Our Kiefer: Peter Schjeldahl

Anselm Kiefer. Emanation, 1984–86.

Anselm Kiefer. Emanation, 1984–86.

"Wouldn't it be amazing if he turned out to be really great?" someone blurted at me recently apropos of Anselm Kiefer. I understood the speaker's mixed emotions, which I share: joy in being the contemporary of an extraordinary artist—it's a lucky feeling, a vicarious redemption—shadowed by suspicions of eventual disappointment. Thus the note of wistfulness. (The speaker, like me, had been drinking.) Hedged awe is the generous variant of a mental distress—call it Anselm Angst—widespread in art circles this winter, as Kiefer's long-awaited American retrospective (Art Institute of Chicago, December 5, 1987–January 31, 1988) begins what promises to be a triumphal march through these States. The mean variant is the somewhat comical grumpiness of purists and hipsters betrayed by fascination with the German's work into unaccustomed agreement with a middlebrow market-and-publicity-driven majority. They would be only too happy if Kiefer proved not to be "really great," especially if they were the first to target his Achilles heel. Lacking that bull's eye, they may be expected to level shotguns at the excesses of Kiefer's following, with its sententious journalists and salivating millionaire collectors.

Why is Kiefer so popular in the United States? The often-asked question would be more interesting were Kiefer not popular in a lot of places. His shows have drawn crowds and praise throughout Western Europe and in Israel. Even some of the English and the French—testy and disdainful, respectively, toward most contemporary art—have permitted themselves to melt a little. Young painters everywhere flatter him with imitation. Only in his own land, at least until recently, has the prophet lacked honor. I've heard Germans denounce him with a vehemence I don't entirely understand, though it seems to entail bitterness at being represented, internationally, by an artist somehow inauthentically German, unlike their beloved, echt-Deutsch Georg Baselitz. Bizarre suggestions, once rife there, that Kiefer is some kind of neo-Nazi seem to have abated, however; and an issue of Der Spiegel last year reported a tidal shift of German opinion in Kiefer's favor, maybe because he's become a world-beating export right up there with the BMW. Still, there is a particular flavor, as well as an eerie unanimity, to Kiefer's welcome in the U.S. It may owe to the mixture of aesthetic, historical, and emotional susceptibilities that I find, making a specimen of one American, in myself—with the consequent misgivings that symptomize Anselm Angst.

Kiefer hits the spot with us in at least four main ways, none readily separable from his talent but each giving its appeal a peculiar spin. In no special order: (1) he roils our very complicated feelings about World War II, an event that apotheosized American pride; (2) he reawakens the glamour of European pastness, a half-forgotten American ache for lost roots; (3) he is a public individualist of a sort, pledging unallegiance to both custom and fashion, that we may still idealize but seem increasingly helpless to produce; and (4) he is an "American-type" painter. In saying the last, I am aware that Kiefer's sensibility has been a virtual Rorschach test for national narcissisms: some French see a reviver of nineteenth-century French romanticism (Victor Hugo laced with Baudelaire), some Scandinavians an heir of Munch and Strindberg (citing the latter's little-known but quite apposite paintings), and some English a Turner avatar (an affinity anyone with eyes must note). All foreign claims will have to wait, however; this is an American essay. Simply, in forty years no other European artist—not one!--had so thoroughly assimilated and advanced the aesthetic lessons of Jackson Pollock, specifically Pollock's doubleness of spatial illusion and material literalness on a scale not just big but exploded, enveloping, discomposed.

Contrary to an inexplicably persistent critical shibboleth, Pollock's aesthetic has nothing to do with emphasizing the picture plane. Rather, it renders "surface" unlocatable, replacing it simultaneously with optical depth and tactile fact—infinity and stuff—defying us to know what, exactly, we are looking at. Omnipresence of this tension through-out the (big) picture makes the scale. Pollock's own uniformity of marking is not required, but only an overall energetic contradiction of the frontal and the recessive, evoking at once a wall and a veil. Is this practically an academic convention in painting by now? It is (and is treated as such, to sardonic effect, by Kiefer's older countrymen Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Police), but Kiefer cranks up its tension to an unprecedented pitch with receding architectural and landscape images that amplify illusion and encrustrations that maximize literalness. He resensitizes us to the convention, making it new somewhat in the way the young Manet renewed past Spanish masters. For Americans, the resulting formal idiom is as clear as a midwestern newscaster, as big as all outdoors, and straightforwardly stunning.

