A "Gnostic" Triptych by Anselm Kiefer: John Hallmark Neff

Anselm Kiefer. Untitled (Ohne Titel), 1980–86.

Anselm Kiefer. Untitled (Ohne Titel), 1980–86.

In December 1986 the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam presented an exhibition of the most recent work of Anselm Kiefer, then forty-one, a West German on the verge of celebrity abroad though notorious at home for his searching reexaminations of his origins within the horrific legacy of recent German history. A number of important paintings were shown for the first time, including the large untitled triptych that is the subject of these notes.[1]

This triptych, on which Kiefer worked intermittently from 1980 to 1986, is one of his most enigmatic paintings, a work he concedes is "most ambiguous.”[2] Although Kiefer has made other paintings with two or more panels or even consisting of three sections carefully reintegrated into one unified image, Raleigh's work appears to be only his second actual triptych thus far.[3] And unlike the 1973 exhibition, with its Parsifal Room installation, consisting of four related paintings of the artist's wooden attic studio, three composed as a triptych, Raleigh's triptych consists of three canvases of nearly identical size functioning as a self-sufficient composition.[4] That it is untitled and uninscribed within an oeuvre in which titles and handwritten words or texts play essential roles further suggests that this is an exceptional work to which the artist accorded special significance.[5]

Kiefer's themes and ambitions in this contentious object can only be introduced in the following notes.[6] But a hypothesis is proposed to suggest its complexity and legibility, and to relate it to Kiefer's larger project, his magnus opus, a collective quest of some thirty years' duration that interrelates to a remarkable degree each of his paintings, watercolors, photograph-based gouaches, sculptures, sculpture installations, and, not least, his extraordinary books. First, that his search for origins seems here to take the form of an oxymoron — a "Gnostic" triptych — an impossible altarpiece of blasted eerie beauty for a sect of religious iconoclasts with no tradition of art, sacred or otherwise.[7] Further, that this deconstruction seems to extend to the sacred his radical reinscriptions of other power symbols (such as transforming images of fascist architecture into anti-fascist memorials),[8] Finally, that this painting functions simultaneously, paradoxically, and appropriately as both metaphor and quite literal manifestation of his theme of spiritual (and material) transformation.

Acquired at auction in 1994 from the estate of Gerald S. Elliott, a Chicago collector known for his commitment to difficult work, for whom the artist reserved it,[9] Untitled is a particularly evocative example of Kiefer's ability to invent insistent physical objects to serve as symbolic vehicles for concepts of extreme subtlety and abstraction.

By means of these emphatically hybrid objects that reject modernist notions of artistic purity or formalist perfection (another form of iconoclasm, a recurring Kiefer theme) he confronts fundamental issues of origins and survival, often with wry irony and humor.[10] Neither modern nor postmodern,[11] the triptych consists of a large overpainted photograph, molten lead spattered onto canvas, stones, lead and steel objects, and attachments. Stylistically it combines a broadly rendered wintry German landscape and other figurative elements with a surface informed by postwar abstraction and Arte Povera, which emphasize the direct and visible working of industrial materials. Resisting categorization, challenging viewer and other works of art alike, it is a most significant addition to the museum's collection.

Kiefer's first significant foreign exposure was the 1980 Venice Biennale, when he and Georg Baselitz were selected for the German Pavilion. (That year he began working on Untitled.) The resulting furor over his Germanic themes brought him to international attention if not acclaim. First abroad, then in West Germany, important museum exhibitions were organized and curated in close conjunction with Kiefer so that each installation and catalogue was a further extension of his project, inflecting and affirming its interconnectedness. That these exhibitions were temporary reinforced his view that meanings are provisional, contextual, and subject to change with each new combination of paintings, books, and other objects. Certain works he also reproduced in the catalogue in an unfinished state, a wry subversion of the "definitive" authority of museum publications.[12]

The subtitle of the Stedelijk exhibition, "Bilder 1986–>1980" (Paintings 1986 –> 1980), was characteristic of this process, inverting the normal, cumulative chronology to reflect the artist's retrospective process of reciprocal cross-referencing, linking objects old and new, years apart. Kiefer reopened previous readings of certain themes by reworking familiar images in new materials, and/or new media, and/or with often new and apparently contradictory titles, inscriptions, or no title at all.[13] In other instances, as with Untitled, he reworked older canvases, although this triptych was an exception in several respects. Over time we come to realize that each of Kiefer's works is simply one instant, one frame in an ongoing open-ended project of cinematic proportions that corresponds in real time to his life and works. Each image, substance, word, and process is seldom only what it appears to be but enjoys simultaneously a multivalent, often overdetermined existence.

