New York

Anselm Kiefer, Merkaba, 2010, airplane fuselage, photographs, lead, inscribed glass, steel vitrine; oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac, and clay on canvas, 10' 6 1/2“ x 18' 4 1/2” x 7' 6 5/8".

Anselm Kiefer, Merkaba, 2010, airplane fuselage, photographs, lead, inscribed glass, steel vitrine; oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac, and clay on canvas, 10' 6 1/2“ x 18' 4 1/2” x 7' 6 5/8".

Anselm Kiefer

Gagosian | 522 West 21st Street

Anselm Kiefer, Merkaba, 2010, airplane fuselage, photographs, lead, inscribed glass, steel vitrine; oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac, and clay on canvas, 10' 6 1/2“ x 18' 4 1/2” x 7' 6 5/8".

In “Next Year in Jerusalem,” Anselm Kiefer’s recent show at Gagosian, the artist presented twenty-five steel-framed vitrines of varying dimensions. The cases were filled with all manner of detritus: mounds of rubble, capsized warships, fleets of U-boats, burned-out airplane hulls, Kabbalistic arcana, dangling wedding gowns and shroudlike garments, dried sunflowers, burned books, ashen rolls of film, bramble, tree stump and root, plaster, clay, lead, smashed glass—in short, they represented Kiefer’s Wotan-like self-immolation within an arcane symbolism toward which he has ever been drawn.

Indeed, Kiefer here assumes the aspect of a feverish Talmudist transfixed by G. G. Scholem, whose texts on Jewish mysticism are fundamental to our understanding of the Kabbalah—the recondite school of thought from which a goodly portion of this exhibition’s themes derive: Lilith, Sefiroth, Merkaba, the indwelling Shekinah, and so on. Such esoteric references, inscribed on the vitrines in the artist’s laconic hand so that visitors peer through the very words, underscore the sense of apocalyptic window display that at moments threatens to destabilize the bleak gravity built into the artist’s rapturous production.

“Next year in Jerusalem,” the words that conclude the Passover seder, are the heart of Zionist longing and Diaspora lamentation. Kiefer is, in a certain sense, a renowned victim of the syndrome that the Mossad calls “Jerusalem madness”—a widely experienced amour fou to which Germans, especially those born in the latter days of the Third Reich, are prone. This obsession has been evident in his work ever since his first exhibition in Jerusalem at the Israel Museum, some three decades back.

Norse saga, classical myth, the Nibelungenlied: These are other sources for the artist’s keen attraction to the literary and poetic. Beyond the Kabbalistic devotee, Kiefer recalls Der Maler als Dichter—the painter as poet. Dichtung, in German, signifies both poetry and a sense of culture greater than any single art form, a faltering Brucknerish Romanticism that once honored European civilization—until such grand illusions all but evaporated in the fires of World War II. That sensibility lives on in what might be termed Kiefer’s transgressive memory—comprising a historical awareness and its simultaneous burlesque—while once familiar catchwords and phrases such as Sudetenland, Drang nach Osten, and Lebensraum tinklingly waltz on as background buzz. Kiefer strives to retrieve prewar German culture even as his work incarnates its subsequent ruin. This continuum of counterintuition affords his oeuvre its ongoing claim to the awesome ambition from which the other grand Pleiades working in the wake of Joseph Beuys—Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke, Markus Lüpertz, Jörg Immendorff, A. R. Penck—seem to have drifted.

An attraction to transgressive memory still lurks in the installation Occupations, 2010, for example, in which the artist disputatiously recycles infamous earlier images (and a title)—those of the 1969 series “Besetzungen” (Occupations), depicting the oxymoronic Hitlergrüß, or “Heil Hitler.” In them, the artist, then a young man, salutes before noble monuments and hallowed ground, a gesture fusing the comical (Charlie Chaplin) and the art-historical (Caspar David Friedrich). When first encountered decades back, the photographs represented an unthinkable breach of decorum meant to liberate a stunned German bourgeoisie from the hypnotic grasp of the Wirtschaftswunder. Today, with the wall fallen, the country reunified (indeed, as the leader of a European Union on the sill of insolvency), this latter version of transgressive gesture carries less the shock of parody than a corrosive nostalgia for the days of a mythic western zone, not to mention those of the artist’s youth. While perhaps no longer shocking, Kiefer remains faithful to an imagery and a mode of installation strafed by sobering Holocaust inflections. In Occupations, Kiefer’s Nazi salutes are now vaporous images—imprinted on lead, a toxic element the medieval alchemist attempted to transmute into gold. They become self-aggrandizing portrayals of the artist-as-victim, hanging one behind the other within a huge steel container of menacing import—recalling nothing so much as a boxcar.

Robert Pincus-Witten