What's unclear is why so many of us experience Kiefer's works—even in the first split second of a first encounter (I saw an acquaintance, catching her initial glimpse of one, almost fall down)—as so much more than gratifying aesthetic presences. His big paintings instill a feeling of conviction bordering on religious faith, an intuition of knowledge that proves remarkably inarticulate when you try to debrief people about it. It can't be a function of Kiefer's narrative and poetic themes, of which many American Kiefer fans remain complacently ignorant (with no excuse now that we have an accessible, all but definitive, exegesis in Mark Rosenthal's introduction to the retrospective's catalogue). The feeling is mysterious even to the intellectually prideful who, finding it regressive, might love to analyze it away—the problem being that to analyze it you have to feel it, and doing that puts your analytical faculties in traction. Listening to word of mouth and reading reviews of the Chicago show, you get the sense that American emotional responses to Kiefer, matched against what I think is actually there in the art, are largely distorted and probably irresistible, a reflux of collective psychic material that says more about us than about him—while saying much for him, as an artist on the nerve of his world and time.

The immediately recognizable master metaphor of Kiefer's art is the Wasteland, the modernist trope par excellence for this century's characteristic experiences of fragmentation and chaos. An Englishman, Charles Harrison, has observed: "The 'wasteland' space functions in [Kiefer's] pictures much as the pastoral landscape functioned in the art of the seventeenth century: as an ahistorical terrain upon which diverse material may be assembled into allegorical form, and thus absorbed." That seems correct, but it doesn't begin to account for the impact of an image that even as a metacliche has nothing neutral about it. The Wasteland idea has taken on a lot of contradictory freight since a distraught young expatriate from St. Louis, T. S. Eliot, gave it supreme literary expression nearly seventy years ago. For many Americans, it retains the special aura it had for Eliot, one not apt to be shared by a German born in 1945: an emanation of deep, unkillable yearnings toward the "heap of broken images" that remains of a lost European heritage. Eliot surely couldn't have disagreed more with his colleague James Joyce's sentiment, palpably seconded by Kiefer: "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." For many of us, on the contrary, history is a dream we'd be thrilled to sink into if only the racket of modernization, blasted at us through media that have already forgotten what happened last week, would shut up for a second.

Kiefer's Pollockian machines—with their heart-grabbing yellows, blacks, and browns that affect like tastes, sounds, and smells and their incorporation of photographs that drench the mind in tones of memory—evoke a quasi-religious feeling of delicious, melancholy, slightly masochistic abasement before sheer ancientness. Such seems the gist of an eloquent, extremely American, take on Kiefer by Sanford Schwartz:

Enthralling and bleak at the same time, [Kiefer's paintings) are like a visit to a great cathedral on a winter's afternoon, when the light is sunless and white, snow is in the air, and you have the place to yourself. As you go away, you may believe that you have taken the sacred and sad drama into yourself, and that it has ennobled and elevated you: later, though, you may be left with a feeling that your experience can't be made part of the rest of your life, and that it sucks out of you more than it gives.

For "a great cathedral" read "Europe," or the "idea of Europe," or whatever signifies for you a civilized spiritual nourishment you crave and, if you were unfortunate enough to get it, couldn't possibly digest. The trouble with this response to Kiefer's art is that it may well be the opposite of what he intends. It is humorless, for one thing. Kiefer is usually funny.

