Archive for Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer: Mirroring the Messy World

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Fine & Decorative Arts, Mixed Media, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , , , , on August 9, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: Nancy Ewart, whose posts appear on ChezNamasteNancy and Examiner.com, is a guest contributor at Venetian Red. Today she comments on German artist Anselm Kiefer.

By NANCY EWART

Anselm Kiefer, Wolundlied (Wayland’s Song) 1982
Oil, emulsion, and straw on canvas
with lead wing and gelatin silver print on projection paper
(SF MOMA, Fisher Collection, photograph ©Liz Hager)

Anselm Kiefer is an artist with large ambitions. He engages head on with the darkest period in the 20th century—National Socialism—searching for transcendence and the human place in the cosmos. Over the course of this decades-long investigation the artist has created works that manage to combine elements of destruction, creation, self-reproach, agonizing memory, the ghosts of militarism, anti-Semitism and the worship of violence. In his art Kiefer references, among other things, the occult, the Kabala, Biblical stories, and the Holocaust. He draws on a diverse array of Germanic spiritual guides including Richard Wagner, Frederick II, Joseph Beuys, painters Arnold Bocklin and Caspar David Friedrich and novelist Robert Musil, the Symbolists and the German Expressionists (i.e. Nolde, Kirchner, Beckmann), whose dramatic emotive paintings often focused on societal critiques.

Examining the Nazi past was an ambitious, if not hugely unpopular, proposition for a post-war German artist living in a country that likely preferred amnesia to analysis. Naturally,  Kiefer has said that he always wanted to deal with large issues in his art. He has not been shy about it, visually quoting from the Fascist architecture of Albert Speer and plumbing the German myths and legends so beloved by the Reich.  From the start Kiefer’s work was a loud and uncomfortable reminder that the nation had unfinished business. It has been hugely popular and greatly unpopular. In the hands of a lesser artist an agenda this challenging might have been reduced to grandiose or banal statements. Kiefer, however, has managed to stay true to the powerful emotions inherent in his subject matter, producing visually complex paintings that can still elicit raw emotion, nearly 70 years after the end of the War. A viewer of a Kiefer work today can count on confronting the messiness of the German cultural legacy—its inherent paradoxes, ambiguities, sublime achievements and horrific disasters.

In 1987, as Kiefer was claiming notoriety, Robert Hughes pointed out in his essay “Germany’s Master in the Making”: “His ambitions for painting range across myth and history, they cover an immense terrain of cultural reference and pictorial techniques, and on the whole they do it without the megalomaniac narcissism that fatally trivializes the work of other artists to whom Kiefer is sometimes compared— Julian Schnabel, for instance.”

Anselm Kiefer, Zim Zum, 1990
Acrylic, emulsion, crayon, shellac, ashes, and canvas on lead, 149 3/4 x 220 1/2 in.
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Born in Donaueschingen in southwest Germany in 1945, a few months before the end of the war, Anselm Kiefer was the child of a devastated country. He grew up in a Germany struggling to recover from the disasters of war. Fundamental to his art, however, were his observations of the ways in which Germany dealt with the Nazi past during the boom of the postwar economic miracle.

In 1964, before deciding to pursue a career as an artist, Kiefer began to study law. Even as a very young man (Kiefer was 20 at the time), he was drawn to the larger philosophical questions, specifically the relationship between history, philosophy and religion, as a way of making sense of the moral dilemmas inherent in Germany’s Nazi past.

As a law student, he was intrigued by the theories of Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). Schmitt’s philosophy “explored the most fundamental challenge of law and government; to reconcile the inherent tension between the concepts of free will, authoritarianism and spirituality.” (Wikipedia?) He formulated a world-view that mankind is self-interested and therefore, governments must be authoritarian for the sake of progress. Schmitt joined the Nazi party (as many, but not all, Germans did) but his interest in esoteric traditions, secret societies, the Jewish Kabala and Freemasonry caused him to be soon viewed with distrust.

Anselm Kiefer, Die Milchstrasse (The Milky Way), 1985-87
Emulsion paint, oil, acrylic and shellac on canvas with applied wires and lead
(Courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery)

But for Kiefer, Schmidt’s texts introduced him to esoteric theology that would later influence his artistic endeavors. “I was interested in people like Schmidt,” the artist has said, “because they got caught between the power of government and the power of God.” (Heaven and Earth, Auping, p. 28)

An increasing desire for solitude led Kiefer to the Dominican monastery of La Tourette. He spent three weeks living as a guest of the monks, “just thinking quietly—about the larger questions.” (Heaven and Earth, p 29). This marked a turning point in his life; soon thereafter he abandoned his law studies and turned to art.

