CHICAGO -- Anselm Kiefer's paintings are so deep you feel you're winged.
You are flying over Germany, low, above the broken ground, through winter light or moonlight. Below, as you pass, swiftly and in silence, the trampled, shining earth glows like silvered mud.
Kiefer's art is haunted. Its time is partly ours, partly that of Auschwitz, partly that of myth.
Sleet as gray as lead was falling on Lake Michigan when his transfixing retrospective went on view recently at the Art Institute of Chicago. The streets were black, the wind was cold, the great lake was seething. You felt that Kiefer had summoned up the weather. He's a sort of a magician, an alchemist, a seer. He makes dark, transcendent art.
He's only 42, but already his exhibit makes one think of masters. Picasso in his "Guernica" made us see the soul of Spain. Matisse in Nice distilled the Frenchness of French painting. The individuals portrayed by Bacon, Freud and Hockney somehow manage to suggest Chaucer, Dickens, Shakespeare, the peopled panoply of England. Kiefer's painting, too, has a nation at its core.
Its Germanness is palpable.Kiefer's exhibition is as disturbing as a se'ance. A ghostly German anthem, a "Deutschland, u ber alles" at once sobbing and sardonic, is heard upon the wind that goes sighing through his pictures. You get the eerie feeling that cremated Jews and rusted Panzers, Wagner and Valhalla, the forests and the fu hrer -- the spirit of the Fatherland -- have been ground into the mud of his dark and blasted art.
Kiefer's drawing isn't much. His hand is far from graceful, and he stumbles into coarseness when he tries to catch a likeness. But his flaws don't seem to matter. His metaphysics are so deeply felt, his knowledge is so dense, his vision so compelling, that he humiliates the hollowness of much recent modern art.
A wan, facetious irony is these days much in fashion. The ironies of Kiefer's art are anything but wan. The limp appropriations of New York's David Salle, and the bumptious self-indulgences made by Julian Schnabel, seem empty in comparison.
He paints with earth and fire (many of his canvases have been scorched or burned). He uses gold and steel, too, and molten lead and acid, wood and stone and straw. And all of these materials function in two different ways, one abstract, one concrete. They add to his depictions while insisting simultaneously on their harsh materiality. The pillar made of lead descending from the clouds to touch the rolling waves in his painting "Emanation" (1984-86) is as heavy as it's misty. An image of the godhead, and a passage of base metal, it's both a presence and a sign.
Two, or three, or seven things are going on at once in almost all of Kiefer's pictures. One of the most impressive is the canvas he calls "Nuremberg" (1982).
At first glimpse you can read it as a deep-space winter landscape. You are flying, as in a dream, above a dark, plowed field. Furrows rush into the distance, the loam of the plowed field has been touched with snow and ice. The dark towers of the city (although roughly painted, they're entirely believable) can be seen on the horizon. Yet much more is going on. The whole surface of the painting -- the furrows and the ice, the city and the clouds -- has been liberally sprinkled with bits of golden straw.
The straw is not depicted; it sticks into the room, crinkled, golden, dead. It is as palpable as the skeins of thick enamel poured by Jackson Pollock, for Kiefer frequently combines the peering-through-a-window sense of traditional perspective with the painting-as-an-object look of recent abstract art. But that straw is no abstraction. It is beautiful and brittle, and once it was alive. Straw, in Kiefer's pictures, takes on many meanings. He uses it to conjure up the fertile fields of the Fatherland, and their devastation, the blond hair of Bru nhilde, and the withering of the Nazis' golden Aryan dream. His straw is food as well as fuel, both the stuff that beasts devour and kindling for fires. Flames burn in his ice.
The plowed field there before us is not just any meadow. A scrawled legend on the sky -- Nu rnberg-Festspiel-Wiese, or the "festival field, Nuremberg" -- tells us where we are.
This is the famous field where, in the 15th century, Germany's master singers competed with their songs. Wagner's opera about them -- a favorite of Hitler's -- is summoned by the painting. The name of lovely Eva, whose hand the victor won, is written on a small white card caught there in the straw. Other ghosts are present, too -- those of the doomed soldiers who paraded on that field during Hitler's rallies, and the ghosts of those they killed, and of the lawyers and the judges who condemned the Nazi leaders there, in the heartland of the nation, following the war. In Kiefer's painted field the winners and the losers, the killers and the victims, sing together in the mud.
That trampled, torn-up field recurs in many of his paintings. In the first painting one sees here, "Maika fer flieg" ("Cockchafer Fly") (1974), it appears as a battleground dotted here and there with plumes of drifting smoke and flickering tongues of flame. (The title is from a nursery rhyme, a German version of the English "Ladybug, Ladybug, fly away home, your house is on fire, and your children all gone.") Sprinkled once again with straw, that landscape plays a background role in his "Wo llundlied (mit Flu gel)," "Wayland's Song (with Wing)" of 1982.