Broaching Kiefer's humor can stop a conversation, I've found. People blink, and I start thinking I must be wrong. Only patient looking, staring down "the sacred and sad drama" for which I, too, am a pushover, convinces me that it's true: even the most plangent or anguished of Kiefer's works, when he is obviously fired with sincerity or gripped by some unresolved hysteria, display joke structures: antic stuff with palettes and angels, slaphappy incongruities of scale like "Operation Sea Lion" battleships in bathtubs in plowed fields, "books" in which absolutely nothing happens (except that at a certain point, as the pages turn, your hair may suddenly stand on end), and in case we didn't get it—Kiefer may wonder at times if anyone in the land of industrialized comedy has a funny bone—cast-iron skis attached to an eighteen-foot-long picture called Jerusalem, violating the delicately haunting associations of the layered and punished surface with the suggestion of a Middle Eastern Aspen. The provocation is so blatant that one might want to make excuses for it, as in retrieving a friend's social gaffe; but Kiefer is incorrigible. He affixes a lead propeller to another grand painting (The Order of the Angels, not in the show) to hammer home an awful bookish pun on the name of an early Christian theologian, Dionysius the Areopagite—"Aeropagite," maybe because Dionysius's obsession with angels suggested flyboy proclivities. With such things, Kiefer makes rude noises amid his own painstakingly induced reveries, and if viewers persist in genuflecting, they're on their own.

The art student who began his career two decades ago by having himself photographed giving the Nazi salute in various European locales was a prankster, though a serious as well as a staggeringly audacious one—getting at something that needed to be gotten at, the repressed emotions of the Third Reich, as a means to the end of a comprehensive, untrammeled art. "How could it happen?" he was asking, partly as a young German disgusted with the evasiveness of his elders but most pointedly as an ambitious, rebellious artist, defiantly asserting, right from the start, an absolute license for his imagination. Faustian pride may underlie the defiance, but its operative mode is Mephistophelian irony: self-satirizing in the Nazi-salute images (see the related watercolor Every Human Being Stands beneath His Own Dome of Heaven, 1970) and in such subsequent things as drawings of fiery aeries or sullen bunkers all titled The Artist's Studio and a hilarious lead sculpture of a winged palette as bird of prey. Kiefer's recent preoccupation with alchemy is likewise double-edged, evoking at once a mystic metaphor of creativity and the folly of mumbling crackpots who, in stinking laboratories, tried to make matter imitate an idea. Kiefer directly mocks most of his thematic material, historical and mythic, theatricalizing it into absurdity. In the process, some very serious, barely sane, perhaps poisonous meanings are released as an intoxicating poetic vapor.

I know a woman who when excited or moved, in ways that would make me exclaim or get a lump in my throat, invariably laughs—"because its wonderful," she says. I think Kiefer is like that. Even his darkest work has a warmth, if not of humor then of the eroticism that probably underlies the polymorphous, "wonderful" type of laughter. I'm thinking of his Margarete/Shulamite series of works about the Holocaust, which do the supposedly impossible—make successful art of the ultimate horror—by elaborating Paul Celan's tragic erotic projections, the "golden-haired" Aryan and the "ashen-haired" Jew. No humor there, but an emotional nexus of desire and loss, love and death, that may be related physiologically to the release of laughter (the sudden restoration of subjectivity that has been threatened). The feeling-saturated terrain of this and other themes from Kiefer's Wasteland—a realm of stories with which he keeps himself engaged and interested, scared and entertained—has nothing in common with the American way of revering things historical, thereby to fantasize ourselves into a past we never had. Oppressed by history, Kiefer uses fantasy to spring the locks on one dungeon of pastness after another. When he succeeds, there is a buoyancy, a glee. I think we may sense this even as we cling to the projection of our own nostalgias. No wonder Kiefer is so confusing to us.

