Anselm Kiefer, "Für Paul Celan: Aschenblume" (“For Paul Celan: Ash Flower,” 2006), oil, acrylic emulsion, shellac, and burned books burned on canvas (private collection, photo © Charles Duprat)

Anselm Kiefer, “Für Paul Celan: Aschenblume” (“For Paul Celan: Ash Flower,” 2006), oil, acrylic emulsion, shellac, and burned books burned on canvas (private collection, photo © Charles Duprat, all images courtesy the Centre Pompidou) (click to enlarge)

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.

Anselm Kiefer, “Heroisches Sinnbild I” (“Heroic Symbol I,” 1969–70), oil and charcoal on canvas (collection Würth, Künzelsau, photo © Jörg von Bruchhausen) (click to enlarge)

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.

Anselm Kiefer, “Osiris und Isis” (“Osiris and Isis,” 1985–87), oil, acrylic, emulsion, clay, porcelain, lead, copper wire, and printed circuit on canvas (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, purchase through a gift of Jean Stein by exchange the Mrs. Paul L. Wattis Fund and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, © Anselm Kiefer, photo by Ben Blackwell) (click to enlarge)

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!

Anselm Kiefer, “Die Orden der Nacht” (“The Orders of the Night,” 1996), acrylic, emulsion, and shellac on canvas (Seattle Art Museum, photo © Atelier Anselm Kiefer) (click to enlarge)

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.

Anselm Kiefer, “Resumptio” (1974), oil, emulsion, and shellac on burlap (private collection, photo © Atelier Anselm Kiefer) (click to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, “Welt-Zeit — Lebenszeit” (“World Time — Life Time,” 2015), glass, metal, lead, photographs on lead, tar, and ink, (private collection, photo © Georges Poncet) (click to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer, “Margarethe” (1981) oil, acrylic, emulsion, and straw on canvas (The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, © Anselm Kiefer, photo by Ian Reeves) (click to enlarge)

Anselm Kiefer continues at the Centre Pompidou (Place Georges-Pompidou, 4th arrondissement, Paris) through April 18.

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Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion...

20 replies on “Anselm Kiefer’s Heady and Heavy-Handed Behemoths”

      1. I agree, however I highly recommend everyone to balance their perspective on Kiefer by watching the documentary “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow”. To me, Kiefer is a true visionary, and like his contemporaries Richter and Polke his vision is heavily tinted by the post-war consciousness, the work is not supposed to entertain you, as seems to be the subtext in this review. They are not there to please your perception of what is and what should be. Kiefer’s sensibility rewards deep reflection and patience, not hastily composed gut feelings. Of course you’re free to feel or think whatever you like, but I believe the author is doing himself and the readers a disservice by trying to undermine one of the most profound living artists. Kiefer looks back with the purpose of penetrating timeless metaphysical questions, instead of being a fashion victim mindlessly following “contemporary” trends, that takes bravery and vision.

        1. I appreciate these comments, but lack of trendy entertainment is not what I found missing in his rather over-rated Arnold Schwartzeneggeresque impastos. Most (not all) come off to me as pompous, bombastic and dull. The work imposes itself too strongly and hence clots interpretative participation – a value now more than ever desired and expected within our multidirectional electronicly-connected culture.

          1. Thank you for your response Joseph, while I agree that viewer participation is important, I’m not sure I agree in regards to Kiefer, I must admit I haven’t seen this particular exhibition, though I’m quite familiar with Kiefer’s oeuvre. He is flexing, but I don’t think he’s flexing just to flex like Koons for instance. I think he’s doing it to express some monumental existential and metaphysical questions he’s wrestling with. There’s a sense of archaic penetration going on, unlike Polke who’s sometimes borders on pop art, in the darkest sense possible granted, and Richter who’s almost too eclectic to pin down, Kiefer scales his work on another level which brings about a different expression. I think his work should be seen more in contrast to our time than a biproduct of it. I enjoy his take on wabi-sabi aesthetics, his use of bricolage and the sheer ambition of his work. However I can see where you’re coming from, and now that I think of it, it makes sense that his work is rather polarizing even to this day, a grand feat in itself. Your review did provoke some thought and I appreciate that, though I think your assessment is a little harsh.

          2. ” a value now more than ever desired and expected within our multidirectional electronicly-connected culture.”

            You are SERIOUSLY trying to make this argument against works made from the 70s through the 90s?

          3. The last gallery is full of huuuuuge dreadful paintings of flowers from the last 2 to 3 years. By far the worse work in the show. So yes I am serious. Anyway, the point was how out of touch – how irrelevant – they appear today.

          4. Oh, I see. So your statement was based specifically on something you had specifically not talked about in the article or any comments up until now. Not to mention that your entire premise here is based upon a grand total of six pieces from a retrospective that covers multiple decades.

            Kiefer’s flower paintings aren’t the only thing awful and trite.

          5. Oh I see. You took a comment I made in this thread that is not in the piece and made that that my “entire premise” while ignoring all the other things I said in the piece. Touché.

          6. Actually, I was speaking of your entire premise in the comments section, specifically in the part I quoted.

          7. In fact I avoided talking about his last works to be kind to him. They are awful and trite. As example, here is one of the flower paintings he made in 2012 from Gagosian Gallery. I cannot say it is anything but a very bad painting. Now imagine a big gallery ringed with five more.

          8. It is amazing to me all the offense that a well-written critique of a very questionable exhibition gets. Kiefer spews a lot of hot air and all the so-called existential questioning he invokes does not cover the fact that he is painting YUUUUGE machines meant to impress but on close-viewing only deflates and detumesces.

  1. Reminds me of your Stella skewering. I think the hypertrophic nature of your writing is warranted given the entrenched nature of the reputation of the artists you attack. It is a sort of assault on the momuments before which we have been told to genuflect.
    The sacred cows need to be slaughtered. I wrote about a certain syndrome shared with artists like Kiefer who achieved iconic status early in their careers .

    1. Thanks Martin. Will read your take. Yes. mid & late-Stella share many of the same overstuffed limitations as does Kiefer. Blame the 80s bullshit culture.

  2. Mr Nechvatal does not seem to be well informed on the works in question but I guess passing an opinion can start a discussion about it.

    1. I think I am well informed on Kiefer and have lived with his neo-expressionism for a long time. My gonzo review/opinion clearly comes down to my taste in art and my love for it. That is what informs my opinion on Kiefer (a point I make at the top of the piece). But I think I am reasonable person, so we might discuss where you disagree with me, if you wish.

      1. But that alone doesn’t make a good review- you don’t come off as knowledgable about Kiefer or Expressionism in general.

      2. How can a “post-human” artist love art? Seems like Kiefer’s work just isn’t trendy enough for you. I feel like you could have just written a twitter rant instead of a review. Ask yourself this question: Does your critique serve to entrench your own ideals or does it take you out of your comfort zone?

  3. A few of the columnists on this site seem to write from an extremely restricted perspective slathering artspeak as dense as the works in question. Anachronistic sneering is not helpful to those expecting to gain insight into any artist, the methods and motivations.

  4. His paintings aren’t overindulgent but the review is. Why does art need to invoke warm and pleasant thoughts? Why can’t it invoke other feelings? I can’t take this review seriously. The author seems to have a personal grudge against Kiefer that reads as jealousy. And is no Clement Greenberg. One can fall into a painting by Kiefer because of the texture and depth. I can spend hours looking at the one at the Hirschhorn or Yale Gallery. They’re mesmerizing. But I wouldn’t expect a post conceptual digital artist to understand- it’s a completely different mindset.

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