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Monday, September 22, 2014

Anselm Kiefer

Lot's Wife, 1989, Anselm Kiefer
Ansellm Kiefer, Self-portrait, 1970
I don't know if anyone else has ever had this experience but it happens to me at least once during every outing I've ever made to a major art museum.  You see a painting. You don't know the artist. You don't know for sure what you're looking at, but something tells you it's an important work, though it's difficult to say precisely why you might think so. In my experience, usually the work is abstract in nature, though usually not non-representational. In some cases, checking out the title on the little plate beside the painting (this seldom has to do with sculpture) helps, but as often as not artists aren't so obliging. Most recently, this recurring moment happened to me in visiting the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), and encountering the work of Anselm Kiefer, a German-born Expressionist now living in Paris. The painting was Lot's Wife (top), dating from 1989. The cold, desolate landscape, grounded in abandoned railroad tracks seemed to have little or nothing to do with either the biblical Lot or his salty wife. I stared at it for a little longer than I might have other such paintings, but moved on no more or less enlightened than before. More recently I've looked up Kiefer and his work only to discover, virtually all of his work strikes me much the same as Lot's Wife.
Winterland, 2010, Anselm Kiefer
Winter Landscape, 1970, Anselm Kiefer
Here's where it pays to know something about the artist in understanding their work. Anselm Kiefer was born in Donaueschingen, southern Germany (along the Swiss border), in 1945 about the time the war ended. He first studied law and Romance languages before switching to art, studying first in Freiburg, then Karlsruhe, and finally Düsseldorf where he studied under Peter Dreher, a Realist figurative painter. Despite studying painting, Kiefer began as a photographer, intent in his work on not letting Germans forget the xenophobic past under the Third Reich. During the 1970s, as he continued his studies, Kiefer began to work with all manner of foreign materials applied to his ever larger and larger canvases. He began using straw with great success as well as oils, emulsion, acrylics, shellac, ash, torn bushes, synthetic teeth and snake skin on canvases framed in glass and steel, as seen in his Winterland (above), dating from 2010, and his Margarete (below) from 1981, almost thirty years earlier.
Margarete, 1981, Anselm Kiefer
--materials more likely to come from a lumber yard or a junkyard than from Dick Blick.

Wurzel Jesse, 2006, Anselm Kiefer
I think what "teases" me about Kiefer is his flirting and flitting back and forth between realism and abstraction. In viewing most Abstract Expressionism, whether one realizes it or not, the mind first seeks to identify representations of real scenes or objects, if only for a second or two. With Kiefer, that instinctive effort takes longer in that Kiefer often imposes a great degree of representational order upon his straw, weeds, snake skins and acrylic paints sealed beneath his various emulsions and shellacs. Margarete (above) suggests white doves roosting among hospitable giraffes made all the more disquieting by his penchant for sometimes scripting the title of his work right in the middle of his work. Kiefer's 2006 Wurzel Jesse (right), leaves me wondering, am I failing to recognize something, or is there simply nothing there to recognize? The title certainly doesn't help.

Siegfried's Difficult Way to Brunhilde, Anselm Kiefer. In many ways, his paintings bear a strong resemblance to his early photographs capturing the scars of war.
Man Under a Pyramid, 1996, Anselm Kiefer
On a superficial level, Kiefer dotes on one-point perspective, even in many of his abstract pieces. As seen in his Man Under a Pyramid (right) from 1996, he's also fond of stacking things, especially within his glass-caged sculptures. His landscapes are rich but lonely. Seldom do human figures impose themselves into his work except perhaps in a most abstractly circumspect manner, appearing more ghostly or spiritual (if there's any difference between the two) than real. Whether tied directly to Hitler's Holocaust, or the more general death and destruction suffered by his ancestors from virtually every era, Kiefer seems constantly to remind the German nation that they have long been one of the most hostile, warlike ethnicities since the beginnings of recorded history. In their cold, textural purity, Kiefer's painted strokes speak of strength and a strident struggle as ingrained as his straw and straight stretches of stony silence.

Deutschlands Geisteshelden (Germany’s Spiritual Heroes), 1973, Anselm Kiefer 
Resurrexit, 1973, Anselm Kiefer
Unlike the work of many painters today, Kiefer's paintings have depth, not just as I've outlined above, but in terms of their historic, social, and psychological content. At a time when so much non-representation work is, at best, synthetic (pretty, but also pretty meaningless), even if you and I don't fully understand these elements, we see, or at least suspect, that they are present. When there is obvious realism, it's imbued with texture and illusionary depth that transcends the content just as it does in his more abstract work. One of Kiefer's earliest works, his 1973 Resurrexit (left) and later his Deutschlands Geisteshelden (above: Germany’s Spiritual Heroes), dating all the way back to 1973, bear the traits of Peter Dreher, his major influence at the time. The "tunnel vision" and emptiness is as disturbing as it is insightful. Germany had no spiritual heroes.

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