The single most beclouding element in American responses to Kiefer is our complex of feelings about World War II, Nazism, and the Holocaust, subjects really addressed only in some of his work and never so directly as imputations of "mourning," "catharsis," and "exorcism" (the obligatory terms in Kiefer criticism) would suggest. Even indirect reference more or less ended five years ago, when the masterpiece Shulamite (menorahlike flames in a war-hero memorial) climaxed both the Margarete/Shulamite series and another protracted series based on motifs of Nazi architecture. Kiefer has since been off into regions ahistorically mythical, theological, alchemical, and otherwise selfreferential, making art largely about the mental and physical processes of making art. Kiefer's involvement with Third Reich themes needs to be confronted—it remains the most riveting aspect of his career—but with reference to pertinent works rather than to everything from the artist's hand. The ingenuity of a Jack Kroll, writing in Newsweek, shows what Kiefer is up against in his efforts to change the subject: "[Jerusalem] is a touchingly surreal image of transcendence, as if Germany, crazy with remorse, were saying to Israel: 'Here, take our skis. They take us through our mountains. Maybe they'll take you through yours."

Crazy is right, though Kroll's heuristic high jump is so terrific I'm half-convinced. Kroll's conceit fails the test of Kiefer's established artistic temperament, however, in having "Germany" talk to Israel, or to anybody. Kiefer may cultivate imaginative territory cleared by Joseph Beuys, but he is no Beuys-like holy fool or shaman, ritualizing collective hopes, guilts, and fears. He has always operated strictly on his own, a lone artist bent on becoming ever more alone and free through acting out, then having done with, the determining myth and history of "a German." As an artist, he speaks neither for nor to Germany, nor even for himself as a German citizen—a subtle point, given his massive use of highly charged stuff from his German heritage, but also the crux of his meaning. An Israeli critic, Meri Ronnen, writing in the Jerusalem Post Magazine in 1984, got it succinctly: "While Kiefer the German acknowledges his past in a way that suggests exorcism as well as a search for cathartic understanding, Kiefer the painter rejects it." That is, what he feels as a citizen belongs to the material, not the motivation, of his art. The motive is an aggrandizement of art's critical as well as aesthetic powers.

The major critical project pursued by Kiefer from his first Nazi salutes to the 1983 Shulamite seems precisely a reclamation of certain aesthetic modes (neoclassical, Wagnerian, nature-romantic) from the death grip of their political uses in the Third Reich: comprehension of the real beauty of an Albert Speer interior, say, simultaneous with comprehension of its sinister historic significance. The procedure might be compared to a vaccine that by mimicking the action of a virus to produce antibodies forestalls the virus. Of course, vaccines can be contaminated, and Kiefer's—his absolutist conception of the artist—is scarcely hygienic. Kiefer's heroizing of the artist (never exactly himself, never exactly not himself) is subject to a volatility apparent in the adventures of his signature symbol, the palette: associated with the megalomania of a Nero (Nero Paints) or a Hitler (Operation Barbarossa), imposed on scenes of nature like an angry cancellation mark, or identified with a missing, mysterious "Unknown Painter," tropes that bespeak the vicissitudes—arrogance, hysteria, depression—of piloting an archetype. The palette is straightforwardly ironic in its archaism (as a posteasel painter, Kiefer doesn't use that item of professional equipment), but he leaves himself and us no choice but to regard it as a serious declaration of his willfulness. It is the badge he flashes to go wherever his imagination tends, most particularly to places marked "Off Limits." In Germany, that would seem to be anywhere it is possible to experience emotions even remotely associated with Nazism.

Embarrassment is a frequent theme of German journalistic attacks on Kiefer (translated for me by writer Ulrike Henn): "Painfully embarrassing nationalist motifs," complained a 1982 issue of Der Spiegel, and a Frankfurt critic in 1984 saw a German past "dark, whispering, embarrassingly remembered ('How grand we were!')." Petra Kipphoff (Die Zeit, April 1984) specifically ruled out "the freedom of art" as an excuse for a painting titled Poland Is Not Yet Lost, because "this song title [that of a Polish anthem), misused by German aggressors, cannot be used lightly by any German." Taking another tack, a critic of the Kolner Stadtanzeiger (February 1981) decried Kiefer's wholesale implication of Germanic history and culture in the Nazi disaster (as in his Ways of Worldly Wisdom roundups of the good, the bad, and the ugly from two millennia of German artistic, military, and political worthies): "It is not only failed but dangerous historic consciousness to link wars to demonic powers of fate." The common thread in all these journalistic scoldings is an implied demand for civic rectitude, obedient to the compunctions of postwar German political culture. Such censorious reactions to an artist who has vastly enhanced the prestige of contemporary Gorman art in American eyes gives rise to a sense of cognitive dissonance between our countries that makes the head swim.

