I think it is beautiful to be justified (historically).
Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.
ANSELM KIEFER is one of the few artists working today who have transcended the vicissitudes and fashions of the contemporary art world. His stature among artists working after World War II is undisputed. Since his controversial exhibition at the German pavilion at the 1980 Venice Biennale, which thrust him onto the international stage, Kiefer has consistently produced provocative and allusive work of monumental scope and ambition.
Over a forty-year career, Kiefer has maintained the viability of painting as a potent means of artistic expression in an increasingly digital age, as mechanical reproduction and “post-studio” production have become standard fare. Further, Kiefer has almost singlehandedly kept alive the ability of art to ask “the ultimate questions,” as Paul Tillich called them. His work connects art to philosophy, literature, and history; explores spirituality and transcendence; and attempts to plumb the deep truths of human life. In fact, Kiefer is the most prominent artist of the last several decades to presume art’s capacity (and responsibility) to respond to religious and spiritual questions, questions he believes to still be at the center of human experience. In a recent introduction to Kiefer’s work, Matthew Biro lauds the artist for continuing to ask “big, almost outmoded, questions concerning art and existence,” including the question, “can faith and spiritual belief be represented in the contemporary age?”
Because he has developed a broad and expansive spirituality, Kiefer poses several challenges to a critical assessment of his work. This worldview, in which religions, mystical and esoteric traditions, and ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, and Teutonic myths all operate harmoniously, is one of the strengths—and chief weakness—of Kiefer’s artistic project.
Because Kiefer himself speaks often and specifically about how his work expresses and interacts with religion and spirituality, the temptation for viewers and critics is to take his sentences at face value and simply apply them to his works, making them illustrations that serve his ideas. The particular artifacts Kiefer produces, whether paintings or installations, sculptures or books, can thus appear too directly linked to his words, his intentions, his agency.
In addition, because his work relies on fragments from exotic and obscure religious and mythical systems, it solicits iconographical analysis that seeks to decode its mystery exclusively through the means that the artist himself provides. Critic Charles Harrison describes this unusual problem this way:
It is in the nature of Kiefer’s work that it furnishes iconographers and littérateurs just the kinds of career opportunities in pseudo-explanation and exegesis which were severely restricted by the abstract art of postwar modernism.
In fact, much of the critical literature on Kiefer’s work amounts precisely to this—following the trails of his sentences or digging deeper into his titles and the names he inscribes on his canvases. The result can be a false impression that an explanation of a myth or religious tradition is identical to experiencing the work itself.
As critic Andreas Huyssen puts it, “one of the characteristics of Kiefer’s work seems to be that it is both easily accessible and subtly hermetic.” The result is that the artist’s words can tend to make the meaning of his works either too obvious or too obscure. Either problem can undermine the integrity of the exchange between the work of art and the viewer who stands before it.
Contra Kiefer/Pace Kiefer
Although a work of art is the result of an artist’s agency, intentions, beliefs, and a host of other conscious and unconscious concerns, its experience is not limited to the artist’s horizon. Rather, the work of art leaves the studio and turns toward the world to speak to the viewer—and even to the artist.
T.S. Eliot once said that the meaning of a poem exists somewhere between the poem and the reader. And so it is this “space between” that a work of art creates, transforming the viewer, if only briefly, from a subject to an object—from a doer (interpreter) to a receiver (hearer). It is this moment—when the work of art makes a claim on the viewer—which Rilke describes in his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (1908):
…for there is no angle from which
It does not see you. You must change your life.
A work of art is not inert. It speaks and so makes the viewer receptive, even passive. Moreover, “You must change your life” is a claim that contradicts the viewer and her comfortable presuppositions, and can even contradict the intentions of the artist.
The task of the critic is to create the space necessary for the work of art to speak, to contradict, and to otherwise make the viewer the receiver of an aesthetic confrontation. The challenge posed by the work of a well-known and often interpreted artist like Kiefer is the disappearance of this experiential space to hear his work in fresh ways.
And this is a particular challenge for an artist like Kiefer whose words circumscribe—even limit—the horizon of his work, fighting against its independent integrity. An artist does not make work to express what she knows but to discover what she does not yet know. This is something artists recognize but against which all struggle. The work of art thus makes the artist into a viewer as well. It speaks to its maker in a voice both familiar and unfamiliar, transforming her into a receiver, making a claim on the artist herself.
