To read Stephen Beachy’s take on Anselm Kiefer, “All That Heaven and Earth Allow,” click here.)
REVIEW You could go into “Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth” looking for a rush of monumental drama and cosmic philosophizing, for German guilt writ large, and for abnormal feats of technical skill. Or you could go in looking, as I did, for laughs.
Well, not laughs exactly, but at least a little humor. Would it be too much to ask, amid all the clumps of blond hay representing Jewish hair, split-open staircases leading into Rosicrucian limbo, and stick-thin pogrom graves shaped like ancient runes on Kiefer’s canvases — not to mention the literal deadweight of his giant lead sculptures — for an occasional wry smile to shine through? The artist’s work as presented here is the endgame embodiment of Sturm und Drang — thunderous metaphors crashing into lightning-streaked enormity — but once the viewer’s sheer awe wears off and there’s only beauty to contend with, Kiefer begins to look like a bit of a one-trick pony. (How to make a Kiefer: Stick an M-80 up Joseph Beuys’s ass. Explode onto nearest 15-foot canvas. Add a pair of antlers, scratch “Holy Ghost” and some numerals onto a clump of painted birch bark, and voilà — instant mysticism.)
So besides the blockbuster romanticism and genius overlay of German postwar themes onto the work of that other wizard of industrial spirituality, Antoni Tàpies, what else is there? Certainly not subtlety — for a small dose of that in the same key, rent Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire. But lack of subtlety may be a symptom of the grand themes Kiefer saddles himself with. It must be tough to be a German artist. Props to Kiefer for confronting the nightmares of his country’s past and throwing them in our faces. And props again for exerting superhuman artistic strength to create vibrant icons of arcane spirituality.
But those two impulses aren’t always compatible. In fact, they’re pretty antagonistic (wasn’t it the whole superhuman ideology thing that led to the Holocaust?), and what we’re left with is an innate contradiction that tears Kiefer’s grandiose postures apart without the humane buzz of resonance that such contradictions launch in other artists’ works. In attempting to synthesize the entire world into an “as above, so below” set of equations (every point in heaven has a monument on earth) while trying to reconcile with his country’s ghosts, Kiefer paints himself into a melodramatic corner. The empty gothic building with flames running along its wooden floor in his painting Quaternity (1973) could be the brick-making factory of his youth, could be the Jew-burning furnaces of the Bible, could be Bergen-Belsen, could be Valhalla, could be hell, could be heaven. Guess what? It’s all of those. But not much more.
To avoid such results, other German artists have opened up their metaphoric palette to include either humor (Sigmar Polke’s daffy takes on Germany’s garish postwar commercial culture) or sly abstraction (Gerhard Richter’s Lesende manages to trump all of Kiefer’s stabs at spirituality by painstakingly rendering a shaft of light falling on a reading girl’s neck). Current wunderkind Neo Rauch does both in his ’50s sci fi–<\d>meets–<\d>Diego Velázquez canvases. Comparing artists by nationality is lame — and maybe one of Kiefer’s points is that art offers no way out — but c’mon, man, could he be more stereotypically heavy German?
Here and there, Kiefer does deliver some insightful chuckles. Those dried sunflower seeds raining down on a gouache vortex could be a play on Vincent van Gogh. The lethal-looking sculptures of enormous books fanned out and standing on their spines might be a nod to Richard Serra (sure enough, Serra’s Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift [1969, 1995], which looks like what would happen if one of those books fell down, is at the end of the exhibition). That broken motherboard at the top of a ziggurat is kind of funny. So is the smashed toilet bowl signifying the biblical breaking of the vessels.
All mildly amusing, but nothing compared to the moment when, while taking notes near a ginormous lead-plated canvas, I was told by a security guard that I couldn’t use a pen in the galleries. Too risky near the art, he said, and handed me a pencil. Sure, pencils are made of graphite now, but I still fell out over the irony. Which spurred me to consider that maybe Kiefer’s having the last laugh after all — the crowds thronging his show had been breathing in lead dust the whole time. The afterlife may be nearer than we think.