Anselm Kiefer is preoccupied with the Holocaust and the legacy of the Nazis. Working on a grand scale, and engaging with symbols of Nazi grandiosity, he grapples with a subject to which many of his critics respond by citing Theodor Adorno’s well-known statement, “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” While not totally unwarranted, that counter to Kiefer’s work is too easy and a tad glib. The sentence is included in the essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,” in Prisms (MIT Press, 1967), translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber. In the opening paragraph, Adorno writes:
The cultural critic is not happy with civilization, to which alone he owes his discontent. He speaks as if he represents unadulterated nature or a higher historical stage. Yet he is necessarily of the same essence as that to which he fancies himself superior.
These are the troubling questions that viewers of Kiefer’s work must deal with. What is the essence of the artist’s discontent? Does he believe that he can redeem the subject and bring the Holocaust into the realm of art? Does he believe he represents an “unadulterated nature”?
Many of the 13 paintings in Anselm Kiefer: Exodus at Gagosian (November 12–December 23, 2022) are gargantuan; they are composed of various processes and materials, including emulsion, oil, acrylic, shellac, gold leaf, copper leaf, sediment, metal, fabric, wood, hair, rope, terracotta, shopping carts, dresses, and paintbrushes. Seven of the paintings depict a giant ruin. “Für Paul Celan” (For Paul Celan, 2021), which is more than 12 by 18 feet, depicts the decaying and unused Zeppelin Field Grandstand, designed by Albert Speer, Adolph Hitler’s architect. In 2019, the city of Nuremberg had to decide what to do with this empire-scaled architecture and landscape that glorified Hitler and Nazism. Julia Lehner, the city’s chief culture official, stated, “We won’t rebuild, we won’t restore, but we will conserve. It is an important witness to an era — it allows us to see how dictatorial regimes stage manage themselves.”
Kiefer has made works that refer to Celan’s early, celebrated poem “Todesfugue” (Death Fugue) since 1981. In that poem (translated by Michael Hamburger), Celan writes:
He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise in the air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined.
What do the ashes mean in Kiefer’s paintings? Are they graves in the clouds for the millions who were murdered? Is this Kiefer’s intention in depicting the building against a blackish ground and dedicating it to Celan? What does it mean to dramatize the squalor of its classical edifice, and its dream of ancient Rome and Greece? In the future Germany for which the Zeppelin Field Grandstand was built, only Aryans would be able to come and appreciate what it stood for. By dedicating it to Celan, a Romanian-born Jewish poet whose parents were murdered in a concentration camp, is Kiefer underscoring Nazi Germany’s failure?
In 1958, when Celan was awarded the Bremen Prize, he said of poetry after Auschwitz:
Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, “enriched” by it all.
In Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan (2000), the translator, John Feltsiner, quotes the poet: “There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.” In his later poems, Celan tore apart the German language. He used neologisms and wrote in a broken language that gave him no words for what had happened. He had to invent his own words, while Kiefer has appropriated symbols and metaphors from many sources and cultures.
“Für Paul Celan” is scaled for a museum, reminding me of something Robert Smithson wrote: “[…] museums and parks are graveyards above the ground — congealed memories of the past that act as a pretext for reality.” The reality to which Kiefer subscribes has its roots in German Romanticism, particularly the belief that the artist can mediate between the creative and the divine, between earth and heaven. With his use of lead and gold, he proposes the artist as an alchemist who can transform inert matter into spirit. This is where I find Kiefer’s work troubling. He chooses the oracular and invokes the Rapture, with the lead shopping cart in “Exodus” (2022) tilted up toward the gold-leafed sky. He seems to believe the artist possesses a spiritual, superhuman power.
According to the gallery, “Danaë” (2016–21) which is over 12 feet high and more than 40 feet long,
[…] anchors the installation, fusing a representation of the vast interior of Tempelhof Airport in Berlin with the ancient Greek myth of Zeus transfigured into a shower of gold, leading to the prominent use of gold leaf in the painting. The storied site was built in an area belonging to the Knights Templar in the Middle Ages, opened as an airport complex in 1923, was developed extensively under the Third Reich, and played a critical role in the Berlin Airlift during the Cold War. Significantly, the decommissioned facility was recently used to provide temporary shelter for refugees, connecting it to the themes of Exodus.
No mention is made of Kiefer’s use of one-point perspective, an authoritarian decision that tells the viewer where to stand in order to appreciate the spatiality of the piece. In the Greek myth, Danaë’s father, Acrisius, is told in a prophecy that he will be killed by his daughter’s son. Although Acrisius locks his daughter in an underground chamber, Zeus enters it disguised as shower of gold and impregnates her. When her father learns of this, he places Danaë and the infant in a chest and sets them adrift at sea. Years later, the son, Perseus, will accidentally kill Acrisius.
What prophecy is Kiefer getting at in “Danaë”? What miracle does he believe in? Is it the miracle of the artist as creator? What does it mean to cover the lack of answers in gold, and to associate that gold with impregnation and the foretold death of an elder? Anselm Kiefer is the Steven Spielberg of painting. Both are masters of effect and convinced of their own genius. One cannot help but be impressed by what they do in their respective mediums. And yet, is being impressed enough?
Anselm Kiefer: Exodus continues at Gagosian (555 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 23. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.