Broken Flowers and Grass: Nature and Landscape in the Drawings of Anselm Kiefer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
March 24 to August 2, 2009
Lila Acheson Wallace Wing,
The Gioconda and Joseph King Gallery
1000 Fifth Avenue, New York City, 212-570-3828
In 2007 Anselm Kiefer stated “Americans think there is good and bad. That’s not true. The truth is wandering around.” Fair enough, but some of Kiefer’s themes have sharp moral divisions. The Metropolitan Museum has mounted a mini retrospective of about 30 small pieces selected from its Kiefer holdings, one as recent as 2004. The early watercolors from 1969 – 85 represent the bulk of the show. Although technical distinction is rarely evident in his watercolors, Kiefer’s keen and decisive knack of finding and assembling his signature themes and compositions is astonishingly present from the start. It is content rather than painting ability that speaks loudest here.
In Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome Of Heaven (1970), a diminished, isolated figure, enveloped in a transparent dome, assumes the Nazi salute within a deeply receding landscape. From text we understand that Kiefer mocks the salute, but context is relative and meaning is subject to change. That the salute is summoned in several pieces is plain to see. Regarding the image, Kiefer has equivocally stated “every man has his own dome, his own perceptions, his own thoughts. There is no one God for all.” Despite the moral relativism, Kiefer is certain that he is a soldier artist recovering historic facts from the ground of recent memory. And as an agent of Neo Expressionism, Kiefer assumes that although there are pauses, everything is in play and that everything old rises new again with a twist of the eternally recurring historical spiral.
In his colorful On Every Mountain Peak There Is Peace (1971), and the sepia toned Reservoir(1971), Kiefer delivers both the romantic landscape of dreamy escapism and the reverent nostalgia of the forest as a repository of strength and national identity. If Kiefer is trying to grapple with the aftermath of National Socialism or offer a critique, it is unclear. Functionally these pieces reinforce the symbolic status of the forest used in German and Norwegian landscape painting of the 1820’s. By pointedly reviving the brooding, animistic portraits of heroically silhouetted trees via C. D. Freidrich, Kiefer advertently rekindles the slippery, errant ideologies inherent to the subject matter that he is drawn to. The legendary status of trees merged with the purity and heroic invincibility of the German soldiers when the Roman attack on Germainia was repelled at the Battle of Teutoburger Forest in 9AD and continues to resonate nationally today.
In Winter Landscape (1970) Kiefer paints a head floating over a landscape. Given the nature of this subject, the degree to which this head relates to Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy is jarring. The disembodied head bleeds from the neck, spotting the ashen-speckled, snow-covered landscape below. In this saturnine romanticization of death Kiefer depicts an ascension, while blood and ash settle on the ground in seeming reference to the Jewish extermination. As the Nazis believed in purifying the land from Jews by fire, so Kiefer, in an act of creative hubris, counters by cleansing the disaster through belief in the alchemic ritual of his art process. Although mass shootings of the Jewish population occurred across the landscape of Eastern Europe, the constancy with which Kiefer entwines the Holocaust into the eternally recurring woodland heritage of German Volk is disconcerting. Kiefer operates under the assumption that land is still a living testament to German identity. As recently as 1983 Chancellor Helmut Kohl declared: “Mythology, Germans and the forest – they all belong together.” Kiefer posits that such land, recently fertilized with a tragic layer of ash, can be sanctified by confession, creative ritual and representations of nature as culture. Such a premise seems bewildering, if not profane. To this end Kiefer dons the shamanistic uniform patterned from the eminent sculptor and legendary former volunteer Luftwaffe pilot Joseph Beuys, and attempts to mediate fact by reenacting a drama of myth and symbol.
Unlike most Adenauer-era kids raised in the crosshairs of the Soviet presence and the Marshall Plan, Kiefer bucked, and resisted the notion of a divide separating German generations. Instead, Kiefer strategically implicates himself and by extension, his post-war generation as inheritors of the totality of German history. As such Kiefer is a complicated independent, one who adopts the revanchist Neo Expressionist mode of his peers, yet embraces and exposes the repressed and tangled complexities of German life. Mere mention of the Jewish extermination was still taboo in Germany until very recently. Yet this is the debased standard to which Kiefer’s stance as a self-professed sufferer of his nations deeds is compared and lauded.
In Stefan! (1974), the head of German poet Stefan George oddly hovers and merges with a mountain top. Kiefer applies himself to the task of rehabilitating George from the fascistic flirtations, messiah complex, heroic German idealizations, and elitism that all earned George reverence from Nazi officialdom. One can speculate that George’s self-absorbed mysticism particularly engaged Kiefer. George’s anti modernist views and advocacy of artists’ independence from political clarity may have also struck a chord with Kiefer’s own brand of subjectivism during a period of conceptualist dissolutions and authorial death. In this instance, Kiefer assumes the role of judge and redeemer who will liberate George from the misinterpretations of cumbersome readers.
In the pieces from 1985 thru 2004 Kiefer moves beyond usual expressionist tropes. Painted on chemically manipulated photographs, and incorporating lead and shellac, these pieces renew our interest beyond the subject. There is a fluidity of composition and freedom in these pieces that Kiefer’s watercolors and large, theatrical, stage-set paintings don’t achieve. In these small paper works, Kiefer has relaxed his grid: the high horizon line and deeply furrowed perspective borrowed from Van Gogh. In Miracle of the Serpents (1985), Kiefer layers diaphanous image and gesture within the activated photo emulsion. There is a seemingly effortless and randomized approach to the field that allows the symbols of the Exodus narrative to almost flicker and move. Additionally, in Strike and Heavy Cloud (1985), Keifer’s use of lead slabs affixed to the surface of the paper creates a physical connection to the viewer. The emphatic material surface fittingly co-exists with the indication of landscape and depth of field in the photo image. Kiefer may have clocked in, but we’re not faced with the labor-intensive insistence of the large paintings. Instead, formally speaking, these are wonderfully immediate, ah-ha moments.
Similarly constructed with manipulated photos, paint and shellac, Emanation (1985) and Aziluth(2004) display a similar buoyancy and immediacy. Unfortunately the agenda-driven content elbows its way in and betrays a distracting pseudo-spirituality, in which kabalistic thought, a recently popularized aspect of Jewish philosophy, is cherry picked and assumed by the outsider in the name of spiritual healing and repair. But for whom? Kiefer posits that with just the right dose of national soul searching and memoriam, artwork can set you free, but his multivalent formulas remain woefully paradoxical. Touching upon such life-extinguishing events is best left to an artist who passed through and left myth behind, an experienced practitioner of the timeless and tragic, such as Mark Rothko.