The Production of Age
George A. Magalios
One doesn’t view Anselm Kiefer’s work.
One experiences it.
The German artist is as much a phenomenologist as he is a painter, sculptor and photographer. His works “appear to view” as truths and texts, images and emotions from a mystical other era.
If we are to employ the term “phenomenon” in the context of an artist like Anselm Kiefer we must understand the origins of this rich and meandering word, whose etymological seductions entrapped thinkers as diverse as Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and Robert Rauschenberg, whether or not they were aware of it.
Each of Kiefer’s works is a “think appearing to view” or “a work revealing itself” in the sense that one’s subjectivity is only partially at play. To enter a Kiefer exhibition, whether in a commercial gallery space or one like the Hall Collection Exhibition in Fort Lauderdale, is to acknowledge a historical weight and an intellectual obligation. This intellectual obligation on behalf of the viewer is part of the sacred transaction necessitated, indeed demanded, by the historical gravity and material profundity of Kiefer’s paintings, sculptures, drawings and books.
There is no escaping it.
That Anselm Kiefer is, without question, one of the most significant and poignant artists of our era is now a given even among the most cynical art historians and followers of the so-called “contemporary art world”. At the close of the 20th century and the development of the 21st, no artist possesses the scope, gravity and conscience of the German sculptor, performer, painter, draughtsman, photographer, printmaker and thinker.
Indeed, Kiefer is the polyvalent thinker, the multi and inter-disciplinary artist from a bygone era, one who dwells within different media while not losing sight of a singular vision.
Kiefer is one of the rare artists who creates an oeuvre whose travels across media and utterances provides a dignified testament to the ravages of war, the horror of violence, and the optimistic glimpses of hope. He is certainly one of the most historically-rooted artists, indeed one might say history is the most important (maybe only) conceptual material emanating from his work. This idea of material as concept is not written lightly. What distinguishes modern art from all art previously (apart from its secular starting point) is the primacy of idea over matter.
Conceptual art is only the most extreme manifestation of this evolution. Anselm Kiefer’s work owes its resonance as much to ideas relating to history (the holocaust, World War II, Jewish mythology, the Bible, German guilt) as it does to providing a passageway into the beautiful. In fact, the beautiful and the historical are intimately related in the German’s output and meditations.
In our cynical era of kitsch and weakened emotional conditions employing irony as a transparent shield against melancholy, mortality and decadence, Anselm Kiefer is a brave artist who utilizes his historical moment and geographical heritage to a sublimely masculine effect.
He is brave because he does not shy away from his destiny and his past.
He is courageous because he dares to take the unspeakable horror of World War II and the holocaust and turn it into his most important material. Indeed it is his manipulation (literally the molding, squeezing, fusing and play of both his physical materials (concrete, charcoal, oil paint, etc) and these historical phenomena (the legacy of World War II in Germany and his family’s role within it) that make him the most complex, inter-disciplinary and eloquent artist alive today.
He is messenger and chronicler, poet, and teacher.
Detail from “Let the Earth Be Opened and Send Forth a Savior” by Anselm Kiefer in the Hall Collection, 2006
The Strife Between World and Earth
The Production of Age
Kiefer’s works are beautiful in no small part because he gamely and expertly masters the shabby-chic synthetic aging process aesthetic, which he creates through crafty approaches to weathering. While one can say the concept of “shabby-chic” whether evidenced in artificially-distressed $400 jeans or crassly-weathered second-hand chairs has become a cultural cliché, a sign of our contemporary period’s exhaustion with optimism and the future and a weakened fetishizing of all things nostalgic and lived-in; in Kiefer’s art this aesthetic is it’s own form of stylistic utterance central to his meditations on history and mythology. It is not cynical though it is also not beyond criticism.
Within capitalist culture, the aestheticization of the old in the artificial sense is without basis and is the heightened sign of decadence in our time, one obsessed with the appearance of the “lived-in” or “history” without willing to do the work (both manual and psychological) to achieve it authentically. One sees it everywhere: in synthetic record scratches of digitally-produced pop recordings, in the abjectly pitiful use of filters in photoshop or digital video productions and mainstream cinema, and in the fakery of “faux plastered” walls and ceilings. It seems in many ways the allure of the appearance of age has become a banal signifier of kitsch once-removed and this development is telling for many reasons ranging from a de-historicization of our collective sense of time to a blind, albeit romantic longing for the analog that betrays a latent, if unutterable distrust of the digitization of life and technology everywhere.
In the sculptures and paintings of Anselm Kiefer this obsession with the production of age is essentially a material of time and it’s passing, a formal meditation on history and the placement of the past on the materials of the present.