As a strategy to keep his work aggressively in flux, open to chance and future changes (as with his books' purposive blank pages), his general method reflects a Gnosticized view of creation, of an imperfect world subject to endless beginnings and endings, a conflicted existence in which good confronts a powerful but not absolute evil in a quest to restore the original unity with a distant and absent divinity. This seems reflected in Kiefer's statement that there is no absolute truth, there are only interpretations[14] — and reinforced visually in his work, where we find neither pure black nor white but instead infinite shades of gray.[15]

Also typically Gnostic is to invert orthodox doctrine (such as the Fall told from the perspective of the serpent). Such purposeful "misreading”[16] is applied as a critical method to probe other, deeper meanings beneath the literal reading of received texts, as in such esoteric exegetical techniques as talmudic gematria.[17] This helps us to understand Kiefer's predilection for ambiguity and paradox, which defy facile closure and which in turn keep his work critically before us, renewing them with each reconsideration.[18] The blurring of concepts and terminology between esoteric and mystical traditions also contributes to this ambiguity, which Kiefer exploits as surely as he does lead or solarized photography. He emphasizes that he is not a scholar nor does he read as a scholar, but sees what he reads in terms of images, as an artist.[19] This said, Kiefer's Gnosticized concept and procedures, with their alchemical overtones of material and thematic transformation, seem also akin to the Jungian psychological process of individuation or integration of the unconscious and conscious.[20] (Jung himself regarded the Gnostics as the "virtual discoverers of 'depth psychology.’”)[21]

Kiefer has been aware of Gnostic concepts since the 1960s when, as a student, he questioned institutionalized authority in all aspects of his life.[22] From the Greek gnosis or "knowledge" (as in a profound spiritual understanding of existence, not data), Gnosticism was a "philosophical-religious movement dedicated to personal salvation.”[23] Without a central authority or text, Gnosticism encompassed an unusually diverse set of beliefs and practices: Christian, Jewish, ascetic, orgiastic, and so forth. Contemporaneous with early Christianity, Gnosticism shared with it many cosmogonic concepts and verbal imagery drawn from Neo-Platonism, Judaism, and Egyptian and Greek mystery religions, as well as elements of Manichaean dualism from Persia and beyond.

On the basis of surviving textual fragments, the early Gnostics of the second to third centuries are thought to have been a well-educated, affluent elite versed in Greek philosophy.[24] The darkly evocative imagery of Gnostic writers that has inspired later artists and writers such as Blake, von Kleist, Yeats, Hesse, Kafka, and Pynchon[25] has mostly survived in fragments and through the accounts of later Church fathers who denounced and persecuted them as "heretics." Kiefer's favorite appears to be Valentinus, the second-century Gnostic, whose descriptions of a "negative beauty" Kiefer much admires. Born in Alexandria, Valentinus established a school in Rome notable for its rationalism and moderation.

A central tenet of Gnostic thought, subject to extremely subtle nuances of interpretation, linked the problematic origins of the world, the inherent corruption of all matter, and the role of evil. Reasoning that a worthy divinity could not have created a world of suffering, the early Gnostics concluded that Creation itself was the Fall, not the work of the true God but that of a secondary creator god or demiurge, "powerful but prone to blunder.”[26] As a kind of premature intervention, preempting the Supreme and Unknowable divinity beyond comprehension, the sensible world was thus a cosmic mistake. Because the Unknowable was also distant and uninvolved, there could be no absolute good (or evil) but admixtures of both. Unlike Christian dualism, which radically opposed good and evil,[27] for the Gnostic they simply coexisted, evil one aspect of the former, more the complement of good than its antithesis, both essential to maintain the dynamic equilibrium of creative and destructive forces whose interactive transformation was life itself.

Although many popularized conceptions of Gnosticism play up its paranoiac dualities, many Gnostic sects evolved this in practice into a highly cosmopolitan ethos of reasonableness and openness to conflicting ideas. Discussion, reinterpretation, and amendment of beliefs were typical of the small Gnostic groups. Opposing views were overcome not with force but by persuasion. Simplistic either/or dualities were rejected "as merely mental categories that necessarily imply the other.”[28]

Instead, from cosmic model to earthly copy, existence was conceived in terms of triads. The Gnostic cosmology was organized with an intermediary state buffering the two extremes, a middle way with clear affinities to the Chinese doctrine of yin-yang which Kiefer has symbolized in early work such as Resurrexit ("He is risen") of 1973, where heaven/earth, upper/lower, ascension/descension, male/female, white/black, and so forth are metaphorically evoked by his imagery and symbolic placement. (The unusual two-canvas format terminating in a blunted pyramid is also suggestive of an altarpiece with its outer wings folded over the center panel.)

The tripartite structure was all-encompassing. Within the divine hierarchy it extended from the invisible world of the Pleroma ("fullness"), to which all light/spirit sought to return, to the visible, material world of generation, the two mediated by Sophia or "Wisdom." On a societal scale it descended from the pneumatic or higher spiritual level (the Gnostic elect), through the psychic level of lower soul or spirit (identified with the True Church), down to the hylic or material plane of pagans, gentiles, and Jews. The celestial model extended even to the eye, which, because it "lives on light," is the only bodily aperture that "escapes corruption." The white eyeball, on the circumference, corresponds to the Pleroma; the colored iris to the psychic dimension; the black pupil at center to the hylic abyss.[29]

The cosmic disaster, the Gnostic counterpart to the later kabbalistic concept of the Breaking of the Vessels[30] (which Kiefer has likened to ecological disasters) scattered the divine emanations of pure spirit or light throughout the world, in the process corrupting it with matter or darkness. This rupture of what had been perfect engendered a timeless battle waged between good and evil (light and darkness) to purify and restore the divine substance to the heavenly Pleroma and thereby to end the exile of separation. The collection, purification, and restoration of the divine substance made a reciprocal process linking heaven to earth in which matter would be refined as the initiate gradually acquired gnosis by ascending through the twelve Eons or levels that separated the world from the Pleroma. This was an archetypal quest in which one was tested at each level by evil Archons with no assurance of success.[31] Once the world was purified — matter transformed into spirit — the stage was set for Christ to return to save the elect, a redemption, however, that by definition could be effected only after death, following the destruction of the material body.

