REFLECTIONS ON PAINTING, ALCHEMY, NAZISM: VISITING WITH ANSELM KIEFER
ALBERT P. ALBANO
Throughout the 1980s, Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945) produced an extraordinary body of work that earnestly addressed the dense external and internal conflicts and consequences of German cultural and political history, and matters of the human spirit. Kiefer referred to subjects and areas of German identity that had commonly remained only tangentially expressed in painting. He implied that this phenomenon was fostered by a selective historic memory and by the inclination in contemporary German thought to disassociate from the mid-century experience. Kiefer's paintings and studies persuasively attempted communication with the complacency or anxiety latent in selective memory and with the troubled or spiritually atrophied psyche. As this work explored the complex scope of Kiefer's and Germany's collective cultural and historic identity, it focused on the multiple messages and interpretations of history and on the personal concerns of the spirit. The work still retains much of its conscious ambiguity about the past and the artist's personal relationship to it, while providing sufficient references and symbols to generate a growing body of analysis and interpretation; yet, definitive judgments about its intent may continue to remain elusive.
With the social turmoil and its associated anxieties in postunification Germany, Kiefer's paintings continue to sustain their relevancy and interest. His work may well be more temporally poignant than when I visited with him in the mid-1980s while I was working for the Museum of Modern Art, for events in Europe in the intervening years have magnified some of his themes. Always relevant are his insights concerning matters of the spirit and their role in art and life, which he has identified in his work and through his process of creating a painting. Particularly revealing to his intent are his perspectives about change and physical evolution in his artwork.1
It is illuminating to revisit the Kiefer of the 1980s before his Wagnerian Götterdammerung performance of May 1, 1993, as chronicled by art critic Jerry Saltz (1993). This “neo-Baroque” evening performance and Kiefer's last solo exhibition of 1991, during which remaining portions of his oeuvre representing the residue of his fertile 1980s work were to be symbolically destroyed in an art-mound bonfire, may have represented the nadir of his career and the termination of many of his preoccupations of the 1980s. A fallow period followed. He resumed producing paintings in 1995, following a personal transition that included a relocation of his studio from Buchen, Germany, to southern France and a jettisoning of much of his previous environment and historical thematic sources.