New York

Anselm Kiefer

Though Anselm Kiefer’s paintings based on themes from Jewish mystical thought are without question remarkable, the impulse behind them seems misbegotten. The exhibition’s centerpiece, a massive wall-mounted construction of sandwiched lead books with shards of broken glass spilling onto the floor entitled Bruch der Gefässe (Breaking of the vessels, all works completed in 1990), refers to the shattering of the containers of God’s emanations that Kabbalists believe preceded the creation of the material world. The seven canvases that fill out the show trade on the same faith. So one piece is called Daath (Bridge), after the vessel of knowledge, and another painting, of a dark pondlike space in a field of amber, is entitled Zim Zum, a reference to the act of self-contraction by which the original undivided God made room for Creation. Several other works make reference to Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who, according to Kabbalistic mythology, abdicated her position to become an infanticidal succubus.

As a cosmogony Kabbalah shares affinities with neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, and Hassidism, but it is as incompatible with the other themes that Kiefer has used in the past—Icarus, Isis and Osiris, and the Nibelungen—as they are with each other. On any but the most simplistic level what is common to them all is simply that Kiefer likes them. But they lose much of their power and purpose when they are treated as mere interesting ideas, and the paintings that result, no matter how beautiful, seem facile. Though there are those who believe that the Kabbalah contains the truth about how and why the world was made, what is at issue here is not the relationship between contemporary Germany and Judaism; instead it’s a question of Kiefer’s attempting to obtain rhetorical power on the cheap, by exploiting beliefs that derive the particular force and depth the artist wants only when they are actually held.

There is a certain telling irony in the fact that Kiefer’s newest source simply can’t be painted without contradiction; the current images would be graven, hence idolatrous and forbidden, to anyone who takes the ideas in the Kabbalah seriously. One suspects that he doesn’t much care. They aren’t made for or by believers; they’re made by an artist, for a secular audience, and so such gross inconsistencies are simply glossed.

As Kiefer roots through Western allegorical and theological history, the corpus of his work is beginning to look like the spoils of a kind of omnivorous cultural pillaging, the work of an intellectual dilettante. He’s the art world’s T.S. Eliot, and the admiration one initially feels for the lapidary skill and ambition of the work fades as one finds the didactic footnotes (here represented by the obligatory gallery handout), with their gratuitous references and canon-mongering. One comes away uneasy with the artist’s obsession with Western culture in decline, and angry at the shallow way history is referenced but never actually engaged.

Epic thought is made, not borrowed and, anyway, beside the point; Kiefer remains an extraordinary fashioner of artifacts, and even stripped of their Kabbalistic references—that is, stripped of their titles—the works are beautiful meditations on mystery, creation, and loss. The artist has expanded the range of his materials to include more fragile media—ashes, snakeskin, and dead poppies—and several of the pieces incorporate small burlap dresses, toy airplanes, and somewhat ghoulish human hair, a reference to the Jewish, annihilated Shulamite in the Paul Celan poem Todesfuge (Fugue of death), which informs many of his works. What’s more, these new works show a contraction of scale and style that makes them accessible even as the content he imposes on them closes them off. Where his earlier works (with the exception of his lovely books) tended to be physically and intellectually overpowering, these are smaller, more personal, and more generous; they allow room for the viewer. It’s unfortunate, then, that he has superimposed unnecessary spiritual references upon them.

James Lewis