Anselm Kiefer

Nueu Nationalgalerie

One function of myth is to establish an identity by emotionally binding the individual to a national collective; this function has been more taboo in contemporary Germany than anywhere else. Anselm Kiefer’s earlier attempt to shatter the suppression of German collectivity by investigating national identity irked his critics. Despite the demystifying tendency of his investigations, there remained a remnant beyond rational thinking in the conceptually precarious space he staked out for himself. It was easier to see that this twilight contained a historically determined, night-blind angst, which triggered the automatism of a German “never-again” stance rather than an overdue historical reflection. It was difficult for Germans to realize that their fear was also Kiefer’s fear, and that his goal was to pull his viewers’ heads out of the sand along with his own head.

The recent critical attack on his work was inspired by the most comprehensive Kiefer survey ever exhibited in Germany: the critics regretted the disappearance of German themes as a loss of provocative energy. Given the overpowering presence of nine huge lead sculptures—airplanes, bookshelves, and a rocket—11 lead pictures, and 38 paintings from the past 12 years, the gargantuan installation was as much a stumbling block as any of the individual pieces. Critics resented the material seduction and pictorial charisma, despite, or precisely because of, the undisputed beauty and virtuosity of Kiefer’s technique. The what and how, the content and the formal translation are randomly played out against one another. The “iconography” is suspected of being a confidence game. However, his critics overlook the fact that the easy access of the sensory and emotional levels leads further to the archetypal foundation of vanishing Western forms of culture and education that require active participation from the viewer. For nothing in this work—neither the emanation of the signs, nor the effect of disoriented spatiality, nor the perspective as an auxiliary construction for the emotional transmission of ideas—nothing is inconsequential to Kiefer’s world view.

This perspective gives rise to the endless views of paths, rails, and furrows—to points of reference and integration on the matrix of a largely buried intellectual history that branches into the universal. Time is spooled backwards, until the present is patined upon the past, or the past’s validity for the present is recognized. The introduction of a different level of time creates a relativity in which ascertaining nearness and remoteness come together, like a turning from the personal to the impersonal. Everything present seems to be part “of a grand singing that always continues,” according to Kiefer. He is not an “alchemist” nor a “mystagogue” and certainly not a “redeemer.” He is an artist, and therefore the master of the “effects and contents” of an image transfer performed “calculatingly.” “Art criticism,” Eduard Beaucamp bemoans, “is finally disempowered,” because Kiefer’s oeuvre deals “not with what we see but with what cannot be shown.” Did critics, amid the furor, forget that Kiefer made these problems the theme of the works he created for “Bilderstreit,” and that Joseph Beuys, cited as the chief witness against him, regarded “the most important aspect of reality as invisible”? As in the works of Velázquez, Beuys, or Jean-Luc Godard, Kiefer’s actual theme is an “in-between” evoked by the visible; these are states of perception, recollection, and recognition, which glow in the sensorily charged pictorial strata—in the overdetermined field of visual and conceptual signs.

Ingrid Rein

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.