Americans will have to get used to such things. The Kiefer phenomenon only contributes to a virtual reprovincialization of the U.S. as regards renascent cultural energies in Europe. How the mighty have fallen. "Think of it!" yet another wistful friend said to me the other day, with references to art and tennis. "Germany has Kiefer and Boris Becker. We've got Schnabel and John McEnroe.” He might have added Fassbinder versus Spielberg and Peter Handke (okay, an Austrian) versus Raymond Carver—it's a game you can play. At any rate, we are put in the unaccustomed position of spectators trying to figure out such dramas on distant stages as the one apparently being enacted between Kiefer and his country's cultivated happy-face image as a hardworking, social-democratic, loyal international good guy with a sideline in smoky, sexy, Cabaret wildness. (Might Kiefer propitiate his country by engaging in spectacular self-destruction a la Fassbinder?) This particular spectacle, casting Kiefer as a foe of repression, may appeal strongly to our individualist mythos. The nature of the repression—German war neurosis, say, which is not our problem—matters less than the way it activates values of our own, with which we may have lost touch. Anselm Kiefer is not Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he is not Davy Crockett. But he is self-reliant, and he's got guts. Attending to him, we may seem to remember something good about ourselves.

I propose, finally, to set all such projections aside: the sick excitement of historical associations, the afternoon-in-a-cathedral afflatus, the flattery of recycled American aesthetics, and the appeal of Kiefer as a good old Black Forest country boy. What's left? I think it is the figure of an artist in a studio, tinkering interestingly with interesting ideas and materials. He is exemplary. His work conveys the texture, the feel, of making something substantial out of nothing much. He is the maker, deciding what he'd like to do and doing it. Each thing retains the rough evidence of his decisions about it. It has no style other than the manner of its making, which looks simple and self-evident, like something anyone could do. I've had such thoughts and feelings about Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, and other artists, not very many. (People are surprised to hear that Ruscha is a favorite of Kiefer's, but they shouldn't be: the books, the uses of language and photography, the odd materials, the playfulness with scale, the putting of words in landscapes, and an individualism expressed in geographical isolation all make the affinity a natural one.) Like those artists, and also like Beuys and Andy Warhol, Kiefer rattles the received wisdom about what an artist is and does, letting us know that the world has changed even as art has found a new way to go on.

Our Kiefer? One among many (mine, yours, theirs). Kiefer is product, catalyst, and test case of a new internationalism in culture, which will seek to build a unity of reference, of conversation. In other words, Kiefer is a prime conversation piece of this era—a difficult position, even a crisis, for any artist. Out of the frying pan of "Germanness," how will he exorcise the fire of international stardom? Maybe it can't be done. And what about the paintings? They're good, but how good? Kiefer is uneven, as I'm reminded when I see the relatively lifeless Red Sea in the Museum of Modern Art—MOMA's inept selection from a 1985 gallery show that included the wonderful Departure from Egypt (now in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles). Even his misfired pictures can feel contingently valuable, however, as pieces of a puzzle, a creative sum, that one would like to grasp whole. Is Kiefer "really great"? If the phrase is kept in quotes then the answer must be "absolutely"—that is, tautologically, since his entire activity parades an idea of greatness. That may be neither here nor there in judging the quality of the work, but if our excursion through American responses to Kiefer proves anything, it is that bringing a judicious eye to the work is not so simple. We may have to wear out the idea of Kiefer in good, heady talk before we can see Kiefer plain. What's the hurry?