Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth

Anselm Kiefer probes the minefield of German identity after WWII

It's not easy being German after World War II. Born in 1945, the German conceptualist and painter Anselm Kiefer has spent most of his time as an artist directly or indirectly confronting the matter of national identity. Confrontation began more as silent collision in his earliest work, with Kiefer posed in military regalia standing erect, right arm out in a pronounced "Sieg heil" gesture in a series of paintings and photographs begun in 1969 appearing collectively under two titles, "Heroic Symbols" and "Occupations." Beyond cultural purgative, Kiefer's poses function as a necessary release from an equally necessary system of censorship. Through forthright engagement with German collective memory, Kiefer performed a belated act of what was during the years directly after the war called "de-Nazification." One way to understand these images is that, in keeping with the old notion that beauty is truth, they are beautiful renderings of a very recent reality. Another way of understanding them is in terms of self-excavation. Dressing up like a German soldier and performing an act of allegiance to the Reich proved a means of mining the essentials of German identity.

The striking quality of these early images, similar to the more metaphysically charged work showing in Heaven and Earth at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, is the tension between emancipation and sanction. Does his reflection on the German national condition liberate Germans from their past or does it ratify what were in the 20th century some of Germany's most frightening tendencies? Are Kiefer's Neo-Expressionist paintings and books, in their explicit inheritance of German history and themes of Romanticism--the mytho-poetics of the Black Forest, Die Brücke and Die Blaue Reiter-style rendering--a working-through or a perpetuation of being German and all that comes with such an identity? It is clear that Kiefer continues to work through what it means to be German after the Holocaust, but in more recent work he does so through the remove of spiritual rumination. At issue in his most recent work is a question of resurrection. Can old myths of nationalism--those explicitly related to Germany's ground, soil and people--be extricated from the debacle of Third Reich politics and, in turn, be resurrected and newly integrated into a set of universal mythologies?

Kiefer's interest in religious symbolism goes back to the same years of his investigation of the mannerisms and deeds of the Third Reich. His "The Heavens" (1969) is a series of books with fragments of colored paper and magazine photos of a blue sky dappled with cottony clouds tacked to blank pages with inscriptions scribbled above or below. Interspersed among these colorful shards is the dark symbolism of the Third Reich. Posted on one page is a black-and-white image of an architectural light installation by Albert Speer, Hitler's preeminent architect and minister of armaments starting in 1942. This juxtaposition of jaunty, brightly colored collage and somber monochromatic photo poses an inquiry into the very possibility of "heaven" as a metaphysical idea after the hell of lived experience. In a similar vein, the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno would declare, "After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric."

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

The exhibition Heaven and Earth offers a range of works by the artist, including mixed-media photographic projects, charred and steel-plate books, works on paper and paintings with oils, charcoal and shellac-trodden surfaces. Though Kiefer began working as a conceptualist and continues to render his work through various forms of installation and an array of media including his own semen, he became famous stateside and infamous in his own land in the '80s for his Neo-Expressionist paintings. In homage to Pollock's painterly emissions by brush and spastic gesture, Kiefer literally ejaculated onto four open ledger books, each of which sits atop large stacks of unbound steel pages. No doubt, you can take the man out of the macho state but not the machismo out of the man. Kiefer is most recognizable for his large-scale paintings of architectural interiors, such as "Quaternity" (1973) from his Atticseries and "Ash Flower" (1983-'97), the rendering of a Nazi ceremonial hall atop which is fixed the cracked earthwork of a desiccated field and a wizened flower with its long stalk bifurcating the picture plane.

"Ash Flower" displays another more formal type of tension consistent in many of his pieces. Kiefer is a master of deploying two opposed types of pictorial space simultaneously, layering the flat space of color-field abstraction or the action space of the "flat-bed picture plane" atop the illusionistic space of three dimensions. In "The Milky Way" (1985-'87), one finds a horizon line of trees and low-slung hills in the background and a field of dead weeds in the foreground across which run three-dimensional strands of actual steel wire. Here Kiefer plays the action space of three-dimensional objects, the steel wires, off of the "real" space of pictorial illusion, the photograph. He makes an even more striking example of this type of formal tension in "Emanation" (1984-'85), a photograph of a cloud-covered landscape mounted on cardboard with a hard, thick drippy blob of shellac sitting on the surface like dried molten lava. For some, the look of scorched earth may suggest a preponderant theme of death in his work. To the artist, however, these surfaces signify renewal. The blown-out apocalyptic surfaces of his paintings and burnt book covers are meant to look like beds of carbon, the stuff of both sizzled decimation and the building block of life.

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.

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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