Anselm Kiefer

Among painters working today, Anselm Kiefer is one of the few who have been able to legitimize Modernist surface presence and spectacular effects that would be somewhat suspect in the hands of artists of lesser vision. With more than 70 pieces spanning his entire career, this comprehensive traveling exhibition celebrates an artist whose cultural politics emanate from straw-strewn landscapes, pictures of cavernous interiors, and massive gray combines blistered with lead like scar tissue bearing the legacy of the Third Reich. Today, such an attempt to represent transcendence or to transmute history is in itself an audacious act that transcends “style,” invalidating comparisons with Americans like Julian Schnabel and David Salle. Post-Modernist discourse has granted Kiefer the opportunity to revive history as a subject for painting, but he does it in a tormented heroic style rooted in Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism.

Kiefer’s subject matter is cornucopian, embracing such themes as nationalism and imperialism, resurrection and regeneration, mythology and ideology, the elements as both material and metaphor, and the presence of the past. His paintings, particularly the more abstract landscapes, transfix American audiences with their epic proportions and ambition, yet they remain politically neutral, numbing our responses to excesses of chauvinism, imperialism, and domination. Except for his youthful moments of questionable political acting out, American critics have placed Kiefer’s political agenda squarely on the side of the angels.

With their thrilling, deep perspectives and their rich literary and historical references, Kiefer’s gargantuan narratives pull us into their depths and seduce us into deciphering rather than confronting them. His lexicon of signification fuses signs, symbols, and icons whose power can be felt by all who view them. This is perhaps most apparent in the magisterial, pyramid-like central image of Osiris und Isis, 1985–87, which has the staggering force and theatrical impact of the “Lost Ark” sought by the heroes and villains of Steven Spielberg’s 1981 adventure film. Kiefer’s pictorial syntax, which is usually in the past tense, is dense and convoluted, recalling the endless complexities of German sentence structure—such as the forest of German poets in Wege der Weltweisheit (Ways of worldly wisdom, 1976–77), or the hollow straw men in Die Meistersinger (The mastersingers, 1981). Joseph Beuys’ shamanistic politics are reinvested in Kiefer’s prophetic production and alchemical transmutations of history.

However, Kiefer distances, universalizes, and mediates his own position vis-à-vis his country’s recent history. He regurgitates mythical narratives and grand Wagnerian themes with a detachment worthy of a professional historian. (Like Wagner, he often presents something as a positive solution that then becomes a curse and an evil force.) National and personal heroes parade across his canvases in an iconography that, although impressive, should not replace cultural and political analysis. It is difficult to summon the irony necessary to accept the substitution of a symbolic winged palette for military might or triumph.

The brochure and slide presentation that accompanied the exhibition here were somewhat misleading in their suggestion that Kiefer reminds us of his country’s past but mocks its pretensions. The rhetorically excessive audio-visual program was narrated by three different voices (none of them Kiefer’s), and included a female narrator’s recollections of deportation, without acknowledgment that the author of these reminiscences is not the artist. Kiefer is applauded for the very act of remembering. But remembering what? Although in Mark Rosenthal’s catalogue essay, his annotation of the artist’s iconography is exhaustive and admirable, Kiefer must nevertheless be seen not only in reference to a historical inventory but also to a current controversy in academic circles and the popular press in Germany. The debate concerns the resurgence of a right-wing, revisionist attempt to relativize the Holocaust as merely one among many terrible genocides, as a way of moving toward a future free of the haunting “German Question” that still divides the country. According to Rosenthal, Kiefer’s implicit question is “In whose hands will Germany be held when the rule of these gods is over?” The answer is ambiguous. One of the most moving works in this exhibition (and I think it is representative of Kiefer’s passionate ambivalence) is Jerusalem, 1986, a major abstraction that features two steel skis against a field encrusted with gold leaf and lead; one ski faces up, the other down, locked into irreconcilable positions as vast as the differences between East and West Germany. Its peeling tectonic plates could have evolved from the small watercolor view of a mountain lake, entitled Kranke Kunst (Sick art, 1975), the surface of which has erupted in a rash of sores.

The intersection of morality, politics, and culture in the museum is exemplified by this exhibition, which was organized jointly by curators at the Art Institute of Chicago (the late A. James Speyer together with Neal Benezra) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Mark Rosenthal). The installation here, done in collaboration with the artist, was notable for its restraint and straightforward approach. A 10-foot-high lead sculpture of a winged palette held center stage in the first gallery, a large hall where a double row of books was displayed on stands and small works on paper were hung on the walls. The way these were arranged resembled Kiefer’s Dem unbekannten Mater (To the unknown painter, 1983), a deeply perspectival depiction of the courtyard of the Chancellery that Albert Speer designed for Hitler. Like that grand space, Kiefer’s art impresses us with its heroic scale, astonishing materials, and melancholy rhetoric. It is powerfully romantic, suggesting that art, even if borne aloft by tattered heavy wings, has replaced the authority once invested in the symbol of German might, the eagle.

For the handsome catalogue, Kiefer prepared a special graphic work, Durchzug durch das Rote Meer (Passage through the Red Sea, 1987), a 35-page section of photographs of leaden gray Lake Michigan juxtaposed with shots of his studio. Some of the latter have been overprinted with a stroke of silver ink, as though Kiefer were bringing America to his studio, transforming the lake into his material, or somehow applying his signature to the New World. When the poet Longfellow first heard Wagner in this country, he found the work “strange, original, and somewhat barbaric.” Kiefer’s art recalls that of the earlier German master in its radical production, spectacular response,and still troubling questions that it poses.

Judith Russi Kirshner