Kiefer’s employment of this weathering and aging (rusty metals, dried and caked earth, dripped on and stained paintings) may be critiqued for falling prey to the seduction of the idea of “old as better” or “age as profundity” superficial appearance since, as with all simulations, the real is hidden behind representation and mimicking. The artist’s so-called synthetic weathering of his materials and pieces appears to be an integral strategy of his employment of history as a material all its own. Whether or not Kiefer falls prey to capitalism’s lust for nostalgia as a selling point as it relates to the secuctive visual properties of his paintings and sculptures within the contemporary art world is an interesting question worthy of further exploration.
As an element of his aesthetic it is undeniably potent and effective. He is also the first artist to utilize it so profusely, seductively and effectively. Indeed this form of aging is a kind of reverse alchemy, turning new materials into relics and perhaps even a subtle critique of contemporary art’s obsession with the novel and the creation of artworks as new products to be consumed willy-nilly by those with the right purchasing power.
The German Lineage of 20th Century Sculpture
To fully and profoundly appreciate the phenomenon of Kiefer’s oeuvre and the role of the simulated aging within it is to immerse oneself in the emotions and traumas, deaths and elegies of World War II, Germanic Romanticism, Homeric epics, and the Old Testament, all relics whose import transcends history and cultures because they have all attained mythical status within the conscious imaginary and within the artistic output of the past.
His paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, woodcuts and watercolors defy every trend, movement, reaction and style associated with much, If not most, of contemporary art since 1945. A former student of Joseph Beuys, Kiefer may be elucidated as a grand thinker, a believer in gesamtkunstwerk in the Romantic tradition as much as an artist operating within the shadow of the post-World War II German avant-garde (Richter, Baselitz, Lupertz, etc.). In a certain light Kiefer is working within the Romantic Tradition of Wagner and Friedrich; and within the ancient traditions of the Old Testament and the Ancient Greeks.
Under another illumination one may view Kiefer’s paintings within the tradition of architecture and building construction as much as sculpture and the laws of two dimensional rendering. There are many forms of light upon which one may ascertain Kiefer’s historical paths and artistic output. It is this embrace of the past that most distinguishes Kiefer from his contemporaries, most of whom ignore or reject the traditions of art history out of a cynical and empty sense of striving for the novel where the artwork becomes product for consumption.
If every artist must find his/her voice to evolve, mature and assume a place as a major thinker and creator, Kiefer has found many, each of which is grounded in the relationship between human being and earth, which emerges from the strife between World and Earth.
With contemporary art, particularly American work from 1970 onward, operating blindly within the sway of the World’s pull as typified by Pop Art, Conceptual Art and even so-called “Neo-Expressionist” painting (the notable exception being the land art pursuits of Smithson, Heizer and others) Anselm Kiefer, like Beuys before him, moves within a more terrarian (Earth as adjective and adverb) foundation both literally in his use of materials and conceptually with his rootedness within mythologies of the ancient Israelites, the ancient Greeks, and Germanic peoples, to name three.
Anselm Kiefer, “News from the Fall of Troy, 2006, Hall Collection
The Inscription of Legend
News from the Fall of Troy
Indeed this looking back is the focus of “News from the Fall of Troy”, an epic painting from 2005-2006 measuring 25 feet in width. The charred and scarred landscape with its smoldering embers and distant flames is the very depiction of death on Earth without the presence of bodies which are presumably burned beyond recognition or already buried under the surface of history and forgetting.
Inscribed at the top of the painting’s surface, in the picture’s smoky horizon, are various Greek and German names including the work’s title, all in the artist’s loose cursive scrawl, signatures multiplied and the textual foundations or entry points of the literary relationships inherent within.
That Kiefer’s works are immersed in material density and semiotic allusions to mythos and epic stories of ancient times, literally written on the paintings and sculptures, particularly the vitrines, advances the artist’s notion of artist as story-teller. Whereas during the Bronze Age days and nights of Homeric oral story telling taking place in verse and rhyme epic poems were transferred across generations, in the current day, Kiefer has chosen to pictorialize these images and then accentuate them with his inscriptions.
It is not enough to depict and title a work for the German artist. This literal inscribing is its own kind of obviousness, as if the artist did not trust the works to write themselves in the consciences and uncosncisousness of the viewers who behold them. One can critique Kiefer for his heavy-handed and perhaps obvious forays into meaning and the gravity of forgotten histories. Such a critique however is beside the point. The works themselves are not meant to embrace subtlety in execution or meaning as a virtue. There is nothing subtle about war, death, and their telling in the myths of the past. This obviousness, this brazenness is its own act of bravery.
The painting of the Earth in News from the Fall of Tory is represented as death, where the World’s strife of two warring peoples destroys the fields of Troy, where the cost of this expedition is so great that it requires an epic poem, a story to be told for millennia onwards, first executed in verse orally and later preserved in text and attributed to a person called Homer.
