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The work of Anselm Kiefer helped define post-World War II German art. His painting and his sculpture look unflinchingly at war and its aftermath. Now, his work is already in the collections of some of the world's top museums - the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tate Modern. And now he's one of only two artists to have an entire building dedicated to his work at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Karen Michel has the story.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Anselm Kiefer was born in 1945 in the cellar of a hospital in the Black Forest.

ANSELM KIEFER: I was born in ruins, and for me, ruins are something positive. Because what you see as a child is positive, you know? And they are positive because they are the beginning of something new.

MICHEL: That history is always present in Kiefer's work. Take the first piece in the pavilion at Mass MOCA - an 82-foot-long undulating work of concrete and rebar and rubble that falls and builds to lap at the viewer's feet. Like everything on view here, the sculpture is from the collection of Christine and Andy Hall. He says this 80-ton piece of expensive rubble came to Mass MOCA because of a dispute. The couple lived in a historic district; the neighbors weren't happy with the new display on the Halls' front lawn and took it to their town's historic commission.

ANDREW HALL: They took the position that this work of art was a structure, and we took the view that it wasn't a structure, it was a work of art. And on advice from my lawyers, we decided to install it without seeking their permission.

MICHEL: That didn't go well. And three years later, instead of keeping up the fight, Hall, who has an art foundation, approached Joe Thompson, the director of Mass MOCA. Thompson mounted a temporary exhibition but Hall suggested doing more; transforming one of the buildings on the Mass MOCA campus to house three large works from among the hundred or so Kiefers in his collection, and showing them with a 15-year renewable lease. Thompson says the cost to the museum was nothing.

JOE THOMPSON: Well, there is that.

MICHEL: Mass MOCA, unlike most museums, keeps work up for a year or so at a time and has only one other permanent installation, of the work of Sol Lewitt. Thompson likes the mix of upcoming artists showing their work temporarily and having permanent work by major artists, too.

THOMPSON: I think that if you can find a way to have all the benefits and dividends of these long-term collections within your midst but none of those liabilities, because in these cases they're carried by other people - the Hall Art Foundation is taking care of these Kiefers. They're paying for the heat, light, power, the security. That's their responsibility, not ours. That's just the greatest possible model in the world.

MICHEL: For viewers, the good news is that instead of selling the work or keeping it in storage, the Halls decided to have it shown to the public - unusual at a time where institutions and other collectors are selling off work to other private collections. It's a bright sign that offsets Kiefer's generally glum work.

THOMPSON: Kiefer's a poet of war and destruction and his outlook is bleak, and I think he's quite cynical about human nature and where it ends up.

MICHEL: That's certainly evident in the other two large works in the building at Mass MOCA. One of them, "Women of the Revolution," is composed of more than 20 metal single bed frames, each draped with a lead sheet - an effect that is both sensual and foreboding. In each there is an indentation, as if left by the former inhabitant, and filled with liquid. The third installation is a series of paintings devoted to a Russian philosopher who posited that war is inevitable. The notion is not so far-fetched. For Anselm Kiefer, images of a war-pocked Germany remain vivid.

KIEFER: I am able to imagine that, you know. I am able to imagine such a horrible time, you know, and it can come back. It could come back every time.

MICHEL: You think it could?

KIEFER: It could come back, yes, sure.

MICHEL: For now, visitors can make an appointment to see Kiefer's imaginings at Mass MOCA - the unheated building is cold in the winter. They can also visit another Hall Foundation-sponsored show of the artist's earlier, smaller works nearby at the Williams College Museum of Art.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

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