Fort Worth

Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer’s work is so well known, and has been so extensively written about and exhibited, one wondered what “Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth,” a traveling survey recently at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, could possibly add to the dialogue. The answer: both not much and a whole lot.

Positing the artist’s inquiry into spirituality—a Sisyphean search for heaven in particular—as a key to understanding his symbolically rich, historically layered oeuvre, curator Michael Auping organized a deeply engrossing, thematically focused survey. One way to begin considering this exhibition is to remember Kiefer’s 1987 touring retrospective and the accompanying catalogue essay by Mark Rosenthal. Rosenthal articulates the developmental arc of the German painter’s historical iconography with a clarity that stands in stark contrast to some subsequent treatments, such as Daniel Arasse’s 2001 monograph and Christoph Ransmayr’s catalogue essay for the Foundation Beyeler’s 2001–2002 show “Anselm Kiefer: The Seven Heavenly Palaces 1973–2001,” which fall victim to lugubrious prose and overwrought interpretation.

Auping says he’s uninterested in “complicating Kiefer” and concentrates specifically on the metaphysical content of the work, subordinating detailed analyses of iconography and what he calls the works’ “German-ness.” (He cites Kiefer’s earliest surviving work, The Heavens, 1969, a delicate book, in support of his thesis.) It’s a major curatorial gamble that risks diminishing the import of a body of work that for more than thirty years has explored issues of guilt, redemption, identity, and remembrance by synthesizing images from Nazi Germany, Norse mythology, Christianity, and Kabbalism. However, Auping’s approach succeeds in actually reinvigorating Kiefer’s painting, sculpture, and artist’s books. The seminal painting Man im Wald (Man in the Forest), 1971, for example—hung in the show’s first room—seems to have acquired a renewed aura of idealism. True, the self-portrait of the then-twenty-six-year-old painter standing in a dense forest and holding a burning branch is riddled with German historical, mythological, and religious allusions; but it is also now clearer that it is a painting about the stark beginnings of a protracted spiritual journey.

From this solid thematic base, Auping allowed us to follow what Kiefer calls his project of “connecting with an older knowledge and trying to discover continuities in why we search for heaven.” It’s a refreshing way to examine the diverse sources that inform the artist’s works, such as the thinking of the Greek saint Dionysius the Areopagite (as addressed in The Hierarchy of Angels, 1985–97), the theories of English mystic Robert Fludd (The Secret Life of Plants, 2001), and the poetry of Paul Celan (Ash Flower, 1983–87). In addition, while the show was arranged roughly chronologically, axial relationships between adjacent galleries juxtaposed works from different periods, further strengthening the overall spiritual theme. From a single vantage point, one could compare Resurrexit, 1973, with Die Himmelspaläste (The Heavenly Palaces), 2004, and Palette, 1981, with Sternenfall (Falling Stars), 1995—a diverse quartet of canvases rich in mystical iconography that feels amplified by comparison. In one such instance of revelation, the artist’s palette in Palette, which according to Kiefer “represents the idea of the artist connecting heaven and earth,” is depicted tenuously suspended between two burning ropes—yet here the painting’s mood is heroic, defiant, triumphant.

For those new to Kiefer’s work, this exhibition was an excellent introduction. For the rest of us, the show and its catalogue constituted an invaluable refresher course. Auping quotes Kiefer as saying, “We cannot stand not to have a heaven in our minds.” Fortunately for us, he doesn’t keep his thoughts to himself.

Nord Wennerstrom