Anselm Kiefer

Kunsthalle Tübingen

Although Anselm Kiefer has exhibited his books for some time now, this exhibition is the first to treat them as a distinct body of work. In this overview, which covers the period from 1969–90, the importance of the books becomes apparent. In these works,Kiefer obsessively probes his subjects for their evocative power; he intensifies them, overlaps them, and places them in an allegorical frame of reference as part of his syncretic mythology of catastrophe. Kiefer also tests the affective and semantic capabilities of materials that are derived from natural substances affected by natural or historical destructive processes, such as rust, ashes, coal, mud, tar, sand, earth, clay, and melted lead.

Almost all the books— like the paintings— depend on photographic processes. Even where Kiefer begins with a lead base and does not specifically employ a photograph, he uses light-sensitive chemicals to transform the surface into a plane where traces of the past are etched. When Kiefer covers over a photograph that he has made, there seems, for him, no logical difference between the image and the overlaid materials. The photograph and the material each witness catastrophe, evoke it, and conjure it forth.

For Kiefer, historical disaster—above all national socialism and World War II—are juxtaposed with mythical catastrophes. Both the cyclical Germanic cosmology, with its “twilight of the gods” in the center (according to Richard Wagner), and the Babylonian and Old Testament narratives of the end of creation, are explanations of the world that fascinate him. The development of this German ideology since Wagner, introduced a vision centering on the salvation of this world by means of its destruction. This, in turn, found its concrete historical apotheosis in the Third Reich.

Landscape has always been the seemingly natural vehicle for Kiefer’s meditation on past catastrophes. Nature exists only as an allegory for destruction; it is either wasteland or desert. The only elements that remain visible in the absence of landscape are the geographical or mythical names that Kiefer inscribes into the works. Only the names that bear witness to a historical absence can be saved in the elimination, in the process of forgetting the subjects they stand for. The invocation of these names preserves the catastrophe, and preserves its memory from destruction.

Johannes Meinhardt

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.