New York

Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer’s art can be understood as a response to the yearning to incorporate meaningful themes without giving up the credo of art’s superior meaningfulness, which is expressed by articulating the expressive mysteries implicit in matter. The two grand, eschatological paintings of this exhibition, Osiris und Isis (Osiris and Isis, 1985–87) and Brennstäbe (Nuclear fuel rods, 1984–87), are extraordinarily ambitious in their effort to reconcile these opposites. Brennstäbe deals with the material mystery of nuclear fission, in which destruction and creation, matter and energy are one. Osiris und Isis deals with the spiritual mystery of Isis’ resurrection of Osiris, who, according to legend, was slain and cut into pieces by his brother. The two mysteries are really one, for the resurrection of the body is a spiritual mystery. In an integration that has rarely been seen in recent art, physical and spiritual effect are one for Kiefer. They are conveyed through the same artistic means of spiritually “moving” texture and the material dismemberment of collage.

The similarity of means in both works makes clear their affinity. The number of dismembered pans of Osiris’ body, represented by the ceramic fragments of a sink, is the same as the number of rods in the atomic pile. The pyramidal structure in Osiris und Isis is in effect an atomic pile. Its flattened apex—Osiris’ missing penis, the symbol of regenerative power?—is the flattened space of nuclear fission, the space of stopped time, of all eternity. It is the central element in Die Quelle (The source, 1987), a small work that in a concentrated way deals with the same issues as the two large works. The “burning” painterliness in these works is the molten energy of spiritual fission required for Osiris’ material resurrection. These and other similarities and interlockings all confirm a single theme: the dialectic of creation and destruction. Kiefer recently referred to a Gnostic philosopher who speculated that the world accidentally came into being and would end just as accidentally. Does the story of Osiris und Isis deal with the destruction attendant upon its creation? Does the creative discovery of atomic energy bespeak its end? Kiefer views history from a grand Gnostic perspective.

His paintings contain a vastness that makes the spectator seem an intrusive accident in their cosmic space. Indeed, Kiefer wants the spectator to be overwhelmed, to experience his or her destruction by and recreation in and through the “body” of art. He or she must partake in it as Christian mystics partake in the broken body and expressive blood of Christ.

Kiefer’s works are about the body, both the personal body and the body of the world. In the same way that the Gnostics believed that matter is evil and that salvation comes through spiritual truth, his works suggest that all body is “unregenerate” substance that must be regenerated through art. This sense of unhappy bodiliness is inseparable from his ironic archaeology, his mock reconstruction of the body of German history out of its dismembered parts (like the dismembered country itself). They both permeate Kiefer’s art, especially his hooks, some of which were included in the exhibition. The earliest one features a series of drawings that he did of the fragments of an ancient vase—ironically echoed more than a decade later in the broken sink of Osiris und Isis—while a later one contains a mixed-media drawing of Heidegger’s brain with the tumor of his thought growing on it. The books show Kiefer at his most intimate, direct, and ironic, and make clear his mastery of a variety of media, from photography to painting.

Does Kiefer’s project succeed—does he convey resurrection? No—but that is just the point. The project of resurrection is to remain radically incomplete, “broken,” “divided,” like Germany, the world, the self. This is the project’s alchemic aspect. To Kiefer, the artist is a perpetual alchemist, refining the raw material of life into the gold of art, in an endless, perpetually unfinished process. The transmutation’s incompleteness reflects the permanently stressful, equivocal condition of the world, which will always be simultaneously destructive and creative. Kiefer’s art is about this equivocal condition—the double bind of non-being and being, the dreadful dialectic from which there is no escape. His works’ deviousness and ambivalence are reflected in the world’s—and art’s—incompleteness and “suffering.” Both are caught on the horns of the dilemma of the inseparability of destruction and creation.

There are few other living artists who make this dialectic explicit without losing a sense of its mysterious workings and eternal character. The mystery is evident in Kiefer’s sense that art is a never ending project—that it never reaches a climax from which it cannot topple. Kiefer shows us his relatively modest, almost accidental-looking books, as well as his grand, deliberately programmatic pictures, to suggest the equal validity of both. He makes clear that the dialectic of destruction and creation has no privileged place of appearance and can manifest itself in any setting, including the most seemingly accidental ones. The place it appears becomes sacred. Kiefer’s works are best understood as those sacred groves where the most ancient gods appeared—that is, those who are more responsible than the others for the creation of the world, and who, no doubt, will be responsible for its end. In these works, Kiefer displays his strong mystical tendencies and confirms that he is, in his own way, a kind of religious artist. In him the religious theme of the dialectic of destruction and creation unites with the mysticism of texture, through which the theme can be made most evident.

Donald Kuspit