The material, sensible world and all of its creations were thus inherently flawed, condemned to endless repetitions of creation and destruction. The Gnostics, in yet another inversion of Christian doctrine that saw in each aspect of creation the reflection of divine perfection, regarded all of nature, including the human body, as corrupt. Sharing many beliefs with their neighbors, the Gnostics were nevertheless critical of certain Christian beliefs and rituals and shunned the use of images and sacred buildings, which as material objects profaned the divinity. The cross they despised as a symbol of Christ's suffering. Nor, as an initiated elite, did the Gnostics require didactic visual aids: Gnostic tolerance did not extend to images.

Instead, because the material world served the Gnostic only as the stage for the drama of salvation, ritual initiation replaced the more passive contemplation of images. Through the symbolic reenactments the participating initiate acquired gnosis as self-knowledge, the goal of the spiritual quest. This personal acting out as the means of self-knowledge or understanding should be compared to Kiefer's early "actions" or performances, especially the controversial Besetzungen or "Occupations" in which he posed in front of various European tourist sites giving a mock Hitler salute. (It is also clearly related to Jungian theories of reenactment.) The highly charged and ambivalent morality of many of Kiefer's subjects and images constitutes the risk he undertakes to confront his own Shadow (or Jungian dark side) in what has been described as the "gray zone" where absolute good and evil do not exist.[32] Risking serious misunderstanding through these very public activities as an artist, Kiefer sought to experience, to test (if not actually to know) how he might have acted had he lived during the Nazi period.

The range of Gnostic beliefs can only be alluded to here, but their appeal and subsequent threat to authority are demonstrated by the persecution of latter-day Gnostics as heretics by the dominant True Church and the utter destruction of the thriving Gnostic communities of the Bogomils in Bosnia and the Cathars (or Albigensians) in southern France in the thirteenth century. Employing the history of iconoclastic controversies as an index of tolerance — as in his Bilderstreit variations — Kiefer appears to suggest that tolerance and intolerance are historically contextual and non-exclusive virtues, subject to change.

Eschewing linear notions of progress, Kiefer describes his project in terms of ripples spreading outward from a center (himself); later he extends the concept dimensionally as an outwardly ascending spiral. Within this dynamic his work "progresses" not by leaving themes behind for more "advanced" ones but by accretion. Keifer literally builds on them as they cyclically recur. Temporally he enriches them with historic references preceding or following 1945, his year of birth. Geographically, his themes have expanded outward from Germany to the Middle East and most recently the Americas and India.

Yet there is invariably some connection to his own origins, some detail or evocative association, that relates a work on some level to Kiefer himself and to Germany. These might be linguistic archaisms or puns in any of four or five languages or in his choice of materials, such as lead. Or it may be the chance interjection of current events that refocuses and thereby transforms his archetypal images, a process of multilayering he refers to as "reverse archaeology." The work thus functions not unlike a pair of binoculars (lenses and frame) viewed simultaneously and/or alternatively from both ends. (Perspectives, points of view, and surveillance are other Kiefer leitmotives.)

Diachronic or historic time merges into a single continuum of fundamental themes reconsidered in synchronic permutation. For example, the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown of 1986 immediately triggered for Kiefer images from Jules Verne's science fiction overlaid with those of Egyptian solar deities and kabbalistic apocalypse. In images of a model reactor in his studio or a mastaba reminiscent of a nuclear pile, he evokes a linkage of history and myth suggesting that our ambition to channel natural forces with technology is an illusion.[33] Spatially, temporally, his is a vision more appropriately explicated in hyper-text than in linear print.

Yet when we are aware of Kiefer's visual language — of the privileging of ascension; the center; viewer's right over viewer's left; lighter, warmer tones; the lightening, filtering, or refinement of matter into more "spiritual" (or less raw) states — his system of visual metaphors for the Gnostic's psychic transformation is as legible as the sculpture program of a medieval portal.


Triptychs as a genre are as overdetermined a format as exists in Western art, a potential cliche predisposing the viewer to anticipate meaning without necessarily engaging with it. The triptych's frequent, sometimes facile, adoption by other artists, as well as Kiefer's pleasure in frustrating expectations, perhaps explain the belated appearance of this one. But as an instrument of public address carrying the most private of themes, the triptych has a potential for paradox that clearly intrigued him.

The winged polyptych or triptych as high altar in the early sixteenth century in northern Europe, for example, has been aptly described as both a "machine" and a stage. As symbolic microcosms of the universe, centered within a church itself so symbolized, the most elaborate altars of the Counter-Reformation seem to have incorporated the highest technology and ingenuity of the day to attract and to educate their audience. With programmatic narratives, sculpted and/or painted on movable sets of wings, changed to accord with the liturgical calendar, perhaps even with musical automata, the high altar functioned very much as would a contemporary hybrid combining theater, billboard, cinema, library, and interactive large-screen computer. Perhaps the most notable example is the Isenheim Altarpiece, a work that has had particular significance for German artists such as Max Beckmann (who, it seems, also incorporated Gnostic imagery into his famous triptychs).[34]

A winged or so-called flying altar like the Isenheim Altarpiece comprised multiple parts, a highly symbolic microcosmic structure representing the divine Anthropos: the center panel his body (or Corpus), each side panel a wing (ein Flugel). The carved or painted panel beneath the Corpus was der Sarg (coffin/casket), emphasizing "the inextricable association between grave and altar in the Catholic liturgy,”[35] the altar serving as manger at Christmas (birth) and tomb at Easter (death and resurrection). Surmounting the center panel are the carved and Gothic spires of the Auszug, meaning departure or Exodus. Its shape and gilding symbolize the ascension of the spirit. (But as a railway station sign Auszug evokes the trains to the death camps. Lanzmann's film Shoah contains an unforgettable image of the railway tracks converging on Auschwitz, an image perhaps referenced in Kiefer's Eisen-Steig [Iron-Path, of 1986.)

