Anselm Kiefer

The success that Anselm Kiefer has experienced over the last few years both inside and outside Germany made this exhibition of new and recent work by Kiefer into a media event. In the newspaper articles and “exclusive” interviews that preceded the opening, Kiefer was portrayed as a visionary painter, strongly connected to German history and mythology, who also wanted to be regarded at least partly as a conceptual artist.

There is no doubt that he sees his art as an instrument for communicating more than just an esthetic message. And indeed, whereas in previous exhibitions his work seemed to be dominated by his personal confrontation with German history, it looks as if Kiefer has expanded the scope of his discussion. In addition to demystifying historical taboos, he raises the question of how to render human experience through the medium of painting, a theme that has appeared frequently in his work in the form of a winged palette. (He has even recently translated the winged palette into sculptural form, with wings of lead.) This ambiguous image represents the mythical power of the artist; interpreted positively, it indicates painting’s potential for bringing hope back into a world of lost hopes.

For some time now Kiefer has been working with the metal lead. Lead objects were incorporated into almost half of the more than 40 large paintings/assemblages that were featured in this exhibition, and a lead ground was used in nine of them. Through this choice of material Kiefer expresses his still-growing interest in alchemy, the ancient study of transforming base metals such as lead into gold (which was considered the most perfect of metals). In two works, both untitled (from 1984 and 1980–86), ladders of lead show us the way to the heavenly spheres, while in two others, Die Ordnung der Engel (The hierarchy of the angels, 1984–85) and Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe (Faith, hope, love, 1984–86), propellers of lead suggest another means of escaping earthly forces, just as the winged palette in earlier works symbolized dematerialization and spiritualization (and thus liberation and redemption). In the latter two assemblages, as in many of the other works, there are also rough lead spheres or “stones” hung by steel wire or attached directly to the canvas; while in several more, Kiefer has fashioned the lead into boats or funnels. Still other works incorporate dried ferns or fern stems—representative of one of the oldest plant forms on earth—or fragments of carbonized wood. In this way, all kinds of unusual materials find their place in Kiefer’s universe, applied to canvases whose heavily worked surfaces of oil, acrylic, emulsion, and shellac are made to look like immaterial atmospheres of gritty sky, or oceans of water and fire. It is a world of apocalypse, in the tradition of German Romantic landscape painting, in which the idea of the sublime landscape appears over and over again. In Emanation, 1986, a silvery-gray eruption descends like a waterfall from a dark sky to the ocean waves below.

One of the works in which Kiefer uses an overall ground is Die Frauen der Revolution (The women of the revolution, 1986), a portrait gallery of revolutionary France, derived from the account of the 19th-century historian Jules Michelet. The 12 “portraits” consist of nothing more than dried flowers behind glass, enclosed in lead frames and mounted on a five-panel ground of gleaming lead-covered chipboard, to which Kiefer has also attached a sharp-pointed implement; under each framed specimen Kiefer has inscribed the name of a different “woman of the revolution,” such as Marie-Antoinette or Madame de Staël.

Clouds of lead . . . wings of lead . . . portraits of ferns and straw. It is obvious that Kiefer loves paradox. It is therefore not difficult to admire him for his inventiveness, through which he succeeds in realizing the task he sets for himself. Yet I cannot report really enthusiastically on this show, even after two visits. More than ever, I got the feeling that Kiefer is in a phase in which he has retreated from the provocative public dialogue in which he used to engage. Instead, he seems to be devoting himself to an alchemic working process that keeps him within the walls of his studio–and wrongly so, in my opinion—as if the public’s response does not help it come alive.

Paul Groot

Translated from the Dutch by Carolien Stikker.