Note: This exhibition is scheduled to close on 1/21/07.
The work of German artist Anselm Kiefer, even the most recent work, looks like the product of a long-dead era, though he’s only 61 years old. SFMOMA is offering a rare opportunity to explore Kiefer’s distinctive achievement in an exhibition called “Heaven and Hell,” which closes soon. This is the first major survey of Kiefer’s work in the United States since 1987. The project was organized by Michael Auping at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and San Francisco is the final venue. The exhibit includes paintings, drawings, and sculpture made over a 35-year period.
Most of the exhibit shows Kiefer at his most monumental, solemn, and hieratic. There are sculptures made of lead that require cranes to lift them. There are paintings large enough to serve as stage sets. The scale signifies the grandeur of Kiefer’s themes, which include the Nazi catastrophe, the failure of scientific rationalism, and humankind’s search for spiritual knowledge across the centuries. It is a lonely grandeur: social life is entirely excluded. If the show had a soundtrack, you would hear deep groaning basses and cellos, doomsday trumpets, and shimmering orchestral ostinatos.
To fully prepare, you would need to understand the large array of cultural references that are threaded through the exhibit. In addition to the Nazi regime, Nazi architecture, and the Holocaust, there is the Kabbalah, Nordic mythology, Gnosticism, the Icarus myth, alchemy, astrology, the Aztecs, star charts (with NASA identification numbers), and much more. There is the English Renaissance mystic Robert Fludd, the early German artist Albrecht Dürer, and the 20th-Century Jewish Romanian poet Paul Celan. The list goes on.
You also need to come to terms with the work’s uningratiating, even abrasive, visual qualities. Several glass cases contain large burlap books with pages covered by charred material. There are huge books, and a fighter plane, made of lead sheeting, whose color hovers between oppressiveness and luminosity. Throughout the paintings, the colors tend to be melancholy and sour. There are charred areas, and streaks that resemble grease and oil. Even the whites can look poisonous. Materials such as clay, straw, and shattered porcelain, and sheets of lead are incorporated, along with sculptural devices and wire—even a circuit board in one case. The painted surfaces are cracked, flaking, and otherwise distressed. (Kiefer leaves his paintings outdoors for long periods to achieve a weathered effect.) Most of the paintings contain scraps of German text—words and names written in Kiefer's stiff, old-school handwriting.
(There are exceptions to the grim palette. One early painting, which depicts a man in the woods holding a torch, resembles the work of Peter Doig! And in recent years, after relocating to the south of France, Kiefer has introduced flower images into some work.)
All of this—the towering scale, the implied footnotes, the defiance of beauty—is too much for some viewers, even some critics. They respond with barbed words: bombastic, pompous, ponderous, theatrical, cerebral, remote.
The complaints are all true, sometimes. Even in this highly selective show, there are works that misfire. Some are overblown; some are annoying literal. Too often, the subject and composition cannot redeem the desolate palette.
But when Kiefer succeeds, you can be riveted by the imagery and the materiality of the work even before your intellect can start to unravel it. You can feel your thoughts expanding suddenly, and hugely, to take in Kiefer’s drama of fate. Throughout the exhibit there are extraordinary moments. In repeated viewings, the best work retains a breath-taking impact.
Even the learned background of Kiefer’s work is not so great an obstacle as it may appear. It’s possible to understand a good deal just by looking at the work in an unhurried way. Much of the imagery is part of common experience: fire, snakes, storms, ruined landscapes, old books, war planes and ships, star charts. And Kiefer has emphasized the primacy of the images. In the monograph that accompanies the show, he says that he doesn’t read as much as people seem to think. He says, “I read enough to capture images. I read until the story becomes an image. Then I stop reading.”
It’s possible to feel that Kiefer’s work, despite its stubborn air of anachronism, is actually close to certain realities in a world that’s at war again. In a recent interview, he said “I don’t believe in History as an upwards progression” (Anselm Kiefer: Merkaba, 2006). What Kiefer depicts is the failure of the Enlightenment project. However, his investigations of pre-Enlightenment thought don't offer a path forward. They can only suggest that we need to ponder where we are going.
I couldn't secure good quality images for most of the exhibition, so I include only the following:
Top of posting: “Melancholia” (painting) 2004, image from Hirshhorn Museum.
Middle of posting: “Meteoriten (Meteorites)” 1998/2005, my own clandestine snapshot.
End of posting: “Melancholia” (sculpture) 1990-91, image from SFMOMA.