The wings were opened and closed in narrative combinations deter- mined by the liturgical calendar and local practice. The sequential viewing of the Isenheim Altarpiece's different parts has been described in terms of three states, each corresponding to a set of desired devotional responses according to the respective skill of each worshipper. In the open state, the triptych was to be actively examined and deciphered in detail; in the middle state, the worshipper assumed a gradual visual fixation leading into a trance-like frame of mind; and in the final state, with the wings closed, the viewer was to recall the entire narrative contemplatively, to link annunciation to crucifixion to resurrection. This third stage was an internalized, primarily mental form of visualization no longer tied to its material source.[36]

On first viewing, Kiefer's triptych, too, seems almost traditional: an apparent Last Judgment, a theme particularly suited to triptychs, with the saved dramatically separated off to God's right (viewer's left), the damned to God's left. The artist and others have described the centrifugal flow across the three panels as an image of spiritual transformation. Kiefer has suggested that the spatters of molten lead around the sieve at right constitute a later stage of refinement of the cluster of six lead-splashed stones seemingly ascending together to the viewer's left.

At center the lead ladder with twelve rungs suspended from a piece of pipe would seem to suggest the uncertain risks of spiritual ascension (and descension) to heaven (or, as proposed here, to the Gnostic's Pleroma, which begins with the thirteenth Eon at the horizon line). As an instrument of the Passion, the ladder may also stand for Christ as well as the cross. The ambiguous identity of the snake, alternately and simultaneously fertility, death, wisdom, or evil as Satan, is well known to many cultures. This snake, coiled to strike outward, is one of many serpents that inhabit Kiefer's work, from the world-encircling Midgard serpent to the snakes and stones that Kiefer imagines to be of celestial origin and with which he calls up the Order of Angels to the tiny "snake" lUDs or contraceptive coils of bent plastic-covered wire that appear pasted over landscape photographs in his early books on the theme of Barren Landscape.[37]

Serpent lore is endless. It is worth pointing out, however, that in addition to differentiating his serpents heraldically by their activity, Kiefer localizes his cosmic crises by including the common European adder or Kreuzotter (Cross Adder) . Identified by its distinctive lozenge-pattern markings of black and white, which form another ladder up its back, or the yin-yang, it is known also as "Hell Adder" (Heilotter), exemplifying thereby yet another example of the reconciliation of opposites, as within the oneness of the divine.

Originating as one of many large, usually horizontal, photograph-based paintings of the countryside near his studio in Buchen (Baden-Wurttemberg) that he made in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Untitled's precursor was unaccountably trisected vertically into nearly equal parts, each of which Kiefer says he attempted, unsuccessfully, to develop as an independent painting. Kiefer's initial failure and subsequent improvisation are parallel to the Gnostic's imperfect creation. His procedures and the resulting triptych — first one, then three, then three-as-one — may also be a more subtle variation on his notable earlier works from the 1970s on the theme of the Christian Triune God or Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

The shadowy, wintry landscape that serves as the site of Kiefer's cosmic drama is at least three landscapes in one, which manifest rather literally the Gnostic notion of three principles: a very large black-and-white landscape photograph glued to the canvas, which was Kiefer's original image; the painted landscape with which Kiefer obscured it; and the subsequent atmospheric reworking with blowtorch and lead of the painted landscape (and serpent), after which the six lead-covered stones, lead ladder, and lead funnel/ sieve were added. In its order of making and substance, the triptych's schema seems awry parody of the Gnostic eyeball: the underlying landscape photograph, an image created by light (so therefore spiritualized and most distant), is overpainted, or obscured, with earthen pigments, the whole topped with base metals and stones, a massive cosmic sandwich. That this photograph is now effectively invisible further reinforces its identity with the Unseen, its existence beneath the savaged paint a matter of faith.

Kiefer's interest in creating meaning on multiple levels extends also to his use of language in multilingual puns, homophones, and archaisms, including puns on his own name in titles (Maikaferflieg, Kyffhauser). Even Anselm: the poet Paul Celan, whose Todesfuge or "Death Fugue" and other poems feature prominently in Kiefer's work of the early 1980s, was born Paul Antschel or, variously, Ancel; his transposition of the letters of his name to effect a new identity after surviving the death camps has been described as his shortest poem.[38]

Kiefer's simple transpositions may completely transform the meaning of an image and its associations, as when he changed "Song of the Nibelungs" to "Sorrow of the Nibelungs" (Lied to Leid), deconstructing a favorite Wagnerian image of German nationalists to one of remorse and remembrance.[39] He did the same with the name given to the sixth-century writer known as Pseudo-Dionysius, who forged writings in the name of the first-century Dionysius the Areopagite (meaning judge, from Areopagus, or "Ares's hill," site of the Athenian judicial court). These writings formed an influential textual basis for angelic lore in the West. By transposing two letters, Kiefer creates "Aeropagite," a bogus etymology that supports a range of aeronautical and angelic imagery, from lead propellers, planes, and rockets to winged angels. Kiefer's verbal and visual punning is more than simply clever; it reinforces the Areopagite's descriptions of the mystic's spiraling ascent through the angelic orders.

