anselm kiefer, sulamith, 1983
Anselm Kiefer’s “Sulamith” (1983) helped inspire Stuart Robertson’s move from painting to sculptural and relief-based images.
© Anselm Kiefer; Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; photo by Katherine Du Tiel

If you’d asked for my “top five, dead or alive” artists upon moving to the Bay Area in the fall of 2018, I would’ve said Toyin Ojih Odutola, Kehinde Wiley, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and Kerry James Marshall. And then I would have added Jack Whitten, Ebony G. Patterson, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jacob Lawrence, Noah Purifoy—and I would have kept going. They’re Black, most deal with the figure, and many are immigrants, just like me. I sought a way to share the complexities of the life I live between Jamaica and the United States. I figured I had two years to learn to paint at their level while pursuing an MFA at Stanford.

During my first visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that fall, an encounter with Anselm Kiefer’s Sulamith changed everything. Without knowing Kiefer or his work, I immediately knew that he would influence the practice I was developing. Kiefer inspired my growing interest in world building and space making as crucial elements of storytelling. I was mostly struck by the fact that I could be so moved by his rendition of the haunting, uninviting Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldier, a monument of the Third Reich.

This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.

As a muralist, I am used to large paintings, but there is something different about the kind of space Kiefer activates within the painting and the place that it ultimately conveys. Its scale helps—113.5 inches by 146 inches—and his combination of oil, shellac, emulsion, acrylic paint, straw, and woodcut gives a sense that both the picture and the materials were captured and transported from the original site. Usually, found objects are noticeably too big or too small for the canvas or in relation to other elements in an artwork, which immediately signals a shift in the intended context. In Sulamith, the life-size rendering of the straw and brick made the materials feel simultaneously ephemeral and dense. I felt caught between a memory that may or may not be real and an artifact of a consciousness that can never be erased.

Kiefer’s seemingly spontaneous application of materials also correlates with the kinds of gestures I have grown to love in my own transition from traditional painting to more sculptural and relief-based images. Painting was always a dance for me, but the turning to assemblage, inspired by Kiefer and others, taught me the choreography of cutting, ripping, twisting, reconstructing, and assembling objects.

Although this seed was planted when I first saw Purifoy’s and Thornton Dial’s assemblage and abstraction, it was Kiefer who showed me that I can create compelling representational images with found materials.•

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Stuart Robertson is a mixed-media artist who paints, collages, and assembles images of Black life inspired by nostalgia for his birthplace, faith in the American dream, and fantasies of the African diaspora’s future.