PARIS — Anselm Kiefer’s swashbuckling, material-laden, paint-encrusted canvases and “alchemical” vitrines supposedly transport us into thick intellectual zones of passion for German history and land. That they come across as turgid landscapes of expressionistic phallic fecundity may be more than a side issue. But millions of people love his ponderous paintings and sculptural cargo for precisely that reason. The work is certainly mature in its “spontaneous,” neo-expressionist technique, and lacks nothing in the way of stabs at profound thought — there is always a heap of cultural and historic data behind each piece to weigh it down. From “Heroisches Sinnbild I” (“Heroic Symbol I,” 1969–70) to “Siegfried vergißt Brünhilde” (“Siegfried Forgets Brunhilde,” 1975) and “Für Paul Celan: Aschenblume” (“For Paul Celan: Ash Flower,” 2006), Kiefer dabbles in genres as various as farce, melodrama, and the epic homage.
Sixty of his solemn and so-so paintings, an installation, a large ensemble of vitrines, works on paper, and a few very good artist’s books make up Kiefer’s first retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. The highest praise that I can offer this lumbering collection of coagulated visual dramas is the doubt of my own taste in painting that it occasioned.
First, such hippopotamus-scaled works of mature, male potency suggest to me more the mausoleum than the moment. The paintings are more durable than imaginative, like a collection of sturdy old furniture, and invite comparisons with the happy valiancy and cunning styles I have seen in retrospectives of Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. Whose material excellencies and atonements capture my affection and instinct best? Which artist best elicits spontaneous emotions of pleasure, rather than a sense of obligatory intellectualization and subservience to moral duty? Which artist seduces best through a warm and humorous temperament? My answer to these questions is never Kiefer.
Swollen from the confluence of heroic myth and regret, Kiefer has been hailed as a titan of painting, but I see him more as a cyclops — with his one eye placed on the back of his head, looking to the past. Displayed under glass in his long vitrine environment, for example, is a battered, bygone world from the industrial age. Old machines, rusty metal scraps, plants, photographs, drawings, and lead strips and objects are jammed into glass boxes. All the mythic literary pitches for the reawakening of memory, the importance of the Kabbalah, and the mourning of Yiddish culture, also look backward. Such weighty historic subject matter takes my eyes off his huge and clunky paintings. Such backward-looking themes distract me from the work’s clotted, dull surfaces and send my attention to the back of my head, where I find skepticism lurking, even as I admire his ethical astuteness. In another example, the hyperbolic materiality that forecasts both a reawakening of painting and (post-Nazi) German consciousness, “Palette am Seil” (“Palette suspended on a chord,” 1977), seems to be more about a swinging tombstone than the painterly moment. The work’s lugubrious materiality lacks the fluid, deft touch that speaks best to the contemporary mood of nimbleness. Even one of the best paintings in the show, “Für Paul Celan: Aschenblume,” seems frozen in the burnt tundra of the past.
The retrospective’s other standout painting, “Osiris und Isis” (1985–87), is a vast and dense network of mounting, interconnected, and diminishing steps. It has an Egyptian title, but visually recalls Chichen Itza and other Mayan temples of the Yucatán Peninsula. But most of the paintings here are strenuously trolling for pretentious profundity. In “Varus” (1976), for instance, a bloodied landscape evokes Publius Quinctilius Varus, the Roman governor of Germania who, in 9 CE, lost his entire army at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in a defeat to Arminius, the first defender of the German homeland. Kiefer footnotes the painting by inscribing among the trees’ branches the names of poets and scholars who have elaborated on Varus’s story. This painting-cum-illustration and other, mostly bluish gray or brownish, crusty, and earthy images, are thick in surface and mood. The visible spikes of straw in “Margarethe” (1981) made my skin itch. In the less fervent “Die Orden der Nacht” (“The Orders of the Night,” 1996), subtlety and complexity are sacrificed in favor of stark contrasts between man and nature, suggestive of folklore allegory. The stodgy and trite “Resumptio” (1974) suggests another announcement of the return from the dead of gooey, muscular paint application, albeit rather dull in hue. Prima facie, gunk has risen!
For me, Richter’s paintings are much more rewarding, sleek, and suggestive of today. Yet the sum total of Kiefer’s retrospective tends to be more interesting than any particular painting or sculpture in it. You really don’t have to believe in the murky myth messiness — or ponder the belabored subject matter — to find his retrospective physically impressive. But in light of this behemoth show I found myself favorably reconsidering the malleable benefits of the digital. His mimesis mode, which verges on illustration, strikes me as distinctly less compelling than a more visionary, imaginative one — like Richter’s and, especially, Polke’s. I cannot take Kiefer’s heavy, materialistic side in these questions, even as I can respect him and his side. His less-than-glorious compositional sense seems to be more concerned with the center than with the overall or peripheral; his emotional drive more with tragedy than sexy or goofy romance. His sense of history deals more with the episodic and consecutive than with the gaiety of simultaneity.
What Kiefer once did so well with his books was to re-materialize our scale of expectations concerning the experience of reading them. He pleasurably infantilized us by overwhelming our memories of a book’s size and texture. But these Jackson Pollock-scaled, overindulgently “heroic,” and materially overloaded paintings and sculptures tip over into a feeling of grandiosity that neither seduces me nor engages my capacity for the imaginative. The work imposes itself too strongly and impedes interpretative participation.