Hence the significance of Kiefer's Untitled (more emphatic in the German Ohne Titel, "without title"). It has been suggested that the ambiguity of the painting precluded the artist from naming it.[40] We may cite also the tradition of taboos against uttering God's names and the Gnostic belief that names were deceptive illusions. But in the context of a divinity unknowable, ineffable, invisible, perhaps to be nameless is to be named after all. For whether this triptych is primarily Catholic, alchemical, Egyptian, or Gnostic is finally not of critical importance because it is simultaneously all of them and more, just as any symbol consists of its accreted layers of history and use (like the etymologies of words, for example, that Kiefer surely mines in dictionaries). Naming it, however, fixing its identity, would be a form of separation, even exile, from other, potential meanings.

For Kiefer, punning is not the lowest form of humor but a creative doubling of his resources, of potential resonance, of ambiguity, a characteristic that recommended puns to the Gnostic minority as well. Kiefer's punning on the triptych's pair of flanking wings, taken together with the Corpus or "body" of its central panel (whose ladder implies human presence), transforms the ensemble into another of his symbolic angels. (Their opening and closing are echoed in two other meanings of der Flugel: "casement window" and "grand piano.")

The lead funnel (der Trichter), that Kiefer turns into a sieve (das Sieb) at right by covering it with a piece of wire screen (das Netz), which effects the filtering of base matter, suggests another set of puns verbal and visual that link the triptych in most inventive ways with traditional iconography. An altar cloth suspended behind the high altar is called a dossol; if the cloth is extended to the sides they become "riddles," the textile equivalent of the triptych's wings. To riddle means "to pierce with holes" (such as "riddled" with corruption or anxiety ) as well as "to puzzle." While a sieve is used to refine materials such as flour, a Gros Sieb (large sieve) designates "a coarse-meshed sieve" or "riddle" used to separate corn from chaff, sand from gravel, ash from cinders. In the context of an altarpiece, with its depictions of the Last Judgment, the riddle seems to symbolize also the weighing of souls. Kiefer's fabricated riddle puns on its location: Kiefer's placing of it in the lower
center of the right wing (the left hand of God) suggests that this mundane tool serves as a subtle and at least threefold symbol of the Archangel Michael, privileged by God to sound "the last trump" or trumpet that heralds the last resurrection.[41]

Michael serves also as "the weigher of souls." (This function he shares with his pagan prefiguration, Mercury, as well as with Osiris, both deities linked through alchemical lore, as Kiefer well knows. Osiris and Saturn, with whom Mercury is linked and is sometimes synonymous, are the subject of a number of Kiefer's major works.) The funnel's shape evokes the trumpet; the metal screen, the balance or scales used to weigh one's soul, thereby to separate "the sheep from the goats," the saved from the damned. (The verb sieben, "to sieve," also connotes "to select by examining." And the Gnostics, who believed that only they would be saved on Judgment Day, regarded scripture as allegorical text to be freely interpreted as riddles.)

Kiefer's triptych — all ten by eighteen feet by half a ton — uses its sacred format, somber tonalities, and lead objects to pun visually on its weighty eschatological themes and spiritual enlightenment. The model ladder of lead strips, here visually and physically linking earth (serpent/knowledge/science) to heaven (received wisdom) — the twelve rungs reach to the high horizon line where the heavenly zone of the Pleroma commences at Eon number thirteen. It is yet another of Kiefer's visual oxymorons for spiritual ascent: lead wings, lead propellers, lead aircraft, and lead rockets for starters. Impossible objects, they parody the concept of the reconciliation of opposites. (The composite lead funnel/sieve/filter/riddle in the right panel, itself improvised from a leftover propeller spinner, is another symbolic vehicle of transformation, like Kiefer's snakeskins and intestine casings, which appeared almost interchangeably in the late 1980s.)[42]

These are also his updated counterparts for the fiery chariot, or Ezekiel's wheel, symbols for dynamic spiritual ascent. Even the six stones, splashed with lead, seem on ascendant course, caught in the centrifugal flow of darker and lighter zones across the three vertical panels that circumscribes an unusual horizontal mandala at center. The combination of four primary images (ladder, filter, serpent, and stones) on three panels seems reminiscent of Jung's four-part mandala and his belief that quaternity, not trinity, is the symbol of wholeness.[43]

As concept and practice this triptych seems also consistent with Gnostic (and other) texts describing the cosmogonic myth in terms of liquid metaphor, of flowing emanations, a feminized organic birth, a cosmogony "grown" and formless in contrast to the structured, fabricated world of the masculinized archetypal "cosmic potter.”[44] In this perspective, Kiefer's atypical dissection of his original canvas would seem another Gnostic flaw because he usually recycled his failed paintings by composting them in large dumpsters, harvesting and using the fragments as large-scale collage, less "paintings" than vestigial images, a residue rife with allusion. Kiefer's triptych, not unlike Warhol's Oxidation Paintings and Polke's toxic triptychs, is both "made" and "grown," still evolving. As a hybrid assemblage of diverse materials and often conflicting processes, images, and things, Untitled follows the Gnostic middle road, a condition attributed to the postmodern. For instance, Kiefer's encrusted pigments of refined organic earths and minerals replicate literally in relief, as well as figuratively, the landscape terrane. His materials are seldom if ever displaced by the images they create; their tangible, tactile identities as stuff never succumb completely to illusion.

