ArtWeekend

Flowers of Retrenchment: Anselm Kiefer’s Alternate History

Anselm Kiefer, “Morgenthau Plan” (2012), acrylic, emulsion, oil, and shellac on photograph mounted on canvas, 113 x 149 5/8 inches (© Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Gagosian Gallery, photography by Charles Duprat)
Anselm Kiefer, “Morgenthau Plan” (2012), acrylic, emulsion, oil, and shellac on photograph mounted on canvas, 113 x 149 5/8 inches (© Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Gagosian Gallery, photography by Charles Duprat)

Anselm Kiefer has scaled back, way back, from his preposterously overproduced previous solo at Gagosian, but with Kiefer we are always talking about relative degrees of gigantism.

In her review of that show, which was titled Next Year in Jerusalem (November 6–December 18, 2010), Roberta Smith of The New York Times set the scene this way:

The Gagosian space is crowded with 25 sculptures encased in large, often towering vitrines with floors of cracked (or scorched) earth. Each contains a sinister ruin: the fuselage or engine of a vintage airplane; a fleet of small suspended U-boats made of lead; a white plaster ball or wedding gown jagged with shards of glass; an immense and brittle thorn bush dotted with painted flames.

The scuttlebutt I heard at the time was that it cost a million dollars simply to install the exhibition — a figure that does not seem out of line given the quantity of plate glass that had to be factored into the handling.

In many ways, the new show is a retrenchment. Fifteen out of the eighteen works on display are paintings. There are no vitrines, just a few freestanding sculptures. Some of the paintings contain elements that project into the room, but most do not.

While the vitrines in Jerusalem felt simultaneously precious and over-the-top, they were also something different, an exploration of new territory even if the themes were recycled.

In contrast, the most successful paintings in Morgenthau Plan, as the new show is called, could have been made at any point in the artist’s career. I am thinking of two in particular, “Nigredo – Morgenthau” and “der Morgenthau-Plan” (both 2012), which present Kiefer’s familiar blasted landscapes with a powerful density of materials and a refined sense of touch.

Anselm Kiefer, “Nigredo – Morgenthau” (2012), acrylic, emulsion, oil, and shellac on photograph mounted on canvas, 74 13/16 x 149 5/8 inches (© Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Gagosian Gallery, photography by Charles Duprat)
Anselm Kiefer, “Nigredo – Morgenthau” (2012), acrylic, emulsion, oil, and shellac on photograph mounted on canvas, 74 13/16 x 149 5/8 inches (© Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Gagosian Gallery, photography by Charles Duprat)

However, the rest of the works, with a few exceptions, range from the middling to the embarrassing. What is remarkable is that Kiefer himself supplies the reason why.

The exhibition’s title refers to a proposal drawn up in 1944 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, that would take the demilitarization imposed upon Germany after World War I many steps further, leading to a total deindustrialization of the country. Factories would be decommissioned and the economy would revert to a form of pre-modern agrarianism.

On a shelf in the Gagosian Gallery entrance, piled in a neat stack next to copies of the exhibition’s checklist and press release, there is a letter from Kiefer to Richard Calvocoressi, Director of the Henry Moore Foundation, in which he describes the evolution of the series:

Unless a person wishes to practice l’art pour l’art, he needs a subject. But where does that subject come from? This past year I have painted a number of pictures of flowers. […] They’re beautiful. But beauty in art needs meaning. One can’t have just beauty on its own. True art does not portray beauty alone. Beauty needs a counterpart.

And these paintings are unusually colorful and beautiful, again, in relative terms, for Kiefer. Some of the color shifts, from icy blue or hot pink to the ashen gray we know so well, are stunning. But they are also unstructured and pictorial in the most illustrative sense. Their masterful wielding of surface and pigment knocked me out at first glance, but I eventually started to cringe.

Kiefer continues:

If he paints flowers for six months and they become more and more beautiful, closer to perfection, he begins to believe he is losing himself, his identity as a painter, as a good painter. He can even develop a bad conscience because the subject is so easy. […] In thinking about this flaw another flaw occurred to me: the Morgenthau Plan. For it too ignored the complexity of things.

