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Anselm Kiefer

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.’

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Jahrgang 1937, Verfasser von Werkverzeichnissen von Picasso und Max Ernst, ehemals Direktor des Musée national d’art Moderne im Centre Pompidou in Paris, Professor an der Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Spiritus Rector von Ausstellungen mit Welterfolg. Das Überschreiten von Grenzen sowie der gleichzeitige Blick auf die Kunst wie auf die Literatur werden zum Beweggrund seines Lebens und Schreibens. Freundschaft und persönliche Nähe zu seinen Freunden, den Künstlern und Schriftstellern - Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, David Lynch, Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter sind nur die bekanntesten -, die ihn in der Auseinandersetzung mit ihrem Werk ebenso wie als Anstifter von neuen Werken als Partner akzeptieren, garantieren seine Unverwechselbarkeit. In den Schriften von Werner Spies, einem Oeuvre, das neben Werkmonographien und Zeitungsbeiträgen Aufsätze und Abhandlungen umfasst, haben sich die Facetten dieser gelehrten Persönlichkeit niedergeschlagen. Die literarische Brillanz seiner Texte ist einer originellen Kraft zu verdanken, die dem kreativen Potential seines Gegenstandes nicht nachsteht. Eine tiefe Verpflichtung gegenüber diesem Gegenstand ist Auslöser akribischer Recherchen geworden und hat eine Konsequenz der Analyse zur Folge, die auch Übersehenes oder scheinbar Abgelegenes wieder in das Bewusstsein rückt. Keiner nutzt wie er in der zehnbändigen Ausgabe seiner Schriften, die aus der Vielseitigkeit seiner Interessen und Begabungen entstehende Chance, diese Entwicklung der Kunst der Moderne in ihrer Kohärenz wie in ihren Brüchen und Verwerfungen zu verfolgen. Die einzelnen Darstellungen gewinnen dabei eine Anschlussfähigkeit, die die Vermutung nahe legt, der Autor hätte schon immer, über Jahrzehnte, die Idee einer Gesamtdarstellung verfolgt. Vor unseren Augen entwickelt sich so die Moderne aus der Sicht eines großen Schrift-stellers überzeugend, umfassend und überraschend neu.

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