Kiefer’s spiritual cosmos, so seductive and appealing to a religious audience, can also shield the viewer from the confrontation that his work can offer, closing rather than maintaining the space between work and viewer, insulating the viewer from hearing the work say, “you must change your life.” In order to be with Kiefer’s work, it will be necessary at times to interpret Kiefer’s words against it, freeing the work to live beyond them.
An ever-increasing refrain of Kiefer’s is that history is cyclical. He observes, “A spiraling cycle is at work here, and not an ascending line. No Eschaton.” Yet as much as he wants his work to corroborate these beliefs, it contradicts them by forcing the viewer to experience the fullness of the present moment, a present that is more than a glimpse of history curved in on itself, circling round and round like a carousel. The sheer physical presence of Kiefer’s artifacts—the weight of the lead, the sunflower seeds that spill onto the ground, the shards and chunks of pigment on the paintings—brings the heroic, tragic, and evil actions of a specific past to the viewer’s present, into the now, confronting us with our responsibility to that past. These artifacts ultimately fight against Kiefer’s Nietzschean worldview of eternal returns, breaking out of the vitrine of myth in which Kiefer seals them, in order to ask the viewer a single question:
Where do you stand?
This innocuous little question reveals a wound, perhaps the wound of human experience—the anxiety of a troubled conscience as she stands before herself, the world, and God. It is what is implied by the claim on us made by Rilke’s statue. The world is not right, you are not right, and yet you still must give an account. The work of art thus opens up a provocative theological space.
Anselm Kiefer was born in 1945, just months before the end of the Second World War, in Donaueschingen, a small village in the Black Forest in the south of Germany. The town was occupied by the French and littered with the remains of destroyed buildings that left an indelible mark on his imagination. “As a child,” Kiefer recalls, “I had no toys; our house was bombed.” The family was Roman Catholic, and the Latin mass was formative in revealing to him the sacramental power of words and images and imbuing him with an imagination sensitive to transcendence.
After beginning studies in law and Romance languages at the University of Freiburg, Kiefer spent three weeks at the Dominican monastery in La Tourette, which was designed by Le Corbusier. He recalled:
It was a point in my life when I wanted to think quietly about the larger questions. Churches are the stages for transmitting knowledge, interpreting knowledge and ideas of transcendence. It’s a history of conflicts and contradictions. A church is an important source of knowledge and power. Le Corbusier knew that. I stayed there for three weeks in a cell. I thought about things.
The result was a decision to study art. And so he transferred his major and graduated with an art degree in 1969.
Although Kiefer did not study with him formally, Joseph Beuys exerted a profound influence on him in the years immediately after he finished his degree. The enigmatic, shamanistic performance artist provided Kiefer with a place to stand to face the world as an artist, a role that was priestly, spiritual, perhaps even sacramental, a role that stood in German history—amid pain and suffering both personal and collective—offering hope.
“To Write Poetry after Auschwitz is Barbaric”
In 1968 and ’69 Kiefer produced a series of photographic “interventions” featuring the artist making the “Sieg heil” gesture in his studio and in front of various European monuments and tourist sites. Published in a handmade artist’s book entitled Occupations, the photographs created a firestorm, violating an unspoken postwar taboo on the evocation of the Nazi past, including allusions to the mythic and spiritual imagery that the Nazis had appropriated. Biro observes, “Kiefer used the book format to conjure a portrait of a dangerous German creator who constructs himself through symbolic actions and artifacts.”
Faced with the complete cooption of the German creative imagination, which tainted the artistic and literary traditions—indeed, the language itself—the postwar German artist found himself paralyzed, deprived of the myths that had shaped German artistic and literary production for centuries. As theorist Theodor Adorno famously put it, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Kiefer’s response was to create space for the artist in postwar Germany, not by creating new forms, but by directly appropriating those that had been hijacked by Nazism, confronting history through the myths that fed the Holocaust, including the idea of the spiritual, philosophical, and artistic superiority of German culture.