At the Dusseldorf Academy Kiefer came under the spell of Joseph Beuys, who inspired him to think about the role of cultural myths, metaphors, and symbols in understanding history. Beuys, the older artist, was perceived as much a performance artist as a shaman, given to transitory and mystical events (talking to a dead hare, sweeping a pavement). As the protégé, the younger artist Kiefer was more interested in traditional expression. He began to be serious about art in the mid-1960s, jas Germany entered an era of hope and prosperity. The public wasn’t altogether ready in revisiting the shameful Nazi past.

Kiefer wanted to open up the wounds of Germany’s past that were still festering from the unexamined infections of anti-Semitism and rabid nationalism. He has been accused of trying to glamorize the Teutonic sagas and racism that led to the Holocaust. The 1975 photographs of Kiefer giving the Sieg Heil salute in front of various historical locations were categorized as neo-fascist and a “sinister nostalgia for Hitler.” It’s a difficult business to attempt to simultaneously mock, criticize and parody Nazism. Sometimes, Kiefer’s work can be too dense with allegory to be understood.

Anselm Kiefer, Die Meistersinger, 1981
Oil, emulsion, and sand on photograph, mounted on canvas
(SF MOMA, Fisher Collection, photograph ©Liz Hager)

He was much more successful in his response to the poet Paul Celan’s haunting meditations on the Holocaust. In his poem “Death Fugue,” Celan, a concentration camp survivor, evokes the death camps, the black sky, burning fields and omnipresent color of lead, which became one of Kiefer’s predominant materials.

Kiefer’s use of lead (both as color and material) in his work is a deliberate choice. The medieval alchemists used lead as a catalyst in their attempts to turn dross into gold. It was a basic ingredient in the search for the Philosopher’s Stone. Later alchemists such as Paracelsus viewed alchemy as a spiritual discipline and alchemical rituals as metaphors for transformations. Lead is also the symbol of creativity since it has been associated, since antiquity, with Saturn, the outermost planet known in the medieval cosmos and the Roman God often identified with melancholia and artistic creation. Additionally, in the book Heaven And Earth (p.39) Michael Auping quotes Kiefer as saying “For me, lead is a very important material. It is, of course, a symbolic material, but also the color is very important. You cannot say that it is light or dark. It is a color or non-color that I identify with. I don’t believe in absolutes. The truth is always gray.”

Kiefer does not believe in permanence. His monumental works have disintegration and decay built into them as a way to emphasize meaning and morality. They do not exalt power or the Aryan ideal of classical, “white” masculinity or the Nazi fantasy of a 1000-year Reich. By confronting “the still disturbing underlying bogeys of modern German society,” he seems to live up to the radical avant-garde stance taken by those artists branded as degenerate in the 1930’s by the Nazi government.

According to Dore Ashton, Picasso is supposed to have once asked rhetorically, “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes of he’s a painter, ears if he’s a musician or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he’s a poet.” He continued: “Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world…”

Kiefer holds up a mirror to Germany, and, by extension, to the world. He shows us our wounded body and broken spirit; he reminds us of the suffering that we have both caused and experienced. In this way, his works evoke secular altarpieces, contemporary Grünewalds, which evoke history’s suffering victims nailed to the cross of war. His enormous landscapes function as postwar battlefields. They are barren to be sure, and mysterious fires burn in the muck, but the distant hope of regeneration and redemption is present. Kiefer’s paintings seem to be saying that it is only through self awareness that we will be liberated.

Wider Connections

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven And Earth, ed. Michael Auping
Monumenta 2007—“Women in the Work of Anselm Kiefer”
Dore Ashton—PICASSO ON ART: A selection of views

Venetian Red: SFMOMA Presents the Fisher Collection

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2010 by Liz Hager

Editor’s Note: On occasion, Venetian Red invites guest writers to contribute to these pages. Today Nancy Ewart, whose posts appear on ChezNamasteNancy and Examiner.com, covers the debut of the Fisher Collection as SFMOMA. VR has a long-standing interest in the Fisher collection; for other posts on this topic, click here.

By NANCY EWART

Anselm Kiefer, Melancholia,
(courtesy of SFMOMA)

I was out of town last month so I missed the press preview. However, one of the first things I did on my return was to get over to SFMOMA and see what all the shouting has been about. The museum is celebrating its 75th year and obtaining this collection gives them another reason to break out the champagne. This sweeping exhibition, entitled “Calder to Warhol: Introducing The Fisher Collection,” offers an extraordinary preview of the depth, breadth, and quality of the Fisher holdings, with works by Alexander Calder, Chuck Close, Sam Francis, Philip Guston, Anselm Kiefer, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, Wayne Thiebaud, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, and many others—160 works by 55 artists, a tasty amuse-bouclé indeed!