And so I had hit upon the Morgenthau Plan, which would now be associated with the flower paintings. (Emphasis mine.)

He goes on to write that if the plan were implemented:

With the destruction of industrial sites more land would have been gained. The fields would have been opened up for plants of all kinds, for carpets of flowers everywhere.

And so the paintings map out an alternate history for Germany in which the Morgenthau Plan has been put in place and the country’s industrial zones have reverted to their natural state.

The only problem is that the concept has been retroactively ”associated with the flower paintings.” They did not spring from the idea, which bristles with paradoxes (Morgenthau’s radical proposition, presumably based on the belief that the Germans are an incorrigibly warlike race, played into the hands of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, and he used it to rally the population, an effort that possibly extended the length of the war).

Consequently, the repurposed paintings lack all urgency, devoid of historical focus as well as the formal rigor and abstract thinking that make something as florally sumptuous as Monet’s water lilies, to choose an obvious comparison, continually compelling to contemporary eyes.

In her review of Jerusalem, Smith starts out on a positive note (“The German artist Anselm Kiefer knows how to put on a show”), sidling up like a Renaissance assassin about to slip a shiv into the kidney:

Portentously titled “Next Year in Jerusalem,” the Gagosian exhibition is effective middlebrow art as catharsis, spectacle with a message.

That’s pretty damning, and while such an assessment doesn’t necessarily carry over to the work in this show as a whole, it’s hard to shake the “middlebrow” epithet while looking at a painting like “Große Eisenfaust Deutschland, kleine Panzerfaust Deutschland (Velimir Chlebnikow)” (2012), a field of flowers with rusting machine guns mounted at the top.

Kiefer’s interplay between two and three dimensions is a well-worn trope by now, but it may not seem so stale if his pairing of disused weaponry with an overgrown landscape weren’t so obvious and literal. The same holds true for the even more theatrical “O Halme, ihr Halme, o Halme der Nacht” (2012), in which the guns are replaced by an airplane wing.

There are two works, however, that stand apart from the others. One is “Von der Maas bis an die Memel, von der Etsch bis an den Belt” (2011-2012), a colossal Romantic seascape with Courbet-style waves rolling ahsore and heavy, lowering clouds along the horizon line.

The work’s distinctive painterly realism and blue-dominant coloration pull you in, but after a few moments the 19th-century look begins to feel uncomfortably retro, as if Kiefer is attempting to revive a long-dead style for no particular reason.

Anselm Kiefer, "Oh Halme, ihr Halme, oh Halme der Nacht" (2012). Acrylic, emulsion, oil and shellac on photograph mounted on canvas, 149 5/8 x 220 1/2 inches. © Anselm Kiefer. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Charles Duprat.
Anselm Kiefer, “Oh Halme, ihr Halme, oh Halme der Nacht” (2012), acrylic, emulsion, oil, and shellac on photograph mounted on canvas, 149 5/8 x 220 1/2 inches (© Anselm Kiefer, courtesy Gagosian Gallery, photography by Charles Duprat)

What I found more intriguing was “Oh Halme, ihr Halme, o Halme der Nacht” (2012), which features a typically blackish Kiefer landscape — a furrowed field diminishing in raked single point perspective — with handwritten text taking up the entire upper half of the picture, from the horizon line to the top of the canvas.

Kiefer’s practice has always incorporated words or phrases that reflect the work’s titles or themes. Sometimes this is quite evocative, as in his series “Dein Goldenes Haar, Margarete,” but just as often the meaning of the painting can depend too much on what is written on the surface.

In “Oh Halme,” Kiefer appears to have allowed his literary bent to run wild. If the actual meaning of the text remains obscure to non-German speakers, its intrusion upon the landscape nevertheless creates a disruptive and refreshing visual element.

Compared to “Nigredo – Morgenthau” and “der Morgenthau-Plan,” the two paintings I mentioned earlier — which, though impressive works, do not escape the trap Smith defines in the same review as Kiefer becoming “better and better at making Anselm Kiefers” — it feels less assured, even confused and hesitant. But for a superstar painter, that seems like a good place to be.

Anselm Kiefer: Morgenthau Plan continues at Gagosian Gallery (522 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 8.

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