As a further, Gnostic inversion of our operative standards of beauty and condition, this strange triptych (already several times transformed) is still "unfinished," still "open to history," as a consequence of its "inherent vice" (a conservator's euphemism for the self-destructive properties intrinsic to certain materials but a Gnostic concept if ever there was one). Untitled, by virtue of its theme of last things, is a more apocalyptic variation of Kiefer's many "open" books. The triptych paradoxically, perversely, "completes" itself through its slow but ineluctable material dissolution, sloughing its skin like a snake (a traditional symbol of rebirth and resurrection). Meaning and disintegration are linked, the former achieving its full import as concept even as the material object dissipates, denying closure by theoretically engendering a new cycle of works from the detritus.

In retrospect it is possible to see the Gnostic concepts throughout Kiefer's project (reaffirming that "Gnostic" can mean many and often contradictory things). His works affirm, for example, a model of openendedness, of multivalent and multilayered meanings, the coexistence of mutually exclusive concepts responding to changing needs. Kiefer has expressed a conception of existence that he explains in terms of an ongoing process of cyclic transformations, of multiple beginnings and endings. He has described this in terms of an outward spiral or of ripples spreading outward from a fixed center (the artist standing in the water).This is a concept shared with Neo-Platonism and other belief systems of late antiquity that reject the notion of a single creation or the end of time. Like the Gnostics, Kiefer appears to reject the illusion of closure, the hierarchic finality of either/or dualities. He regards such choices as false, an illusion of the possibility of absolute purity or wholeness that separates one belief from another, risking intolerance and disaster.

If traditional triptychs convey desired outcome and dire consequences in no uncertain terms, there is no such reassurance in Untitled. Instead we see a contaminated landscape perhaps beyond repair. There are no clear winners or losers — there seems to be no one at all. Here we seem to have a triptych — the vehicle for the central image of the Counter-Reformation (then engaged in "a war of images" with an iconoclasticizing Protestantism) — reinscribed with symbols ambiguous but contextually consistent with the Gnostic "heretics" whom the early Church vigorously suppressed. That these iconoclasts were massacred in part for their criticism of church corruption, including the use of images, is doubly ironic and suggests that it would be premature to view Untitled merely as a kind of coy heresy, for surely it is as secular as sacred, directly linked, as always, to his project, to the recovery of identity from exile.

As an artist born in Germany, Kiefer has said that he does not have the option to deal only with art history but must deal with "real history.”[45] In his work he has been likened to an alchemist, a stage designer,[46] a film director, a storyteller, and most recently a psychologist. But he is also pre-eminently an extraordinary teacher with a gift for healing, an ambition that makes some critics very nervous. His project sometimes walks a thin line, risking portentousness, even kitsch, the ridiculous rather than the sublime. But in doing so he attempts to make works of art that have meaning beyond the studio or museum.

Through his invention of particularly resonant symbols such as this one, Kiefer compels us to move beyond literal appearance and habit, to risk engagement with it and work it through. As in his own controversial reenactment of fascist taboo, he dares us to bring our experience of his work and its ideas onto the conscious level and into memory. Unlike the Gnostic minority, for whom metaphorical ambiguity was also a means to avoid detection, Kiefer exploits this ambivalence in his work to attract it. His uneasy altarpiece challenges our direct participation as well as the reflection his themes demand if we are to comprehend them and the personal choices they symbolically exact.


[1] Anselm Keifer: Bilder 1986–>1980, exh. cat. (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1986), cat. no. 31, illus. pp. 8 and 17 and in color pp. 82-83. Compare minor differences in placement of stones and funnel between Amsterdam and subsequent installations.

[2] Conversation with the artist, 13 March 1996. Unless otherwise noted, paraphrases or quotations are from this and earlier conversations in 1987 cited in Neff, Anselm Kiefer: Bruch und Einung (New York: Marian Goodman Gallery, 1987, hereafter Neff 1987).

[3] His interest in altarpiece-like paintings and tripartite images can be traced to his earliest works. Born and raised a Catholic, though now apparently non-practicing, he spent three weeks in 1966 at the Dominican monastery La Tourette at Eveux, near Lyons (the building was designed by Le Corbusier in the late 1950s). His purpose was to see how a modern artist could successfully translate sacred concepts. (One is tempted to compare the spare concrete structures of the monastery imprinted by the formwork with the broad expanses of sheet lead Kiefer employed in such works as cat. nos. 20-22, 26, 30, 37, 41 in Anselm Kiefer, exh. cat. [Berlin: Nationalgalerie Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Preussischer Kulturbesitz, 1991, hereafter Berlin].) Kiefer's earliest work is replete with images that mix Teutonic and Catholic symbols — shamen, initiates, saints, crucifixes, and angels — the beginning of his working through Western and other religious traditions. Kiefer has found images for concepts in Jewish and Christian mysticism, for example, seldom attempted by visual artists.

