New York

Anselm Kiefer

The breadth and ambition of his vision, the operatic themes, the obsession with territory, the materials, the utter wilfulness in his sense of mission place the art of Anselm Kiefer at a turbulent point between latter-day earthworks and the oratorical landscapes and histories of, say, J.M.W. Turner. Kiefer is very much a painter—essentially a painter of landscapes, a fact that is evident in the composition and physicality of surface in virtually every piece in this fair-sized exhibition, in a smaller one here last year, and in two recent, extensive ones at the Museum Folkwang in Essen and at the White-chapel Art Gallery in London. Consummate and consuming though Kiefer’s conviction, both stated and demonstrated, of the power of painting may be, he shows no trace of such notions as “the spirituality of the brushstroke” or “the morality of the painted gesture.” He has developed an iconology for the role of the painter—winged palettes, for instance, rising from fire or from ashes—but there are no artful manners in his vision of the role. He seems to see painting, rather, as an out-and-out crusade.

Kiefer works in three general ranges of size and in one medium, which is technically a mixed medium but is handled and is to be understood as paint. The smallest works are books (though as books they are voluminous); gouaches fill in the middle range of scale; the paintings mostly run from big to huge. The materials Kiefer often uses, in addition to paints, include assorted gummy impastos, bitumen, sand, and straw. The supports, often consisting of an underlying enlarged photograph, are sometimes stained, tarred, singed, or scorched. None of these techniques necessarily set precedents, and if some do, it is incidental. In any event, they are not used towards grandiloquent ends. The works are not gestural. They are not pastiches. They are not self-referential.

Kiefer’s subjects are war, myth, history, and their effects on landscape. The most typical perspective in the paintings is one that might have been seen from a low-flying plane on a reconnaissance mission. The landscapes are topographical rather than panoramic, more like autopsies of the earth than descriptions of it. Especially at first, seeing them is like coming in for a crash landing, and the gallery area (insofar as limited space permits) functions almost as a runway; one initially feels an urge to draw back to avoid collision. Kiefer uses words and phrases in these paintings, but not as titles or captions; they are more like figures, human pictographs, marching along roads and horizon lines. The verbal references are to war songs, to poems, to characters in myth, to geography, and sometimes to an earlier, nature-worshipping, still half-pagan phase of Christianity—the word “Johannesnacht” (midsummer’s eve), for instance, recurs frequently in the paintings, gouaches, and books.

Kiefer’s work is so consistent and coherent that to “review the show” (other than in the event of a more inclusive exhibition) seems a little irrelevant. Nonetheless, some distinctions can be made. Five paintings and nine gouaches were presented. Two of the paintings contain wavy reliefs of very yellow straw. Four of them have some figuration or representation; the fifth, a “Johannesnacht,” is abstract in the sense that an extreme close-up of a layer of charred earth, wherein you can see minute gradations of color and texture, might seem abstract. Aside from the “Johannesnacht,” these paintings seem slightly manicured—rather neatly fixed, compared to much of his other work. The reason for this was probably logistics, and not a new direction. Though put together to last, Kiefer’s more tufted, combustive paintings are apparently difficult to maneuver through anything much smaller than a garage door. The gouaches, however, with their golden straw trimmings and reliefs, are exceedingly handsome but a bit literal. Some look a little too nearly like illustrations in a Bavarian children’s book, Rapunzel, perhaps. These quibbles may have something to do with memory of the enormous impact that Kiefer’s books had in last year’s show here. The books are extraordinarily powerful as objects, and important as keys to all of Kiefer’s concerns, pictorial and thematic, and were unfortunately not included this time (though one or two of them could probably be seen upon request or by appointment).

Kiefer has provoked mixed and very emotional responses in his own country, Germany, and in those countries in Europe that bore a large part of the brunt in the last two world wars. Kiefer’s references to war are inevitably to those involving Germany, both in this century and in Barbarian times (Hermann vs. Varus). The myths, usually involving primal quests for identity (Gilgamesh, the Niebelungen) or racial archetypes, are also characteristically German, as, of course, are the landscapes. Kiefer’s vision, however, is very evidently humanistic. To his “Brunhildes” and “Margaretes,” there is a “Sulamith”; the dual reference is to a poem by Paul Celan, a lament on war, and more specifically to the once-overlapping elements in German culture which were separated, and lost, to National Socialism. If there is anything troublesome in Kiefer’s work it is not the thematic references, but rather the singlemindedness, the crusading aspect of his vision. There is a hint of revisionism in his point of view—which is that history can be reclaimed, and in effect recreated, by the creative force of the artist. The forcefulness, the heroic violence, of his work is such that it gives a kind of physical credence to such theories. Kiefer’s is a 19th century sense of morality expressed in absolute, present-tense, Modern terms. It is galvanic fusion. Whatever its repercussions, and however they are interpreted, Anselm Kiefer (at 37) has already shown himself to be one of the great artists of his generation.

Lisa Liebmann