Anselm Kiefer Interview with Donald Kuspit

Anselm Kiefer. Osiris und Isis (Osiris and Isis), 1985-1987.

Anselm Kiefer. Osiris und Isis (Osiris and Isis), 1985-1987.

Kiefer's intentions embrace a search for national identity, a looking to his own history as a source of meaning, a working through and replacing of the past. In his paintings much of this is projected through huge, scorched landscapes (around his studio in Odenwald) which, at the same time, reinstate painting in the grand manner. In this interview, his focus on Germany and regeneration, his use of mythological themes and his comments on American artists are particularly enlightening. At the start a conceptualist, Kiefer's first one-person show took place in Karlsruhe in 1970. He showed in 1973 at Galerie Michael Werner in Cologne. In 1977, he was in Documenta 6, in Kassel, and in the Venice Biennale in 1980. In 1981 we were introduced to him in New York at the Marian Goodman Gallery.

This interview. is based on an informal, unrecorded, conversation which took place on June 10, 1987 at the Museum Fridericianum, where Kiefer was installing his work for Documenta, 8 in Kassel, Germany.

DONALD KUSPIT: Its been said that you're obsessed by things German. They're obviously no joking matter for you, yet your pieces dealing with Heidegger seem ironical.

ANSELM KIEFER: That's true. I'm interested in Heidegger's ambivalence. I am not familiar with his books, but I know he was a Nazi. How is it that such a brilliant mind was taken in by the Nazis? How could Heidegger be so socially irresponsible? It is the same problem as with Celine: here is a wonderful writer who was a rotten anti-semite. How do these thinkers, who seem so intellectually right and perceptive, come to such socially stupid and commonplace positions?

I have shown Heidegger's brain with a mushroomlike tumor growing out of it to make this point. I want to show the ambivalence of his thinking—the ambivalence of all thinking. Ambivalence is the central theme of all my work.

There is no place so ambivalent as Germany. Even German thinkers saw this. Nietzsche and Heine, for example, were Germans who expressed their sense of Germany's ambivalence by hating it. This ambivalence is particularly evident in Germany's attitude to the Jews. The German Jews, being both Jewish and German, embodied this ambivalence. The Jews represent a moral contrast to arrogant German intellectuality. I want to embody both German intellectuality and Jewish morality, as Heine did.

DK: Many Americans think your work is very beautiful. They don't see the ambivalence in it. They don't see that you've found the beauty in ambivalence.

AK: Americans like to look at the surface of things. I have great difficulty with the notion of beauty. I have spent five years on one painting; for it to end up as "beautiful" hardly seems worth the trouble. I think it is beautiful to be justified.

DK: Adorno has said that after Auschwitz it is impossible to write lyric poetry. One might extend this to the idea that after Auschwitz it is impossible to make beautiful art—that beauty is irresponsible.

AK: I believe art has to take responsibility, but it should not give up being art. Many kinds of art are very effective as art. Minimal art is a good contemporary example. But such a "pure" art is dangerous to content, which must always be there. My content may not be contemporary, but it is political. It is an activist art of sorts.

DK: You have made many different kinds of works. Is there any particular type you prefer?

AK: I like book-making most, but I also like environments and actions. A painting is harder to complete for me. I have made books since 1969. They are my first choice.

DK: In your May 1987 exhibition at Marian Goodman in New York you showed a work dealing with the theme of Isis and Osiris and another work dealing with the theme of nuclear energy. They were on opposite walls, and seem related by size and handling. But they must be related in other ways. How do they go together for you?

AK: I am interested in the connection between spiritual power and technological power, one might even say the technological possibilities of spiritual power. The material reciprocity between the pieces, minimally indicated by the fact that Osiris is in 14 pieces and the nuclear pile has 14 rods, suggests a deeper spiritual reciprocity. The Isis and Osiris story is about regeneration, which is what I think the theme of the nuclear story is. It is woman's story. Isis, you may recall, couldn't find the penis. The nuclear pile is a kind of penis. It is a constructive use of potentially destructive power. It is full of connotations of regeneration of power.

DK: Is the issue the regeneration of Germany? Is it about the reunification of Germany?

AK: In a sense, yes. But regeneration does not necessarily mean reunification. Regeneration is a political theme, but it is tied to larger issues, including the issue of the regeneration of art.

DK: Do you feel art today is in special need of regeneration?

