Anselm Kiefer

Museum of Modern Art, New York

(Originally published in Art New England, Volume 10 Number 2, February 1989.)

Anselm Kiefer uses the language of modern art to rewrite the kind of grandiose nineteenth-century history painting that modern art rejected. He grapples with his nation’s history, as James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus said, “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Anselm Kiefer sent me back to Goethe’s Faust, where some passages read as poetic but accurate descriptions of the world of Kiefer’s art. In this one, from Randall Jarrell’s translation, the spirits that Faust has summoned – angels or demons? – sing to him:

“Woe! Woe!
You have destroyed it,
The beautiful world,
With a mighty fist:
It falls, it is smashed to pieces!
A half-god has destroyed it.
We carry
The ruins to nothingness
And weep for the lost beauty.
O mighty
Among the sons of earth,
Build it again, more magnificent,
Build it in your own breast!
Begin, clear-souled,
The new life – new songs shall soar to greet it.”

Like Faust, Kiefer summons up spirits to help him in his quest. The demonic dance of marks across the canvases invariably calls forth the ghost of Jackson Pollock. Pollock’s paintings were fields of action and sometimes looked like battlefields, but Kiefer’s paintings look like real fields where a real war was fought and the fires of devastation are still burning.

Wagner is another of Kiefer’s ghosts. Wagner’s music and his megalomania find an echo in Kiefer’s violent themes and bombastic style, his vaulting ambition, and his exhumation of the mythic German gods and heroes. Wagner’s leitmotifs take on visual form in the way Kiefer generates symbols and obsessively reworks them – the charred field, the Nazi neoclassical architecture, the bathtub, Margrete and Shulamith.

Exploding the distinction between abstraction and image, Kiefer brings a new kind of energy to the art of painting. His paintings have tremendous physical presence. Lead and straw, the dirt of the ravaged earth, photographs, objects, and signs merge with a vast tangle of swirling paint and yearning lines, as if his paintings were whirlwinds pulling clumps of the real world into their orbit.

Kiefer learned from Joseph Beuys, another ghost who haunts these canvases, how to find magic in everyday things like dirt and straw, and how to turn his own life into myth. Beuys saw himself as a shaman; Kiefer is an alchemist. For Kiefer, alchemy is a metaphor for the magic of art – and the magic of art stands as an emblem of the power of individual men and women to choose and to act.

Kiefer, Starfall, 1995, Artist's collection

He paints a raging elegy for the failure of reason and civilization, even of art, to overcome the evil that is part of human nature. Yet for Kiefer, only the magic of art, symbolized by the often-repeated image of a palette with wings, can build something beautiful out of the wreck of reason and the failure of history.  And like Faust, Kiefer counts on ceaseless striving to redeem the enormity of this ambition, and cheat the Devil of another soul.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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