But Kiefer did more. He assumed guilt. According to Germano Celant, Kiefer “turned himself into a passive actor: he accused himself of a sin and a crime so that he could serve as the foundation for a premise for conscious rebirth.” In the late sixties, fighting for a way out, creatively and existentially, Kiefer found his authentic artistic voice through the “decision to be ‘guilty’ and ‘useless’ and thus a dead creature that finds its rebirth in death.” This rebirth could only come through the direct confrontation of history in the present. Celant continues, “To become a person, and then an artist, Kiefer was aware that he had to delve into this shame and this tragedy, coming up with images rather than explanations.”
The power of the Occupations project emerges from Kiefer’s creative intuition that history and myth must be faced up to in the present, where Kiefer stood, whether nude or in drag, in his studio or before public monuments. In these complex and disturbing works, in which he refused to exonerate himself or judge through (active) condemnation, Kiefer stands passively, literally before culture, before the viewer, before himself and God, as one who is willing to be judged, who does not stand outside German history.
This concrete stand within the messiness of history, through the myths and images that inflamed the German imagination, created great problems for his German-language critics. In Occupations, Kiefer is not judging, condemning, or justifying. He is being judged. His work is creating a space to wait for redemption to come from someplace else.
It is not insignificant that Occupations is an artist’s book. The book is an important medium for Kiefer, one associated not only with knowledge but with the German legacy of woodcuts, printmaking, the Gutenberg press, and the Nazi book burnings. Kiefer’s handmade books also evoke commonplace books and photo albums, a connection that reveals the interweaving of public and private myths, collective and personal meaning.
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Kiefer continued to reconfigure and reinvent the role of the postwar German artist as one who can stand before the world and speak. Many paintings of this period feature the image of a palette, with titles like Painting = Burning, To Paint, The Painter’s Studio, and To the Unknown Painter.
Kiefer’s artistic project is shaped by a desire to make poetry after Auschwitz, to make beauty in the face of an abyss of ugliness and evil, and a willingness to risk disclosing the chasm between the horrors of the past and the hope that art can offer—to stand before the broken world, as he puts it, as “a storyteller with a broken story.”
Landscapes, Interiors, and Alchemy
After the 1980 Venice Biennale, Kiefer devoted the next decade to painting large-scale architectural interiors and landscapes with explicit and at times disturbing references to the Holocaust. These paintings confront the viewer who stands before them, evoking an experience of space that critic Donald Kuspit calls “simultaneously claustrophobic and agoraphobic.” Covered with thick, roughly textured paint, filled with found objects, composed with dramatic diagonals and foreshortened perspective, these paintings declare their physical presence. Bringing the past into the present through an interweaving of history and myth, they make a claim on the viewer. They demand a response.
In the mid-1980s Kiefer began to explore the role of Judaism in the development of German culture. In preparation for a visit to Jerusalem in 1984 for an exhibition of his work at the Israel Museum, Kiefer discovered the Kabbalah and other forms of Jewish mysticism through the writings of Gershom Scholem. For Kiefer this tradition became part of a concerted effort “to bring Judaism back to the core of German culture.” His interest in Jewish mysticism coincided with a growing attraction to other forms of esoterism, most notably the practice of alchemy—the ancient attempt to transform base metals into gold. For Kiefer, alchemy became a metaphor for his artistic effort to transform, redeem, and even justify the past.
Shulamite (1983) is a powerful example of his interest in Judaism [see Plate 1]. The title comes from Paul Celan’s haunting poem “Death Fugue” (1948). Celan is a constant presence in Kiefer’s work, especially this refrain:
your ashen hair Shulamite we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s
roomy to lie
The burned hair of a Jewish woman (Celan alludes to the Shulamite woman who is the beloved in the Song of Solomon) is appropriated by Kiefer as a part of an alchemical attempt at purification. The painting presents a burned-out neoclassical Nazi building, Wilhelm Kreis’s 1939 Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldiers. The word “Shulamite” is scrawled in the upper left-hand corner, activating the physical presence and literal materiality of the painting while simultaneously bearing witness to the woman’s presence, both in the architectural space rendered in the painting and in the space of the viewer. The hall, destroyed and purified by fire, becomes a memorial to the Shulamite, and also an oven, like the athanor used in the first stage of the alchemical process called nigredo, in which the base materials were cooked, “putrified,” and blackened by fire. Here, life emerges only through death. Covered in ash, chunks of paint, and other detritus, Kiefer’s paintings often reek of mortality.