His 1977 "Autobiography," reprinted in English in Anselm Kiefer (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1987, hereafter Chicago), 11, lists "Paintings on Trinity, Quaternity, above-below, l-Thou" immediately after "Study with Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf." Beuys, who openly identified himself as a kind of Christian shaman, assisted his own teacher, Ewald Matare (1887-1965) with the new south portal doors of the Cologne Cathedral (circa 1951) and integrated spiritual concepts directly into his work. See Ewald Matare, Retrospective das Plastische Werk (Cologne: Kolnsicher Kunstverein, 1987), 47. See also Friedhelm Mennekes, Beuys zu Christus/ Beuys on Christ (Stuttgart: Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk Gmbh., 1989) Kiefer's Raleigh triptych may be, among other things, an homage to Beuys, who died on 23 January 1986 (see n. 6).

In the early 1970s, Kiefer made several diptychs as well as irregularly shaped two-part canvases, some consisting of two rectangular canvases, often with the smaller centered above the larger. With his triptychs in mind, these earlier works resemble the shapes of closed altarpieces, their wings folded over the center panel, suggesting the imaginary existence of three additional panels beneath, whose connection to what we actually see is left to our imagination. See the 1973 Father, Son, Holy Ghost in Anselm Kiefer, annotated catalogue by Jurgen Harten (Düsseldorf: Stadtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 1984, hereafter Düsseldorf), fig. 3, p. 22, and in color Chicago, pi. 9, p. 27. It is perhaps significant that these two-part paintings frequently feature religious imagery and are often untitled. See Chicago, fig. 20, p. 18.

The existence of triptych-like images within other paintings such as triple windows, doors, openings, and mirrors is not unusual. See Chicago, figs. 23, 76; pls. 57, 62. He has also made a number of very large singular works consisting of two or three canvases joined closely together, perhaps to facilitate shipping and to distribute their considerable weight. See Midgard. Altarpieces and their narrative and associative potential clearly interest him. He displayed in an unfinished state a large canvas reminiscent of Warhol's Oxidation Paintings or so-called "piss paintings" mounted upon a large metal stand positioned in the gallery adjacent to one of his large, reliquary-like lead aircraft (which as vehicles of mediation and transformation function as contemporary angels). See Berlin, cat. nos. 24, 54, pp. 68-69, 146-147. Even his monumental library installations of lead books and glass function like altars, whether as standing sefirothic trees from the Kabbalah or standing like open books and evoking triptychs.

[4] The Parsifal Room panels, 1973, are illustrated and discussed in Düsseldorf, 30-32. The so-called "London triptych" consists of Parsifals III, I, and IV, left to right. The installation was created for his punning "Der Nibelungen Leid" (The Sorrow of the Nibelungs) exhibition at the Galerie im Goethe-lnstiitut/Provisorium, Amsterdam.

[5] Neff 1987, 11 and n. 1.

[6] The author is preparing a forthcoming book in which the triptych and other works will be analyzed more extensively and on additional levels of meaning beyond the scope of this article.

[7] For a scholarly introduction to Gnosticism, see Giovanni Filoramo, A History of Gnosticism, trans. Anthony Alcock (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990). Also Richard T. Wallis, ed., Neoplatonism and Gnosticism, vol. 6, Studies in Neoplatomsm: Ancient and Modern (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992). A less scholarly but evocative study is Jacques La Carriere, The Gnostics, foreword by Lawrence Durrell, trans. Nine Rootes (San Francisco: City Lights, 1989; Fr. ed. 1973).

[8] See Mark Rosenthal's discussion in Chicago, 106-121.

[9] Conversation with the artist, 13 March 1996.

[10] See Linda Hutcheon, "Provocation and Controversy: The Work of Anselm Kiefer," in Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony (London: Routledge, 1994), 101-115. She is a latecomer to Kiefer who had problems with the work; her discussion of "discursive communities" is a model for issues related to the necessity of understanding Kiefer's contextual references if one is to register the irony at work in his treatment of Germanic themes such as Wagnerian opera.

[11] See Mark C Taylor's analysis of Kiefer in relation to Barnett Newman and Andy Warhol in "Reframing Postmodernisms," in Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion, Philippa Berry and Andrew Wernick, eds. (London: Routledge, 1992), 11-29. See also Taylor's fine discussion of Kiefer in Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 290-307

[12] For Kiefer's parodies of home magazines, archaeological reports, textbooks, and a Donald Judd exhibition catalogue, see Neff 1987, esp. p. 8 and n. 4.

[13] There are numerous examples. Compare, for example, the 1974 and 1991 variants of Maikafer fliegi in Chicago, pl. 12, p. 33, and Berlin, cat. no. 38, pp. 88-89, respectively.

[14] Cited in Chicago, 10.

[15] The particular connotations of gray for Kiefer go beyond his use of lead in its various forms, though its presence as substance downplays Kiefer's decision to use it also symbolically as color, specifically as a mixture of the dualities of black and white. Gray is also a Christian color of mourning, spring, and Lent. Kiefer's interest in the early work of Jasper Johns may also be a factor in his extensive use of gray in the 1980s.

[16] The term is that of literary critic Harold Bloom, whose Kabbalah and Criticism and studies of Blake, Yeats, and others are replete with Gnostic references. The Book of J and his latest books are studies of Gnosticism: The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992) and Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996). He sees Gnosticism as the unrecognized system behind much contemporary religion, with its focus on individual divinity.

[17] See discussion and further references in John Hallmark Neff, "Notes on Kabbalistic Ideas and Imagery," in Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives, Richard Francis and Sophia Shaw, eds. (Chicago: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996), 120-123.

[18] See Frank Kermode, Forms of Attention (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), esp. 60 and 84-85 in relation to Kiefer.

