Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth

Anselm Kiefer probes the minefield of German identity after WWII

Another source of tension in his work is appropriation: the use of religious symbolism in his quest to articulate and give form to a spiritual Esperanto. In making art based on the "celestial hierarchy" of early Christianity, the Jewish mysticism of the Kabbalah, pagan ritual and the numerical mapping of stars based on NASA information, Kiefer, himself a Catholic, focuses on the collective need for understanding existence. In trying to show the shared reasons for being of each system, Kiefer verges on devaluing their singularity.

Most striking of all is the discomfort that arises from the indecision of his work, the lack of certainty over where Kiefer's negotiation of national self begins and ends, not knowing quite sure when he is dealing with the Nazi past and when he is not. This is most palpable in a work like "The Secret Life of Plants" (2001), a more than six-foot-tall open book made from steel. The hard surfaces of the splayed pages are gray, wrinkly and dotted with a map of numbered stars interconnected by lines, the idea being that all plant life corresponds to a celestial mapping in the heavens. Each constellation has a number that, in white figures on the carbonized surfaces of the pages, brings to mind the tattooed numbers on the arms of Holocaust survivors. A similar type of star mapping appears on the heavily impastoed surface of "Voyage au bout de la nuit" (2004), a painting with the same title of a novel by Celine, the French writer known not only for his inventive use of slang but also for his inveterate anti-Semitism.

Anselm Kiefer's "Sternenfall" ("Falling Stars"), 1995
Anselm Kiefer's "Sternenfall" ("Falling Stars"), 1995

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is on display through January 8 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 866-824-5566.

In playing out the same tensions of the past--the questions of nationalism and national identity that vexed German critics of an exhibition of his work at the 1980 Venice Biennale--Kiefer runs the risk not so much of lingering too long on issues past but of articulating a powerful message in the same form over and over. Ultimately, however, the poignancy of his work is testament to the infinite horrors of WWII and the continued uncertainty of German identity. These issues may never be resolved, and we may never want them to be. Success lies in the proof of experience, in the constancy of Kiefer's work, its alienating and uncomfortable beauty.

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