Ash Flower (1983–97) continues this exploration [see Plate 3]. This massive painting, on which Kiefer worked for over fifteen years, features another Nazi interior, a ceremonial hall designed by Albert Speer. It receives its name from Celan’s poem “I Am Alone” (1952):
I am alone, I set the ashen flower
in a glass full of pure blackness.
A coating of ash and dirt give the surface a dull grayish color; the illusion of the interior is destroyed by a large dried sunflower, which hangs upside down, dividing the painting and spilling its dried seeds onto the ground, into the space of the viewer. Kiefer’s use of ceramic shards, ropes, sunflowers, and other found materials removes aesthetic distance, preventing the painting from being experienced merely as an image. It is an artifact that actively confronts, even implicates, the viewer.
Kiefer’s interest in alchemy and the Kabbalah led him to even older and more obscure sources, especially the mythology of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. He began to develop an obsession with what he calls “unknown origins.” In Osiris and Isis (1985–87), Kiefer uses the Egyptian myth of the goddess Isis resurrecting her husband by searching out and bringing together his severed body parts as a metaphorical framework to reflect on the theme of life emerging from death [see Plate 2]. Some commentators, following Kiefer’s lead, have concluded that the painting addresses the fission and fusion of nuclear energy, and is a response to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Yet unlike Shulamite and Ash Flower, Osiris and Isis operates in a disembodied mythic register that disengages the viewer from concrete history, despite the powerful physical presence of the painting, with its massive pyramid and jutting shards of ceramic.
According to Andreas Huyssen, one of his severest and most insightful critics, “Kiefer’s best work derives its strength from the at times unbearable tension between the terror of German history and the intense longing to get beyond it with the help of myth.” But Huyssen also concedes that one reason Kiefer’s work “is so ambiguous and difficult to read is that it seems to lack any moorings in contemporary reality.” As his interests have shifted from the myths that underwrote the Holocaust to more global ones, Kiefer’s notion of history has not followed.
Or, perhaps better put, Kiefer’s notion of history as a series of concrete events has dissolved into myth. Rather than subject himself, as in earlier work, to both history and myth, standing at their intersection as a postwar German artist in search of justification, Kiefer creates his own mythical worldview, one in which history, disarmed of any specificity or relationship to the present, disappears.
The result is a hermetically sealed worldview that either swallows up the present or ignores it. As Kiefer says, “All this is only a collaboration on a great story that will continue forever.” Kiefer creates this story by assimilating, in addition to the Kabbalah and alchemy, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the work of sixteenth-century Jewish mystic Isaac Luria, the second-century Gnostic Valencius, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the book of Exodus, Manichaeism, and Teutonic and Greek mythology.
The beauty of Kiefer’s project is found in the sheer vastness, magnitude, and form of this hermetic circularity, the constructed universe that generates his artifacts. Kiefer claims, “the further back in time I go, the further into the future.” Although he claims, “people can see my point without knowing the myths,” Kiefer’s fictional cosmos, a product of his words, transforms the viewer of his works from an active participant into a passive spectator by eliminating the concrete ground of the present, the “now” that a work of art enacts.
Lutheran Excursus: The Coram-Relationship
In Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, Gerhard Ebeling suggests that coram (Latin for “before”) is the “key word to Luther’s understanding of being.” The human being stands before himself, the world, and God. This “coram-relationship,” as Ebeling calls it, “reveals that the fundamental situation of man is that of a person on trial.” He continues, “The fundamental situation of the coram-relationship is existence coram Deo, existence in the sight of God, in the presence of God, under the eyes of God, in the judgment of God, and in the word of God.”
It is Martin Luther’s particular theological insight that the human being’s posture before the face of God determines his relationship to himself and to the world. The subject of theology for Luther is not merely the contemplation of God; it is God in relationship to the human being. God is the one who justifies the ungodly, the sinful human. The relationship is a passive and receptive one for the human. In fact, Luther defines the human being, drawing on Romans 3:28, as one who is “justified by faith.”
A work of art activates this coram-relationship in a particularly provocative way, revealing to the viewer the foundationally receptive posture that ultimately constitutes his humanity. This is the theological claim that a scrap of canvas smeared with pigment makes on the viewer. It exists in spite of an artist’s words, intentions, whether they are spiritually sensitive or otherwise. And it is this coram-relationship, the viewer standing receptively before the work, which fights against Kiefer’s drive to justify his artifacts through his speech—his mystical words.
