complicated and expansive approach. On the one hand, the stars and their signage connote a plunge into the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, with the numerical strips dotting the picture plane representing the identity numbers tattooed on the arms of camp inmates. But the painting also evokes a spiritual journey, as if the artist is memorializing the inmates’ spirit in the starry firmament. The celestial array suggests a juncture between the sacred and profane.
Born in 1945, Kiefer is the youngest of the great quartet of German painters, including Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz and Sigmar Polke, who were born under National Socialism and reintroduced expressionist painting in post-War German art. Lichtfalle is the first major work in the Nelson’s collection from that movement.
The painting has a distinguished provenance. Lichtfalle was previously owned by Chicago philanthropists and contemporary art collectors Lewis and Susan Manilow, who loaned the work for inclusion in group shows across the country. In 2014 Lichtfalle was part of an exhibit of works being resold at Gagosian Gallery’s flagship New York City location.
“It is a magnificent painting,” Zugazagoitia said. “It is aspirational, having multiple ramifications in a dialogue with our humanity. This is one of my major acquisitions.”