Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer. Zim Zum, 1990. oil, crayon, shellac, ashes, sand, dust and canvas on lead 3.8 x 5.6 m. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Yesterday after thinking about the large Gursky photographs and standing around in galleries looking at very large things I thought about Kiefer.  So I wrote the post below, and now find it has sucked all the light out of the day.  Too much Sturm und Drang for me.  I'd rather be looking at Ocean III.  However.

The first major Anselm Kiefer exhibition I saw was at the Saatchi Gallery in conjunction with several Richard Serra pieces – great slabs of steel balanced on their corners against the wall.  Someone had been injured in the installation.  Seeing the Kiefers was something like when an earlier generation first saw Mark Rothko's enormous, ambiguous colour fields at the Tate.  Kiefer's paintings cover whole gallery walls; one cannot get enough distance from them, one is completely humbled by them.

Much is written about the symbols and myths of German history and the Holocaust in Kiefer: Zim Zum, above, is from the Kabbalah and refers, roughly, to destruction and creative rearrangement.  And there appear to be many debates about whether a German can do anything with German myths and not be a closet Nazi.  Kiefer's work is both textual in that it insists on working with both Teutonic and Jewish history, and in its messy application of straw and mud, paint and dust, often to make great ploughed fields that appear to be totally barren, devoid of life, incapable of resurrection, work shouts out about the destruction of Germany.  It helps to know that Kiefer studied with Joseph Beuys. There is a sensuality that is not romantic in this work – perhaps it is the sensuality of melancholy and despair. 

I've never seen much renewal in Kiefer's work, although the symbols of such are supposedly all there in it.  This is one of the issues with text-based work and criticism: the work becomes the vehicle for another kind of project whereby the physical painting is cast as a cipher to a larger, off-canvas discourse which can change with political rapidity.  Meanwhile, one is left standing in front of a 3 x 5 m work which is unbearably, unrelentingly dark.  I think this has to be taken seriously as an end point: war destroys, and whatever replaces whatever is destroyed is never enough.