A work of art discloses the present. The human being is a restless creature, living perpetually either in the past—fog of regret or nostalgia—or the future—aspirations or fears. But an encounter with a work of art creates the present, gives the present a concrete, felt reality. The coram-relationship operates in this moment—it is the human being standing before himself, his neighbor, God. Now.
A work of art possesses “presence,” as literary critic George Steiner calls it, because it makes present, actualizes the present as the most decisive of moments. It is in the present that history and myth collide. Kiefer’s project, however, is divided. His work declares this present while his words, his own intricately fabricated mythology, resist it. His work opens up the possibility of justification, and his words attempt to offer it. Huyssen’s frustration that Kiefer’s work “lack[s] any moorings in contemporary reality” is justified only if we allow Kiefer’s words to confine his works and follow the letter of his intention.
Yet the works themselves tell us otherwise.
Books, Planes, and Lead
By the late 1980s, Kiefer had made nine artist’s books—those personal commonplace books that served as albums for his photographic performances and notes. At that time Kiefer also began to explore the universal, symbolic function of the book in several large-scale and impossibly ambitious sculpture projects made from lead.
In The High Priestess/Mesopotamia (1985–89), Kiefer built a massive library of large books and folios made of lead and wire, some with writing and images inside, filling two large sets of bookshelves marked with the handwritten words “Tigris” and “Euphrates” [see Plate 5]. The monumental environment of these heavy, useless books offers an aesthetic reflection on and experience of the beauty and inaccessibility of knowledge, perhaps also making reference to the loss of ancient manuscripts, the library at Alexandria that was destroyed, the secrets of our “unknown origins,” and lost knowledge that could fix the “broken story.” Says Kiefer, “I make my own books to find my way through the old stories.”
Closely associated with this work is Book with Wings (1992–94), one of numerous sculptures of freestanding winged books [see front cover]. Connoting the myth of Icarus, these magnificent yet oddly incongruous, even awkward wings give a tangible form to the capacity of the book—the quest for knowledge—for both transcendence and tragedy.
As with most artists, Kiefer’s materials are an inextricable part of his works’ content. One of his most unusual and provocative choices is lead. Kiefer confesses:
Lead affects me more than other metals…. Lead has always been a material for ideas. In alchemy, this metal stood on the lowest rung of the process of extracting gold. On the one hand, lead was bluntly heavy and connected to Saturn, the hideous man—and on the other hand it contains silver and was also already the proof of the other spiritual level.
If, as Kiefer claims, ambivalence is the “central theme” of his work, lead is a fitting choice, embodying the equivocation at the work’s crux. Lead is of the earth; it embraces death and debasement. Yet it carries with it the potential for alchemical transformation.
Perhaps Kiefer’s most stunning use of lead was his installation of several gigantic, ominous, leaden German fighter planes at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 1991, just two years after the Berlin Wall came down. One of the most evocative, Melancholia (1989), borrows from Albrecht Dürer’s famous and enigmatic woodcut of the same title. The woodcut shows an angel unable to fly, who suffers from black bile, the melancholic fluid which affects artists and poets. Nearby rests a large stone polyhedron form. Kiefer has attached the same mysterious polyhedron, here made of glass and filled with dirt, to the wing of his plane. (The polyhedron and the planes would later return to the artist’s studio, where they sit like abandoned relics of unknown origin.)
The science of alchemy, despite a storied history that has captured the imaginations of artists and scientists alike, as well as seducing a generation of curators and critics who follow Kiefer’s project, works only metaphorically or allegorically. Its power exists only in Kiefer’s words. Donald Kuspit observes, “for Kiefer art is failed alchemy.” The fighter planes, like Dürer’s angel, are grounded. Kiefer’s titles, statements, and explanations attempt to transform them and give them life—but a kind of life that might be against their wills.
In the mid-1980s, upon returning from two years abroad in Asia, Australia, Mexico, and the United States during which he stopped exhibiting work, Kiefer quietly began to develop La Ribaute, a new studio located in Barjac, a nineteenth-century silkworm nursery in the south of France. Kiefer began to devote most of his energy to La Ribaute, transforming the eighty-six-acre complex into his most all-encompassing and ambitious work of art [see Plate 3]. For the next fifteen years, all his exhibitions would be staged re-performances of installations at La Ribaute. His studio compound would become the space out of which and for which his work was intended to function, an aesthetic world that gives the work meaning, a world generated by Kiefer’s logos.
