Craig-Martin Inhale (white) 2002
Kiefer Oroborus 2002
Anselm Kiefer Die Himmelspaläste
Anselm Kiefer Die Sieben Himmlspaläste
launched his career with anything but subtle irony. He would dress as a
storm trooper and stage performances "annexing to the Reich" art
galleries in countries like Belgium which had not so long ago suffered occupation
for real. He would stand at landmarks like the Colisseum in Rome and give
the Hitler salute. On one occasion it was sig heil by the seaside, in emulation
of Caspar David Friedrich's romantic icon, Wanderer Over the Misty Sea.
Then came a "brown period" (literally, and still politically), a scorched earth policy of debunking romantic myth. By now, however, Kiefer was beginning to believe his own once-mock metaphysics. Irony fast evaporated as artist and audience alike somehow managed to forget the historical and political disasters his romanticism and mysticism were cooked up to confront. In this respect, I can't help feeling that Kiefer is like an avantgarde composer who once, in a radical move, quoted an um-pa-pa band only to be stopped in his tracks by a lovely tune, thereafter devoting himself in earnest to pastiche waltzes.
In Harold Bloom's Kiefer essay, a rare departure into art writing for Yale's Sterling Professor of Humanities, the critic becomes prophet in the wilderness, his German artist a kind of art messiah. Bloom's self-professed career obsession has been "the anxiety of influence". He staked his reputation on audacious, brilliantly argued interpretations of poets like Blake and Milton "misreading" their predecessors in their oedipal struggles for originality. To Bloom, Kiefer presents the awesome spectacle of the divine artist who generates his own tropes, defying "what seems to me the immutable principles of influence in the arts." Bloom sends us back to Joyce, Stravinsky, and Picasso in search of originators as original, but finds the pioneers of modernism lacking, by way of comparison. Even Blake is faulted for relying too heavily on Michelangelo. "Kiefer knowingly transcends the limits of any visual art."
In point of fact, Kiefer is supremely conscious of his connections to art of the recent and distant past alike. Frankly, a Yale Art School freshman could put the Sterling Professor of Humanities right on this point. For a start, all that texture in Kiefer, the matière stuck onto his canvases and sprawled on the floor, is impossible without the French existentialist graffiti artist Dubuffet and without arte povera, the Italian minimalist movement, and without Rauschenberg, inventor of gray mush over photographs, and without Cy Twombly, master of the artful scrawl. None of this is to deny that Anselm Kiefer is highly inventive, possibly indeed superior to peers and forebears alike. But his art derives some at least of its meaning in relation to other art, and Professor Influence of all people should know this.
As for the artist as shaman, the melancholy romantic genius, giver of art life to gloom-filled detritus: totally impossible without the guru of German postmodernity, Joseph Beuys (also, incidentally, a big scribbler, in his case on blackboards.) It so happens that, on visual and conceptual grounds alike, I would take Kiefer over Beuys any day, but exalting the originality of the former without bothering with the latter is rather like attributing all the cinematic inventions of Alfred Hitchcock to Brian de Palma.
Michael Craig-Martin: Eye of the Storm continues at Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, through February 15, Tuesday to Saturday, 10-6; Anselm Kiefer: Merkaba ran from November 8 to December 14; the catalogue is available from Gagosian Gallery at $80. click here to order