Anselm Kiefer, “Die Sieben Siegel, die geheime Offenbarung des Johannes” (2019), oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac, wood and burnt books on canvas, 185 1/16 x 374 inches (© Anselm Kiefer, photo © Georges Poncet, all images courtesy White Cube)

LONDON — Exhibit? Exhibit! Anselm Kiefer doesn’t really exhibit his work in galleries. The very word — those three rather finicky, hissy syllables, with that tight-arsed, final plosive burst of air — sounds too restrained, too orderly, too well-behaved by half.

No, Kiefer over-brims, overwhelms. Nothing ever feels quite large enough for his vaunting ambitions of scale and theme. The works are often so huge that you wonder what pantechnicon would ever be quite large enough to contain them. Or how anyone ever had the courage to transport them here along roads fashioned for the puttering along of mere cars driven by mere men. Or what species of Michelangelesque musculature might have been required to wrestle them into the spaces they currently occupy. Is this gigantism run mad? Or something else?

This is the second show in a row at White Cube’s very large Bermondsey space to be entirely engulfed, every inch of it, by Kiefer’s paintings and installations. Even the broad corridor, up which we walk after entering, and off which the suite of north and south galleries elegantly peel, have been roundly, thunderously Kiefered floor-to-ceiling, penning us in between huge steel and glass vitrines, 30 of them in all, processing beside us, watching over us with the usual degree of solemnity, as we walk.

Anselm Kiefer, “Ramanujan Summation – 1/12” (2019), emulsion, oil, acrylic, shellac and wood on canvas, 259 13/16 x 261 13/16 inches (© Anselm Kiefer, photo © Charles Duprat)

Today the themes are as brain-busting and as world-encompassing as the works are large. They generally are. Kiefer doesn’t footle around in drawing rooms with palette and pen, or ever find himself preoccupied by the delicacy of a single delicate female wrist. He seldom does humans at all. What are they for, other than to be crushed beneath the heel of history? God forbid! Instead, he draws down the world upon his shoulders in a mood of what can only be described as apocalyptic excess. The times he has shown us collapsing towers! His studio in France is full of them, toppling, leaning, giving up the ghost. The man cares not. In fact, he swims in such magnificent evocations of breast-beating woe, calamity, and unsurmountable perplexity.

A German of the postwar era, he has wrestled, monumentally, with the long hangover of German guilt from the terrible misdemeanors of the past like none other. His colors and his textures show off, always, the nature and the quality of his sobriety. His paintings are giant, heroic blast sites — pitted, scarred, rough-textured, things that have been weathered in the worst possible conditions in order to test their mettle. Organic matter adheres to them – twigs and entire limbs of trees, for example.

There are four themes threaded together here. The title of the show sets them out for our delectation, one by one: Superstrings, Runes, the Norns, Gordian Knot. We are, then, dealing with the following matters: ancient alphabets, alchemy, astrology, string theory. So how does he put over such ideas in this work? How do these ideas actually relate to what we see?

The vitrines down the central corridor contain wild entanglements of industrial cable set against partly painted backdrops — in one we glimpse the ghost of one of his toppling towers. Are the cables a direct allusion to the Gordian Knot, hopelessly tangled, never to be unpicked?

Anselm Kiefer, “Der Gordische Knoten” (2019), oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac, wood and metal on canvas 280 x 380 cm | 110 1/4 x 149 5/8 inches (© Anselm Kiefer, photo © Georges Poncet)

Or are they perhaps a visual representation of the baffling difficulties of describing, let alone visually representing, what String Theory actually means? Or is it an embodiment of the impossible task that string theorists themselves are faced with?

The impossibility of it all is accentuated by the barely readable mathematical formulae that are hand-drawn across the glass. Are they meant to be understood by anyone? Does it matter if we do not? Does Kiefer understand them?

Many of the enormous paintings in these various galleries look very like the works that Keifer has created again and again in the past. We see landscapes stretching away to the horizon line, minglings of blacks and grays and whites, bleak exercises in perspectival drawing. The surfaces are rucked and blistered, victims of punishment — by war, by the elements, by the artist. He attaches things to the surface, and writes on it. He has always done that too.

What is he adding today? Small bursts of color. A dowsing stick or two or three. A charred book. Scatterings of letters from that magical runic alphabet. Astrological symbols. Into several paintings he has incorporated netting, as if perhaps to suggest that the world, in all its impossible immensity, might yet be contained or containable… Into others he has embedded rusting axes.

Anselm Kiefer, “The Veneziano Amplitude” (2019), oil, emulsion, acrylic, shellac and wood on canvas, 185 1/16 x 299 3/16 inches (© Anselm Kiefer)

Keifer himself is with us this morning, standing in front of his work, a man in his middle 70s, dressed entirely in black, professorial of look. We speak, very briefly. I mention that we last met in Tel Aviv in 2012, on the occasion of an exhibition there. “Tel Aviv!” he says, warming to the memory, “I like very much! Two-hundred-thirty thousand people!” He is referring to visitor numbers, of course. It is that specific detail that rings down through the years.

His public explanations are often difficult to grasp because his English is halting, and he is endeavoring to put over difficult, if not obsessive ideas… He speaks of the Kabbala, Robert Fludd, of seeking out the world formula, of the cosmos and the microcosmos. He alludes to string theory, that unifying theory of everything, which is forever unattainable. He talks of that which can never be verified by experiment; that something and nothing happen at the same moment; that a painting is also a negation of a painting.

And does each new painting contribute to a kind of totality?, one journalist asks. He smiles. A humble, vulnerable, struggling artist suddenly emerges from behind all this restless intellection “It is always a big struggle. Is it good or not good? When I finish a painting, I have to destroy 100 others. We want to do the best painting we have ever seen.”

Anselm Kiefer: Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knots continues at White Cube Bermondsey (144–152 Bermondsey Street, London) through January 26, 2020.

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Michael Glover

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times,...

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