Kiefer’s interest in the environmental aspect of artistic practice reflects a deep Romantic identification with the late-nineteenth-century interest in the Gesamtkunstwerk, that is, a “total work of art” that would include all of the arts, a comprehensive aesthetic experience. This ideal motivated not only Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes in the early twentieth century but also Wagner in the nineteenth. Kiefer’s vision, perhaps, is even more ambitious, and not limited merely to the creation of a total, synthetic aesthetic experience; his aim is somehow to create works of art that bring into the world—that “disclose,” as Heidegger would say—being. “Art,” Kiefer observes, “cannot live on itself. It has to draw on a broader knowledge. It needs to bear the scars of the world, the wounds of life.” La Ribaute, then, with its tunnels, towers, cellars, hangars, and ruins, is the source and stage for Kiefer’s artifacts of creative agency, the place where they fulfill Kiefer’s verbal intentions. Yet the question remains: is La Ribaute, as an extension of Kiefer’s mythical worldview, an engagement with the world, with history, or a retreat from it, an attempt to insulate his work (and himself) from the present, perhaps even to keep it from speaking in its own voice?
Two of Kiefer’s most ambitious projects are installations taken directly from La Ribaute. Both Seven Heavenly Palaces (2004–5), presented in Bicocca Hangar, Milan, and Falling Stars (2007) at the Grand Palais, Paris, feature the concrete ruins that punctuate Kiefer’s studio grounds and create a skyline of sorts. Taking its name from Jewish Merkabah mysticism, Seven Heavenly Palaces consists of massive reconstructions of the towers of concrete ruins Kiefer had built at La Ribaute, importing the landscape, as it were, into the confines of a massive airplane hangar. Sternfall offers a more picturesque environment, consisting of three broken concrete towers, with surrounding dirt and dried sunflowers sprouting from the windows, creating a radical disjunction between Kiefer’s fabricated “ruins” from an unidentified past and the modern art deco design of the Grand Palais.
These installations reveal an important characteristic of all of Kiefer’s work: age. His work appears old, with its patina of wear and tear, its look of having been buried and rediscovered, of having survived, perhaps barely, the test of time, and of emerging from burial in a new world. It is as if Kiefer had unearthed these artifacts on the grounds of La Ribaute, as if they bear scars from the world.
In an early essay on the artist, Kuspit writes, “Kiefer shows us that art is a useful way of staging the world, abstractly bracketing it so that its meaning structures can become evident.” This “staging” is most clear in one of Kiefer’s most unusual projects. As a natural extension of these installations and of the theatrical implications of his work at La Ribaute, Kiefer was invited to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the reopening of the Opéra Bastille on the bicentennial of the storming of the Bastille prison. The resulting performance was a collaboration with clarinetist and composer Jörg Widmann entitled In the Beginning (2009). Kiefer’s stage set consists of twelve towers from La Ribaute, covered in ash and dust, symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel. Two women weave through the ruins, reciting passages from Jeremiah and Isaiah. They are Lilith, Adam’s first wife, according to some Jewish mystical traditions, and Shekhinah, whom Kiefer uses to represent the wandering people of the Jewish diaspora. A handful of women accompany them, building and smashing stones and sweeping the rubble. “There is no plot,” writes a reviewer, “only lamentation after lamentation.”
Yet there is no room even for real lamentation, which cannot exist in a circular world of eternal returns, but only a world in which God has promised redemption, in which his promise and current circumstances seem infinitely far apart. A lament requires faith and hope in a promise.
In the Beginning is a spectacle, an aesthetic artifact, in which the audience can only observe at a distance the compulsive liturgy of gestures and sentences that enact Nietzsche’s Dionysian eternal return. Yet the reality of the Holocaust is not an aesthetic problem but a theological one, one that reveals a wound in the human condition that can neither be explained away by a Panglossian appeal to divine sovereignty nor dissolved into mythic circularity.
