PRINT March 2003


1982: Anselm Kiefer’s Innenraum

Anselm Kiefer, Innenraum (Interior space), 1981,  oil, acrylic, shellac, and emulsion on canvas, 9' 5“ x 10' 2 3/8”.

WHEN ANSELM KIEFER’s Innenraum (Interior space), 1981, among other colossal paintings, knocked me for a loop at Mary Boone Gallery on West Broadway in 1982, I didn’t know that its image derived from a postwar photograph of Albert Speer’s Reich Chancellery in Berlin: the cavernous, skylit, ineffably racy “mosaic hall” where Hitler would meet around a map table with his military staff, making plans. Nor did I know much else (I only thought I did) about the Third Reich, or about German modern culture generally except as filtered through standard humanist, leftish, smoky vamps—Thomas Mann, the Bauhaus, Bertolt Brecht (trans. Eric Bentley), Marlene Dietrich. Imprinted with the Paris–to–New York mythos of modern art, I assumed that “German painting” was a typographical error.

That same year, I sat on a plane bound for Documenta 7, reading The Song of the Nibelungs. It was my first visit to Germany. In Kassel I was far from disappointed by the grandeur and some mysterious other quality—I didn’t yet understand it as humor—of more new Kiefers. Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, and the fetching Neue Wilde—remember Salomé?—also swaggered on the walls. (I was crazy about Polke immediately.) Joseph Beuys was on hand, at the top of his game. Loudspeakers broadcast Wagner (a backfiring critical ploy by Daniel Buren). Germany! I felt plugged into a great secret dynamo of reeking truths and sickish excitement.

Modern European history after Napoléon was brewed in Germany, starting with Marx and Bismarck. Germany’s enemies consoled themselves by developing the main lines of modern culture. Retroactively, Kiefer made the history a subject of the culture. His paintings had American formats and French aromas. (Their rugged handling was coolly dramatic and decorative, not Expressionist.) Kiefer was an international conceptualist at root; he once told me he had been inspired by Ed Ruscha to make books as art objects. One of his ’70s books—of blocky black forms painted over porno babes—was called Donald Judd Hides Brünhilde. He built jokes on a scale that only God could back up far enough to take in. The Kiefer effect was like divine, unfriendly laughter.

I was thrilled by Kiefer because he so aggrandized aesthetic sensitivity, giving it the run of grown-up stuff. His poetic license was like an ID with which to breeze through police lines at major crime scenes. The big emotion that his pictures stirred was, amazingly, not an end in itself but an expedient for thought. Kiefer’s work suggested to me how art criticism, no less than art, could handle political anxiety: lyrically and head-on, authorized only by accurate feeling and a lot of nerve. Not that I could do it very much myself (insecure), but I could spread the word.

The pictorical rhetoric of Innenraum is regular Kiefer: fleeing perspective countered by frontal materiality, all imbued with light/dark, sonorous tones and chafing colors. The underlying photograph is made funereal by black patches over the hall’s sumptuous mosaic panels. A big wad of inked paper stands in for Hitler’s map table. Dominant is the gridded skylight, which, as an upside-down and truncated triangle, swings forward, spilling the bleak radiance of a no-comment sky. Feelings of the space (terrific architecture) and about the space (grief, anger) blend like notes in a musical chord. You may not be given any new ideas about Nazism, architecture, or painting, but a long look turns your old ideas back on themselves in spirals of paranoiac irony.

I kept feeling that something momentous was supposed to happen, culturally, on account of Kiefer. But then I had similar anticipations about the initial impacts of David Salle, Eric Fischl, and Cindy Sherman. (I proved right only about Sherman, whom everybody likes and misunderstands in ways that steady and goad her.) The early-’80s moment of maximum artistic ambition and worldly attention evanesced. The reason is a long story, marked by disastrously polarized critical intellect and aesthetic sensibility. Kiefer remains a tremendous maker of things, but his recent work seems more or less resigned to solipsism. We let him down.

Peter Schjeldahl is art critic for the New Yorker.