Roy Lichtenstein, Reflections
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

Even if the museum had the resources of the legendary King Midas, there is there is no way it could have bought even a fraction of these pieces. While it is difficult to get accurate figures on the sales of contemporary art, a 2005 Artnet article reported that the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC paid $4.5 million for one of Serra’s pieces. Richter’s auction high is the $5.4 million paid for the “Three Candles” and Twomby’s key works from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s have exceeded $10 million. The collection is rich in works from artists below the top-ten echelon. According to a recent (May 1010) article in the Huffington Post, artists such as Chuck Close, David Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Ryman, and Wayne Thiebaud, sell for prices in the $2 million to $4 million range.

Chuck Close, Agnes Martin
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

Agnes Martin, well represented in the exhibit, sells for around seven figures; her prices are probably higher by now. So, while the dollar value of the collection is into the stratosphere, the artistic value to art lovers and the museum is beyond price. Anybody who has followed the saga of the Fisher’s and their art knows about the long and acrimonious battle over his wish to have a museum at the Presidio. Conservationists and wiser heads prevailed to stop it. It wasn’t just a case of NIMBY but involved serious issues over questions of traffic, a huge footprint and, frankly, some distrust of what would happen “after” all the shouting died down. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors were anxious to keep the collection in the city and passed a resolution in 2007 to that effect. Nevertheless, the ultimate fate of the collection was unknown until the Fishers finally announced that the collection would to go the museum, by means of a 100-year renewable loan. Maybe it was astute behind-the scenes talks or perhaps an intimation of mortality that made Don Fisher agree to this for he passed away a few days later.

Andy Warhol, Nine Multicolored Marilyns
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

It is said that you gain immortality through your children; in a very significant sense, his art collection was one of Fisher’s children and now, it’s been gifted to us. The collection is a huge addition to SFMOMA’s collection and puts the museum on the map as a major destination for lovers of modern art. With few notable exceptions, the pieces are huge, bold and brassy, with a focus on the blue chip artists of the last decade or so. It’s beautifully organized and hung, thanks to curator Gary Garrels and the rest of the museum staff. The entire fourth and fifth floors of the museum, including the Rooftop Garden, present a distillation of the sculpture portion of the collection. The Fifth Floor gallery is full of light and airy Calder mobiles. One of the pieces, a charming freestanding sculpture evokes the aquarium of the title with a few witty twists and scrolls of wire. Calder could have given lessons to any minimalist sculptor on elegant simplicity. Major works by Serra, Richter and Kiefer, Lewitt and Bourgeois are also on display.

Alexander Calder, Double Gong
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

After all that, you will need a big cup of Blue Bottle coffee to tackle the rest of the show. The Ellsworth Kelly pieces are textbook examples of his statement that paintings should be the wall, art as a geometric idea and not an emotion. The Kiefer pieces will be another wonderful addition to the museum’s existing one. I am a fan of this enigmatic and philosophical artist so I lingered in front of his Sulamith” with its evocation of the Holocaust. Kiefer’s enigmatic and emotional pieces display an evocative Teutonic angst combined with an awesome list of painting materials (oil emulsion, wood cut, shellac, acrylic and straw on canvas).

Anselm Kiefer, Sulamith
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

Throughout the exhibit, Garrel’s has intelligently paired pieces against one another—a thickly textured Sam Francis (Middle Blue, 1959) matched with the more open brushwork of a 1989 Joan Mitchell; Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park #67 on a wall where it visually leads to the gallery full of Agnes Martin’s pieces. One of those paintings, (Wheat) with its subtle rectangles of cream, parchment and a glaze of creamy yellow, is possibly one of the quietest and most beautiful pieces in the show. The fourth floor is too full of good pieces to list but one in particular—a great Oldenburg Apple Core—adds a much needed taste of wit to the more ponderous pieces in the collection. SFMOMA has announced plans for a vast addition to the museum. Two hundred and fifty million of the needed $480 million has been raised by “friends of the museum” and the board is currently looking for an architect. When the new wing opens in 2016, it will include a 60,000-square-foot Fisher Wing and allow a far more extensive display of the collection.

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #67
(Courtesy of SFMOMA)

“At this momentous time in SFMOMA’s history, we are not only celebrating 75 years of accomplishments and innovation, we’re also looking forward to a new era of growth and community service that will be greatly enhanced by the museum’s presentation of these outstanding works of art from the Fisher Collection,” said SFMOMA Director Neal Benezra. “Our collaboration with the Fisher family will give visitors access to some of the finest modern and contemporary masterpieces, placing SFMOMA among the greatest museums for contemporary art and elevating the cultural profile of the city as a whole.”

Claes Oldenberg, Apple
(Courtesy of Civic Center Blog)

As the first unveiling of Doris and Don’s incredible gift to the city of San Francisco, this exhibition will introduce the public to an incomparable group of iconic works that will inspire and educate generations of visitors in the years to come.” I think that Grace McCann Morely, the museum’s first director would be well pleased.

“SFMOMA: From Calder to Warhol.” On display through September 19.

Wider Connections

More on the Fisher collection from ChezNamasteNancy
Kenneth Baker weighs in

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