AK: I think so. There is too much ars gratia artis, which doesn't give much food for thought. Art is very incestuous: it is art reacting to other art, not thinking about the world. It is at its best when it responds to things outside of art, and when it comes from deep need.

DK: Apart from ambivalence, what else are you thinking about in your art?

AK: I can perhaps best say it by noting that I have become interested in a gnostic thinker, Valentines, who thought that the world came into existence by an accident and will end by one.

DK:Then can we say that your work is full of despair, that its blackness is the blackness of despair?

AK: I do not portray despair. I am always in hope of spiritual purification. My work is spiritual/psychological (geistig/psychologisch). I want to show the conjunction of the spiritual and the psychological in a total environment.

Beuys was a total idealist, he wanted to change people. I want to show something, and then things may change. People think Beuys's work was dark, but this is to misunderstand it. He shows us the truth, which is one part of life. He gives us the truth to enjoy. His art is joyous.

DK: Can you say something more about your attitude to the Jews, who were the theme of a number of your works? How can that be a joyous theme for a German?

AK: My answer has to say something about Germany. After World War II Germany touched the zero hour. Its myth of itself was bankrupt, it no longer really existed. Since then, Germany has become more self-reliant and cosmopolitan than it ever was. The Jews, through their history, were forced to become cosmopolitan. They are a lesson for the Germans. They are cosmopolitan in their relation to art. For example, most collectors are Jewish. My art seems to reach them. When I went to Jerusalem, I was a great success. This had much to do with the new cosmopolitan Germany.

DK: But many people think you are nostalgic for the old, xenophobic, mythical Germany.

AK: I am not nostalgic. I want to remember.

DK: I wonder if we can talk about American art. Are there any American artists who interest you? What do you think of Warhol, for example, who seems so antithetical to you?

AK: He is of interest because he shows the kitsch and garbage of society. He is very intellectual, though he deals with superficiality. He was perhaps a dialectician in that he gave it depth, which is what a real artist can do. I prefer Nauman, who has more distance from popular culture, and explains it rather than immerses himself in it. I am perhaps more sympathetic to Ryman and Rothko. I also like Orr. I like Minimalism in general, because it has no historical baggage, but it seems incomplete. I like artists who have a position, like Matta-Clark. His work is like my painting: it is a kind of archaeological cut.

DK: Matta-Clark's work was transient, and survives only in documentation. Some people have said your work is very frail, and may not survive.

AK: I am not interested in material survival. Its urgency will survive in other ways. You can work an eternity and be forgotten at once. But the unbearableness it articulated will be remembered. Much work, for example, much Cubist work and that of Pollock and Rauschenberg, is fragile, but the tension in it will survive. The way I handle the tension of German and Jew will survive, as it does in Paul Celan's poetry, which has engaged me.

DK: Do you write yourself?

AK: I write a lot, but unofficially, as a self-discipline.

DK: You seem to have a vision of the historical necessity of your art.

AK: I think it completes Minimalism and Conceptualism. That it is painting is not its point. Style or medium is not important. The thought is.

DK: Is the artist, then, for you,'a thinker?

AK: There are three dimensions to an artist: will, time and space. In the United States the artist is thought of as an object-maker. Art is not an object. Art is a way of receiving. And it is full of archaeological potential.

DK: What is your relationship with other German artists?

AK: I am not in touch with other artists. I am not connected,but isolated. Baselitz bought my first paintings, and I once showed with Michael Werner. That is all past history.

DK: Does this isolation help your thinking?

AK: It helps me maintain a unity of thinking, feeling, willing. I want to synthesize them in a work. It is this unity that counts. Isis and Osiris is just a name. It is used arbitrarily, to help people understand, if they want to. People can see my point without knowing the myth.

DK: Is the same true of your German stories?

AK: They exist more for their connotations than their readability. I want those connotations to go against the material of the painting. For example, "Deutschlands Geistenshelden" is nonsense. The title is in contradiction to the material of the work. An irony is established. A precise distance is created. This obscures the work, keeping it from immediate consumption, easy familiarity. I don't mind if my titles lead to misunderstanding, because misunderstanding creates distance. The title is like the book the lecturer puts between himself and his public. The lecture is not about the book; it creates an ironic distance between the lecturer and the public.

DK: Is your irony related to your gnosticism?

AK: In a sense, yes. The point of gnosticism is to sense the not-tangible, the light. The world was born out of the not-tangible, and still retains a sense of it. The light became material. In the end, the sparks will be collected in the wheel and returned to the darkness.