I let myself drift, but I know the current I have chosen for myself.
ANSELM KIEFER HAS LIVED AND WORKED IN FRANCE FOR A LONG TIME NOW. AND WE IN THIS COUNTRY ARE GLAD OF THIS, BECAUSE THERE IS NO OTHER ARTIST WHO HAS REVIVED WHAT IS PROUDLY CALLED THE SCHOOL OF PARIS IN SUCH A SPECTACULAR WAY. HIS MOVE TO BARJAC IN SOUTHERN FRANCE, NEAR THE FABULOUS ARDÈCHE VALLEY WITH ITS UNCOUNTED CAVES, ALTERED HIS ART IN THE DIRECTION OF LIGHTNESS AND TRANQUILLITY. KIEFER WAS EVIDENTLY ON A SEARCH FOR DETACHMENT FROM HIMSELF, HIS BIOGRAPHICAL DATA AND POWERFUL THEMES.
In the meantime, the ’Kyffhäuser’, ’Hermann‘s Battle’ and ’Death of Brünhilde’ have vanished. And his excursions to the Red Sea, to Aaron, the Egyptian plagues and pharaohs, all the subjects that revolved around the Exodus, have made way for more personal ones. In place of the dark, calcined depictions appeared more and more bright panels bristling with botanical finds. Seeds, dried blossoms served as the shimmering stardust of that infinity to which, not lastly, the gigantic formats in the storerooms and tunnels the artist prepared in Barjac alluded. His involvement with architectural ensembles and historical time dwindled in face of the endless space of universal landscapes.
In the meantime Kiefer has moved again, to a huge studio in the eastern part of Paris. The effect of his work has not diminished. His concern with spacious buildings and abrupt perspectives formed a crucial motif in his oeuvre from the start. Again and again, stages and interiors played the starring role. Kiefer‘s evident interest in architecture may well derive from the period in which he grew up, when the history and symbolism of buildings held a particular irritation. In postwar Germany, such edifices were subject to the fetishism of denial and avoidance. They had to suffer, and were more stringently denazified than the society that had produced them, which dismembered or razed them. This fear of infection was foreign to Kiefer; early on he began to toy with the obsolescence and fatality that were written all over the facades. The encrusted, crumbling nature of his paint application, the employment of straw to evoke fire and arson, possessed a definite meaning. It addressed the added value of the ruinous. A fascination by disaster, a negative heroic aspect, underly the effect of his paintings and installations. These possess a high degree of material presence.
As anyone who has confronted them knows, the point is more than just subjective existential anxiety. It extends to political and ultimately anthropological fear. Whenever possible, the artist employs not neutral materials but ones that contain their own intrinsic history and for which he can name particular sources. The connection between found objects and places is important. His stones, soils, plants and textiles are associated with precise, emotion-charged topographies. It is no coincidence that Kiefer had the old lead sheets that were removed from the roof of Cologne Cathedral shipped to his studio in southern France. Some of them appear in the sculptures in the Twenty Years of Solitude series. Such transfusions of history into the work interest him. He charges battered things, his play with textures and impasto paint application, with references to historic events. Take the early picture Interior, in which Speer‘s Reich Chancellery appears transformed into a charred coldness.
These Kiefer works on German history from the 1970s certainly belong to the most compelling history paintings of the postwar period. When Kiefer made his first great appearance in the U.S. many years ago, William S. Rubin, chief curator of the Museum of Modern Art, declared that he didn‘t think any European or American contemporary artist was as good as Kiefer, and that he was ’betting on him.’ Then Rubin went on to state that since the Second World War, Germany had produced no more extraordinary figure in the field of art. In the German artist‘s paintings he discovered something the avant-garde had shied away from out of a fear of figuration: a continuation of history painting. Kiefer presented a way of dealing with history that stood not for optimism, victories and conquests but, in the wake of Picasso‘s Guernica, addressed only fatality and loss. The epic range of themes, the possibility of short circuiting mythologies with the current zeitgeist, and the grand creative gesture with the misery-loving self-mockery of 1960s Arte Povera, led in Kiefer‘s work to a remarkable result. His rapid success derived from the fact that he did not shy away from the tabooed phase of German history. Like no one else but Gerhard Richter, Kiefer did away with the suppression of names, concepts and topographies.
He called one painting German Intellectual Heroes. Then he did something more daring still: instead of treating his subjects from a safe distance, the distance o those born at a later date, supposedly saved by a clean conscience, he blended his depictions with the dangerous suggestion of blindness that had led to the fatal past. The enlightenment in his works was evidently combined with an anaesthetic atmosphere. It is this antinomy that lends the exorbitant works of the 1970s and 80s their irresistible attraction. With his history paintings The Rhine, To the Unknown Painter, and Athanor, Kiefer dared to go much farther than his contemporaries. This could not help but lead to enmities and misinterpretations. Yet there can be no doubt about the basic stance of the work – on the side of demise, and a responsible, profound melancholy. His choice of lead, that saturnine, melancholy metal, as a basic component of his sculptures was no accident. The mixture of precise composition and the attraction of charred, defective things that takes on material tangibility in the crumbling, fragment-studded imagery triggers confusion. One might detect behind this turn to a physical materialism the influence of Beuys, who distilled the gesticulations of Arte Povera and the post-Dada concern with the low and despised into a private lamento.
Yet Kiefer employs something else. He works with concrete allusions to historical dates, turns to the precise aspect of collective memories. Like no other he is skilled at letting the photographic quotation, a piece of evidence, shine out of his compositions. These depictions with their tangible wounds in time challenge us as viewers to put our finger in them. Thus the most compelling images are doubtless those in which the direct painting process is interrupted by concrete quotations and photographic incursions. The work depends on these blood tests of reality and is nourished by them. In pieces like Nothung and Resurrexit the artist works with trompe‑l‘oeil, imitating the branching grain of wooden floorboards.
His depictions of architectural motifs and landscapes initially remained technically and stylistically separate. Then, in the landscapes, Kiefer abandoned a facsimile-like rendering of textures. A plowed field was evoked by a deeply furrowed mass of paint and soil. This impasto technique developed its stongest effect in the furrowed surfaces – as in Paths of Marches Sand – in which the painter sowed the seeds of his historical and mythological memories. His technical virtuosity increased to a veritably Wagnerian tutti. Sand, tar, shellack, sawdust, lead sheets, eloquent materials like the straw of arsonists, barbed wire and articles of clothing contributed to the depressive mood, evoked the Waste Land ‚T.S. Eliot‘s perfect metaphor for the dessicated, chaotic modern age. Kiefer‘s magnificent books, wonderful and various folios, provide a unique commentary on the oeuvre with their allusions to the Apocalypse of St. John. Kiefer is aware of this, having clearly stated that ’I let myself drift, but I know the current I have chosen for myself.’