Wayland the Smith of the Icelandic sagas, a master craftsman, lamed, is a kind of northern version of Vulcan of the Romans, a god of forge and fire. Wayland's skills were so admired that, when captured by the Swedish king, he was imprisoned on an island and crippled so that he could not flee. But the smith got his revenge, first, by raping the king's daughter, next by killing his two sons and taking up their skulls, studding them with jewels and setting them with silver, before returning them, as drinking cups, to the mourning king. Then the master smith, an Icarus of a sort, manufactured wings of metal and fled across the sea.
A large wing of lead, with lead feathers and lead straps, has been fastened to the surface of Kiefer's winter landscape. Like the meadow, and the straw, it, too, is dense with meaning. It conjures up the Messerschmitt, the German skill with war machines. Its heaviness suggests as well the falling of the angels, the leadenness of soaring dreams, and the danger to society of the artist who refuses to serve the king.
In his exceptional catalogue, Mark Rosenthal of the Philadelphia Museum of Art reminds us that while "the title of the painting stresses Wayland's 'Lied,' in other paintings, Kiefer has sometimes deliberately confused the German words 'Lied' and 'Leid,' the former meaning song, the latter, sorrow." A mix of victory and vanquishment, of soaring and of rot, is felt throughout his art.
How could it be otherwise with Germany his subject? Kiefer will not preach; he is no propagandist, but neither does he flinch. In the newest winter landscape in the exhibition, "Iron Path" of 1986, a pair of metal rails shoot into the distance, as if into the past. Attached to the picture are the branches of an olive tree and a pair of huge, toothed metal shoes (used for climbing telephone poles, they suggest traps that kill). You can't look at those tracks without thinking about cattle cars. In the distance, in the sky, two small squares of gold leaf stare back at the viewer like the glare of God's rebuke.
Kiefer paints his large, bold canvases ("Nuremberg" is 12 feet wide, "Wayland's Song" is twice that size) with an easy, flowing energy that recalls the muscularity of postwar New York abstract expressionism. His high-horizoned landscapes, despite their subdued colors, call to mind van Gogh's. His unconventional materials and shamanistic summonings owe much to the late Joseph Beuys, his chief guide and teacher. And behind Beuys one can sense the private symbol-systems and the private mental voyaging of Marcel Duchamp. There is a good deal that is French, and much that is American, in the complicated pedigree of Kiefer's German art.
The opera is present, too. Many of his paintings -- their scale is Wagnerian -- have the deep space of a stage set. In many of his pictures, the cold landscape's been replaced by a singed, decaying, monumental room. In "Interior" (the German title, "Innenraum," is vastly more suggestive) the room is one designed by Albert Speer in 1939 for the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Hitler is not present, save there in the foreground in the black flames of his pyre. In "Shulamite" (1983) -- the title is the name of King Solomon's beloved -- the vaulted space is taken from another prewar National Socialist monument, the Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldiers in the Hall of Soldiers in Berlin. The arches here are black from smoke. Kiefer's made a crematorium of that crypt.
In Kiefer's abused landscapes, in his monuments brought low, one cannot help but feel something altogether different from the 1930s bitterness of George Grosz. It is not that they are hopeful, but they suggest a sense of cycles turning, of prospects of redemption.
Kiefer has deep sympathy for those German artists his nation has both used and misused, first praised and then disdained. For Wagner, for example, who was once thought a radical, then castigated bitterly as an anti-Semite revered by Hitler. Hoffmann von Fallersleben is another. It was von Fallersleben -- a 19th-century German patriot and poet who cried out for democracy and equality -- who wrote the fervent verse "Deutschland, u ber alles," which, as the German anthem, was later wholly soiled by the Nazis. The art of Anselm Kiefer will not soon be so misused.
Kiefer's retrospective is not one of those quick-shot, see-it-all-at-once contemporary art shows so common nowadays. His paintings have about them something of the singing, the heroic scale and narrative complexity of the grand "machines" of French romantic art. The longer you look at them, the more there is to think about, and the more there is to see.
His strange, amazing books are as imposing as his paintings. One, of gray and silver -- its wordless images include photographs that show the cold breakers of Lake Michigan -- appears for the first time in the Kiefer retrospective's extraordinary catalogue. It's called "Passage Through the Red Sea."
The other books are as big as Gutenberg Bibles. Some are made of woodcuts (one, about the Rhine, is a sort of black-and-white voyage down that broad, long-enchanted river); some of sand on photographs; some of canvas paintings that have been burned into deep blackness. One of Kiefer's books, this one made of sheets of lead, has been fastened to a vast painting (from the Hirshhorn). It floats above a rolling sea. There are no words upon its pages, and yet in this exhibit, where each work on display calls out to the others, it is as if it can be read.
The still-unfinished book that Kiefer has composed is part remnant of the volumes burned up by the Nazis, part history, part holy text. Kiefer has said, "I think a great deal about religion because science provides no answers." He makes sad and sacred art.
The Chicago exhibition will not soon be forgotten by anyone who sees it. It will remain at the Art Institute through January. Thereafter it will travel to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (March 6-May 1), the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (June 14-Sept. 11), and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (Oct. 17-Jan. 3, 1989). A grant of $400,000 from the Ford Motor Co. and a donation of approximately $200,000 from the Lannan Foundation helped pay for Kiefer's show.