'Heaven' Knows What German Artist Anselm Kiefer Is All About

The "The Ash Flower" is on view in the Anselm Kiefer exhibit. (Hirshhorn Museum And Sculpture Garden - Hirshhorn Museum And Sculpture Garden)
By Andy Grundberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 2, 2006

Of all the ambitious painters of the 1980s, Anselm Kiefer seemed destined to make the most lasting impression. Unlike Julian Schnabel, whose gargantuan paintings filled with broken plates reflect mostly on his own sense of originality, or Francesco Clemente, who obsessively painted his own head, Kiefer could claim a big subject: history. Not just any history but the troubled one of his native Germany, going as far back as Teutonic legends immortalized by Richard Wagner's opera cycle "The Ring" and as far forward as the Nazis, World War II and the Holocaust.

Not only does Kiefer, 61, pick big subjects, he has the chops to pull them off. Plainly better than Schnabel in his ability to harness crusty chunks of paint, he also gets sublime effects by contrasting his thick, rough surfaces with bands of relatively thin variegated pigment. In terms of surface refinement, Kiefer could be on the same team with Gerhard Richter, his German contemporary and arguably his No. 1 competitor for the title of world's best living painter.

But since a major mid-career retrospective in 1987, which traveled to museums in Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York, Kiefer's work rarely has been seen in the United States. Temperamentally reclusive if not monastic, the artist has undergone periods of withdrawal from both his art and the art world. His reputation hasn't suffered so much as languished in the intervening years.

"Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth," a show organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and now at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (through Sept. 10), puts the artist back in the spotlight and reminds us, if we need any reminding, that overweening ambition and spectacular visual effects in contemporary art are not solely the province of media and performance artists like Matthew Barney, Doug Gordon and Bill Viola.

Where those artists use new technologies to transform gallery space into theatrical space, Kiefer uses old-fashioned paint and canvas, along with straw, ashes, burlap, shellac, photographs and his favorite accessory, lead. The artist's elemental streak extends to his forms as well: The 20 wall-size paintings on view are mostly landscapes, albeit with rude sculptural elements attached, and what might simply be called his sculptures are often in the shape of books and bookcases.

Both are key to Kiefer's concerns. Landscapes characteristically feature a junction of land and sky, while books are signs of human knowledge and history. Exhibition curator Michael Auping of the Fort Worth museum identifies an internal dialogue about the possibility of heaven on earth and about the spiritually redemptive power of art.

"Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome of Heaven" is part of the touring exhibition on Anselm Kiefer at the Hirshhorn Museum.
Auping's notion that the opposition and reconciliation of heaven and earth is essential to unpacking Kiefer's work is useful if not entirely original, having been broached by curator Gudrun Inboden in the catalogue to a Kiefer show in Germany 20 years ago. No matter. One suspects that Kiefer himself originated the idea. There is an oddly conventional watercolor on view titled "Heaven and Earth" (1974-75) that makes its point with the sky's reflection in water, but it is less interesting than an oblique charmer like "Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome of Heaven" (1970), in which a tiny figure with an arm raised in a rigid salute stands alone in a wintry field, encased in a blue dome. Could this be Hitler seeing the sky as his own possession? Or the artist pointing out the real sky that lies outside the hermetic domed one?

But the show's real action is in the paintings and sculpture, where Kiefer's penchant for thinking big thoughts is matched by the size and materiality of the work. A painting like "The Milky Way," finished in 1987, furnishes a mind-boggling array of materials (emulsion, oil and acrylic paint, plus shellac, wires and lead) and of compositional conundrums. The landscape is another wintry farm field with burned stubble sticking through, but in the middle, just below a funnel-shaped sheet of lead, is a long white gash of paint on which Kiefer has written the painting's title. The work, which is more than 12 feet high and 18 feet wide, could just as well be titled "Heaven in Earth."

Newer paintings, among which "The Ash Flower" of 2004 is exceptional, show more heaven and less ground, suggesting among other things that the artist has come to see the human condition more evenhandedly. He also seems to have left behind Teutonic myth in favor of Judeo-Christian mysticism, sprinkling his imagery and titles with references to the Kabbalah, a book of supposedly secret ancient knowledge, and to medieval alchemy. In several paintings, stairs lead up to the promise of ascension from earth, and cages hold molded meteorites named for the orders of angels.

Then there are Kiefer's books, which on their own would still make an impressive account of the artist. The three that greet visitors at the show's entrance, all titled "The Heavens" and dated 1969, contain collages of pieces of sky or skylike representations culled from magazines. Kiefer's urge to cut the sky and transform it formally, into a field of blue, echoes Gordon Matta-Clark's efforts in the early 1970s to transform buildings by cutting them open with chain saws. Later books stand on their own: "The Secret Life of Plants," with pages devoted to night views of stars and fields of flowers, has lead pages that stand in a circle over six feet tall, feeling more like sculpture than reading material.

In his attempt to make art an expressly spiritual endeavor, Kiefer in essence returns us to the era of abstract expressionism, when abstraction represented its own form of heaven on earth. But instead of relying solely on form to deliver the expressive goods, he gives us images of considerable symbolic resonance. (Provided, that is, that we understand the references, which are more often than not obscure.) Even without the symbolism, though, the work has enough visual presence to create a powerful visceral impact. This may explain why much of the work on view will seem familiar to followers of Kiefer's career. Sculptures like "Book With Wings" or paintings like "The Book," which the Hirshhorn owns, are not easily forgotten no matter what they mean.

Missing from "Heaven and Earth" are the paintings and book works of the 1970s and 1980s that show Kiefer's preoccupation with the German past, and with the intertwined legacies of nationalism and Nazism that scar the German memory. Their absence undoubtedly makes for a more focused exhibition, and one that makes a strong argument for Kiefer's greatness. On the other hand, erasing human history from Kiefer's work is a bit like erasing the uncomfortable years from German history; it changes things in ways that make a smoother story but that lack the essential and ultimately tragic tension between our aspirations and our real-life actions. There is a reason that the earth is scorched in Kiefer's paintings and that the pages of books are burned, and I doubt that he wants us to ignore it.

The installation at the Hirshhorn is elegant and spacious and features two paintings from last year that will appear only in this venue. Hirshhorn curator Valerie Fletcher arranged the additions and also trimmed several works that were part of the show in Fort Worth and later at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal. (After the Hirshhorn, the exhibition will appear at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, beginning Oct. 15.) As it is here, the exhibition provides a full day's looking and still leaves one craving more.

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth is on view through Sept. 10 on the second floor of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, at Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW. For information call 202-633-1000 or visit http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu/ .

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