New York

Anselm Kiefer

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

On the day that I saw the exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s works on paper—ranging in date from 1969 to 1993, they had been kept together by the artist until the Metropolitan acquired them in 1995 and summarily trace the history of his development—I read an article on the New York Times website with the title: “The New Europeans: Multilingual, Cosmopolitan, Borderless.” I quickly realized that Kiefer is not a new European. Whether invoking the pagan history of German legend and myth or the more recent Nazi past (both passé concerns in the “new Europe”), his work seems provincial in purpose, however cosmopolitan its means. If this exhibition was meant to embalm Kiefer—the Met, after all, is the final resting place for eternal art in this city of transient work—then it succeeded far too well.

Walking through the show, I deliberately suspended my awareness of Kiefer’s irony. This aspect of his work has been well heralded by art historians and critics, who maintain that though his art looks conservative it is actually “conceptual,” as indicated by the sprinkling of language. What was left was fairly slim visual pickings: pretty pictures with a kind of cloying charm (was that part of their irony?) and ingratiating heartfeltness. I felt I was in the presence of a kind of lame-duck German romanticism enlivened only somewhat by a muted abstract gesturalism. On the one hand, the works on paper form a kind of compendium of modernist surface. The use of pure material to achieve subjectively resonant chance effects is perhaps most evident in the gouaches and woodcuts but also appears in the collages, especially those in which the artist has poured lead directly onto the surface of the work. On the other hand, Kiefer’s subject matter, especially in the drawings and painted-on photographs of traditional mountain vistas, forests, and lakes, forms a somewhat maudlin history of romantic imagery. Instead of severity, there is an unembarrassed rush of feeling that, although tempered by “critical” irony, does not sufficiently criticize itself.

Perhaps this is not exactly fair, but I was troubled by the fact that I needed a breviary of German culture, myth, and history to get the ironical point, which, though clever, was not always convincing. Shulamith (Sulamith), 1983, refers to a celebrated poem by Paul Celan set in a concentration camp, in which the golden-haired German Margarete is contrasted with the ashen-haired Jewish Shulamith. Kiefer executed over thirty works on the subject, but here, rather than a depiction of an archetypal woman, one sees instead a vaulted interior based on a design for the crypt of Hitler’s planned memorial for soldiers. Here as in other images, one cannot always tell whether the Nazi reference undermines or supports the traditional Germanic associations. To my eye there was clearly a tension in many of the works between the conventionally beautiful handling and the firmly incorporated subversive intention. As viewers, we had to be told by museum wall texts, brochures, and the exhibition catalogue what was going on every step of the way, as though without this prompting we would end up misreading the works and they would suddenly look more old-fashioned than they were meant to be.

Kiefer’s work is an art of memory in more ways than one. Its sentimentality, easy readability, and cliched irony make it, despite the obscurity of many of his sources, a public art with great crowd appeal; and while being an art of conscience, it is profoundly conservative, in that it is concerned with preserving the achievements of the past, both in technique and imagery. In this old-master tendency—and the artist consistently takes the pose of an old (modern) master—Kiefer shows his postmodernism, happily one that involves a renewed struggle with feeling alongside the more banal, overdone irony.

Donald Kuspit