Kiefer’s “Fall of Troy” is the visual fictional document of this epic, thousands of years after the fact. It functions as much as a fantasy archaeological record as it does a work of contemporary painting. This philosophical and historiographic understanding of art’s role in life is one of the central elements of the relationship between Kiefer and Joseph Beuys.
The relationship to Joseph Beuys in Kiefer’s oeuvre is especially intriguing considering the latter’s body of vitrines, While Joseph Beuys’s vitrines served as reliquaries to imaginary futures and the traumas of unspeakable pasts, Kiefer’s examples of boxed sculptures take on monumentality where their contained objects become part of an exteriorization of form with the artist’s employment of hand-written scrawls on the outside of the glass and the suspension of objects from the ceiling that enter the top of the vitrines.
This is especially the case in Jacob’s Dream, a sculpture from 2010. The vitrine sculpture consisting of painted cotton dresses, a lead ladder, oil, emulsion and clay. The work is the physical manifestation of a passage from Genesis, the telling of Jacob’s flight from his brother Esau and the dream he had of a ladder where angels descended and ascended to and from heaven. The colloquial, even banal use of the term “Jacob’s Ladder” is avoided as Kiefer prefers to allude to the dream, where the ladder appeared.
This sculpture may be the most obvious depiction of Kiefer’s meditations on the relationship between World and Earth, where heaven is the third psychic space beyond the reach of both and where the leaden ladder, shaky, decrepit, and upon which hang the dresses of dead girls becomes an archaeological finding within the 15 foot tall glass box.
The enormous scale of these vitrine sculptures, some of which are over 20 feet tall, render them mini-chambers, hermetically sealed and theoretical vaults guarding the findings of newly-written archaeological treatises. The vitrines are the very utterance of this strife: their Worldly goods secured from the Earth’s elements, yet not without traces of the Earth’s touch.
A detail from “Rising, Rising, Falling Down,” 2009-2012, a work by Anselm Kiefer at the Margulies Collection
Remembrance and Destiny
The Grounding of the Word
Kiefer himself is adjective, adverb, noun and verb within the grammar of his iconography and his utterances. His works are bigger than statements. They are testaments, if not tragic iterations or meditations with a language and semiotics all their own, deeply rooted in an earth of historical weight and grounding, beyond their time, beyond trend and style all the while replete with a unique series of stylistic and material identifiers. This especially true of his recent concrete tower sculptures, echoes of a post-apocalyptic approach to architecture and remembrance, complete with scrawls in hand-made charcoal and the employment of deformed rebar, of which “Jericho” from 2007 at the Royal Academy of London is a particularly vibrant display.
While most contemporary art is concerned with the escapism and sky-writing of novel concepts, ironic relationships manifesting in passive oppositions to beauty, all at the pursuit of more sales and the illusion of creating a new “product”, truth and history in the service of the titillation of the epically wealthy, Mr. Kiefer’s work embraces the ground as timelessness.
Whereas much of contemporary art, particularly work in the United States, can never escape it’s commodified obsessions with the world as social and sexual ironic discourse, Anselm Kiefer makes artworks that phenomenologically pre-date and antecede such banal trifles in their scope and in their ambition. Mr. Kiefer has meditated on this strife between world and earth better than any artist since Joseph Beuys. Indeed, as a student of Beuys, Kiefer’s oeuvre operates within a certain guiding and binding tradition of Germanic philosophy.
This conflict between World and Earth, between the social and technological aspect of humanity and the organic, natural and metaphysical worlds, is the fundamental crisis of the modern period beginning in earnest with the Industrial developments of Western Europe and reaching their culmination with the digital simulations of all things relational as exhibited in the human obsession with smartphones and social media.
There is no postmodern, no matter how much one may wish it into existence.
Anselm Kiefer is an artist who embraces the historical. In this way he is a quintessentially modern artist who operates within the shadow of high modernity’s darkest moment. Is this understanding of modernity that makes Kiefer’s work so appealing. There is no irony in his oeuvre and yet it is never cloying or insincerely emotive.
There is no room for cynicism here.
Kiefer’s sculptures, paintings and vitrines are the output of a philosophical approach to art-making. It is for this very reason, in the blankness of the current day with the receding and disappearance from view of meaning, beauty and aletheia, that Kiefer’s art speaks so powerfully, so poetically and so hauntingly to those who countenance it and dare to think on its origins, its meanderings and its resonances.
Anselm Kiefer’s work is the conscience of the contemporary. It stands as a series of symbolic history lessons so we may never forget and so we may conceive of the possibility of grounding a new way forward.