Faith, Hope, and Vitrines
In 2010, the early Occupations project returned, now under glass. At Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, New York, Kiefer presented seventy-six unique photographs mounted on lead and burlap, hung from the ceiling of a steel box over thirty-five feet long and eleven feet high. Inside the massive container, the artist’s forty-year-old Nazi gestures are sealed off, ominously quarantined. The only way to glimpse them is through doors in the container left ajar. This most recent iteration of Occupations is the central feature of an impressive environment that Roberta Smith in the New York Times called “effective middlebrow art as catharsis, spectacle with a message.”
In the catalog essay, Marina Warner observed, “the experience his art conveys involves countering linearity and resolving contradictions.” Yet this is precisely the problem with Kiefer’s words: over a period of forty years, his worldview has wrapped his work in a fatalistic, cyclical cloak that deprives it of its capacity to speak otherwise to the viewer, to declare something beyond the way things are. Art bears witness that the world could or should be otherwise. This eschatological hope is what art awakens, if ever so subtly, in the viewer, even if the artist at times resists it.
The vitrines, which contain the detritus of Kiefer’s esoteric worldview, the relics from La Ribaute, silence the work. They are barriers, sealing off the specimen from an encounter with the viewer. They exist merely as witnesses to Kiefer’s words, artifacts of his own myths, his own world. As Smith wryly observed in her review, “Mr. Kiefer has become better and better at making Anselm Kiefers.”
The vitrines deprive the works of their capacity to activate the present for the viewer. The objects inside remain Kiefer’s artifacts, rather than opening out into the world of the viewer, searching, sorting, interpreting the viewer. As Kuspit observes, “Kiefer offers us a parody of creation and re-creation.” Suffocated by the vitrines and other containers, his work is deprived of its capacity to declare, “you must change your life”—a question that brings not only conviction but also the promise of hope, the possibility of change and, the desire for forgiveness.
Kiefer’s most recent work offers no space for hope, only a disembodied knowledge that cycles and recycles. The books, the mythical references, the words about death and rebirth and cyclical nature of history, are ultimately self-referential, a fatalistic acceptance, a spirituality that is ultimately contrary to the work he produces.
In the preface to his commentary on Romans, Martin Luther wrote, “faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.” Kiefer’s title Next Year in Jerusalem refers to the traditional refrain at the Passover Seder that expresses the messianic hope for the restored temple in Jerusalem. Yet there is no place for Elijah in Kiefer’s installation, no space for an arrival from outside of the system he has created. There is knowledge in Kiefer’s world, but there is no faith, and therefore no hope. There is nothing on which Kiefer is able to daringly stake his life. Curator Michael Auping has observed, “When he talks about hope, Kiefer does so with a weary look.” Kiefer’s achievement is his willingness to risk going deep in a shallow world, yet even his depth becomes insular when he fails to listen to the potential that his own work offers.
In response to a question from Kuspit in an early interview about the beauty of his work, Kiefer responded:
I have spent five years on one painting; for it to end up merely as “beautiful” hardly seems worth the trouble. I think it is beautiful to be justified (historically).
The historical justification that Kiefer desires for his paintings can only come, as the artist himself observes, from someplace outside. His work can only be the recipient, the receiver—not the actor.
Hannah Arendt knew this. It is not myth that solves the problems of history; it is forgiveness and promise. She spent a significant part of her postwar career working to rehabilitate the work of her partner, Martin Heidegger, whose involvement with the Nazi party compromised his legacy and was a source of fascination to Kiefer.
Yet forgiveness and promise must come from the outside, and must come in the present moment. “For no man,” as Arendt writes, “can forgive himself and no one can be bound by a promise made only to himself.”
Kuspit observed that “there is no hope in Kiefer’s works, only inevitability.” Yet in Kiefer’s hands, even this inevitability speaks, manifest in an epic forty-year career that bears witness to something else, hope in spite of itself, in spite of his words and his weariness, hope not in unknown origins or in a cyclical history that avoids judgment, but in the production of a remarkable body of work—paintings, sculpture, installations, books, and environments—that yearn to reveal what art is particularly equipped to disclose: the present. For it is only in that fleeting and often obscured moment that forgiveness, justification, and hope are possible.
Art cannot save us. Yet at its best it bears witness to something “beyond the hills,” as the psalmist writes. And perhaps this is all that we can ask of Kiefer’s remarkable and ambitious project, the ramifications of which he himself has yet to fully grasp.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.