Anselm Kiefer

When Anselm Kiefer took the stage at 92nd Street Y last night, it wasn’t as the artistic-political bad boy the artist became famous as in the 60s and 70s, nor was it the epic mythologist of the 80s and 90s. Now, Kiefer cuts a figure of mischievous respect, a patrician of the contemporary art world whose work, unlike most of his peers, has actually retained its vitality and provocative nature over the years.

Kiefer’s conversation covered everything from the influence of religion on his work to the inspiration of ruins, the artist’s birth in a cave during World War II, and his opinion that all art produced during the Third Reich is “shit.”

The artist spoke with curator and longtime friend Sir Norman Rosenthal, creator of such seminal exhibitions as Sensation and A New Spirit of Painting.What follows is a series of choice quotes from Kiefer’s conversation, plus some needed context to the artist’s super classy German accent.

Kiefer and Rosenthal traced a path through the artist’s career, with intermittent slides shown behind the pair. They kicked off with a discussion of the context of the artist’s emerging career in the 1960s, the aftermath of World War II in Germany, and early watercolors.

On the ever-present impact of the past,

Germany never went back to zero after the war, there is always the burden of history on your back.

The artist discussed how Germany could never be rid of its Nazi past, no matter how much economic reforms and educational improvement covered it over. This whitewashing provoked him to make his early works, photos and paintings of himself and other figures giving the Nazi salute. These paintings are reminders that “lost history is never dead, because history if from us. We form the history.”

Anselm Kiefer, “Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome of Heaven” (1970) (image from

Neither the art that came after nor during the Third Reich really represented anything about German culture, Kiefer says, “Paintings, sculpture, it was all shit.” So he set out to uncover a German history that was being hidden. World War II was given only three weeks in the artist’s education. Paintings like “Man in a Forest” and “Germany’s Spiritual Heroes” renew a German heritage of poets, philosophers, a personal history for Kiefer, who often takes inspiration from writers.

On the arduous process of finishing a painting:

Some paintings were started in the 70s, and they’re still not finished. For me it’s not the question to find some finished thing, it’s a process. The process is the most important.

Kiefer likes to keep his paintings together because of this process, “the paintings speak to each other,” he says. The process is all part of the life of a work of art:

Paintings, operas, don’t stop for centuries. Works get discovered, rediscovered, and 50 years later in a different context, the painting could’ve changed completely.

The fact that his paintings sometimes fall apart, the tar-like chunks dropping to gallery floors, are just part of the works’ lives, parts the artist enjoys.

On the purpose of a painting and the difficulty of fulfilling it:

It creates a new context. It is something different. It demonstrates another possibility of connection between things … When you want to create a new context, it has to be very well defined, otherwise it doesn’t work — it’s a cliché.

On the prevalence of ruins and disused architecture and spaces in his work:

The ruins for me are the beginning. With the debris, you can construct new ideas. They are symbols of the beginning.

Anselm Kiefer’s “Jericho” towers at the Academy of London (image from

The idea of loss and the past became an important focus of the talk, ranging from the influence of ancient cultures to the inevitability of disappearance:

Of course ancient culture is relevant. We come from somewhere. [Our] movement isn’t just into the future, it’s into the past and into the future at the same time.

There is so much lost. All the dinosaurs are lost. A lot of things disappear all the time … With a painting, there are 95 options to go forward, I have to give up 94 of them. Each decision is losing options. It’s a struggle.

The artist often makes use of photographs as surfaces for painting, covering over his own shots. On paintings versus photographs:

Painting is several levels, they have histories. The photograph is a moment. It’s interesting to combine the two because there is a tension between a moment and a history.

On the often massive scale of his work, when asked, Does it need to be as big as it is?:

No, it is only my temperament. Scale is completely unimportant.

And the final question from Rosenthal, via Kant: is art a moral imperative?

I think art has nothing to do with morals. Art today can be immoral, in one hundred years it is moral.

The talk and his upcoming show at Gagosian might be a victory lap for an artist well-established in the art world, but that’s no reason to assume that Kiefer doesn’t still have guts and something to prove against the universe. The only things that marred an otherwise interesting talk were the loose nature of the conversation, and thus, the loose nature of the attention the audience paid to the speakers. Nevertheless, the event provided an interesting and rare opportunity to hear Kiefer speak in his own work.

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...