[19] Conversations with the artist, 1987 and 1996.

[20] Kiefer's use of archetypal imagery suggests a Jungian parallel. See Neff 1987, n. 14. A useful new study by a Jungian psychoanalyst reaches a similar conclusion. See Rafael Lopez-Pedraza, Anselm Kiefer: The Psychology of "After the Catastrophe" (New York: G. Braziller, 1996), 78.

[21] Filoramo, xiv.

[22] Conversations with the artist, 1987 and 1996.

[23] W. L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, Eastern and Western Thought (Atlantic Highlands, N. J.: Humanities Press, Inc.. 1980), 192-193.

[24] Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988), 75-76.

[25] See Filoramo's introduction. Kiefer's primary source of Gnostic lore has apparently been indirect, from excerpts, not specialized texts. (Conversation with the artist, 1996.) Gnosticism had been a German scholarly specialty prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls or so-called Gnostic Gospels in Palestine in 1945. It was also of particular interest to Jung, who assembled the leading Gnostic specialists at his annual gatherings at Ascona. See also Dwight Eddins, The Gnostic Pynchon (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).

[26] John P. Anton, "Theourgia-Demiourgia: A Controversial Issue in Hellenistic Thought and Religion," in Wallis, 15.

[27] See A. H. Armstrong, "Dualism: Platonic, Gnostic, and Christian," in Wallis, 37.

[28] Pagels, 71.

[29] La Carriere, 45.

[30] For a discussion of this concept of the Lurianic Kabbalah in relation to Kiefer's work, see Doreet LeVitte Harten, "Canticle for a God Unknown," in Anselm Kiefer: Lilith (New York: Marian Goodman, 1992).

[31] Compare the popular children's boardgame Snakes and Ladders, "derived from . . . a game used in India for religious instruction. The Hindu sages taught that 'pap' (good) and 'punya' (bad) exist side by side and that virtuous behavior, represented by ladders, helped the individual to progress toward the ultimate perfection or 'Nirvana.'" See R. C. Bell, The Boardgame Book (Los Angeles: The Knapp Press, 1979), 134-135. Apparently such games were sold in Germany in the 1960s in counterculture shops. If Kiefer knew such games is unknown, but they present an interesting parallel to his imagery and intent in Untitled.

[32] See Steven Ungar, "Gray Zones: Vichy, Maurice Blanchot, and the Problem of Aftereffect," in Nancy A. Harrowitz, ed., Tainted Greatness: Antisemitism and Cultural Heroes (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 193-209. Ungar makes the case for tolerating a gray zone where ethical issues remain open to further debate. See also the essay by Robert Gibbs, "Reading Heidegger: Destruction, Thinking, Return," also in Harrowitz, esp. 167 in relation to Kiefer's task.

[33] Neff 1987, esp. 58-60.

[34] I am indebted to Andrée Hayum's important study, The Isenheim Altarpiece: God's Medicine and The Painter's Vision (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989). She includes a chapter on the legacy of this altarpiece, including comments on Beckmann. See also Margot Clark, "Beckmann and Esoteric Philosophy," in the very useful catalogue Max Beckmann: The Triptychs (London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1980), 33-36.

[35] Hayum, 165.

[36] Hayum, 115.

[37] Examined by the author in Buchen in June 1987.

[38] Neff 1987, n. 1, p. 13.

[39] Nicholas Serota, "Anselm Kiefer: Les Plaintes d'un Icare," in Anselm Kiefer (London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1981), 23.

[40] Chicago, 138.

[41] It is, of course, a risk to read too much into Kiefer's work, to be overly caught up in the interconnectedness and detail of the traditions and themes he has chosen (in itself a measure of the resources he brings to his project). How much of this did Kiefer intend? How much that he didn't intend would he accept as compatible or a legitimate extension of what he did do? There is also a temptation to go only so far, which can diminish the work.

With this in mind I refer to a conversation about the triptych in which Kiefer described the funnel-shaped object as "a shape to direct and focus, to concentrate forces, 'as for hearing.'" This suggested to me later an old-fashioned hearing aid, or "ear-trumpet," the kind of allusion Kiefer finds amusing for the reciprocal yin-yang of its shape as both source and receptor of sound. Finally, to suggest that reading Kiefer this closely may not be entirely misguided is his entitling of a large 1996 landscape painting, scattered with thousands of sunflower seeds, The Sixth Trump. See Anselm Kiefer: I Hold All India In My Hand, essay by Thomas McEvilly (London: Anthony D'Offay, 1996), 6, for his most recent images from the Americas and India. See also Del Paisaje a la Metafora: Anselm Kiefer en Mexico, Pinturas y Libros del Artista Aleman, text by Robert Liftman (Mexico City: Centra Cultural Arte Contemporaneo, 1996).

[42] See Berlin, cat. no. 36, Die Himmelsleiter (The Heavenly Ladder), 1991, for a snakeskin suspended vertically from the top to bottom of the canvas, and, p. 154, an illustration of Schwarze Calle (Black Call), 1989, the alleged source of one of the Four Temperaments, here the melancholic, saturnine temperament associated with artists. The translucent intestine casing is arranged across a sheet of lead like one of Kiefer's "astral-serpents." A variation of this composition, A.D. (for Albrecht Durer), which combines the intestine with a chalk drawing of Durer's rhombohedron from his famous engraving, Melencolia I (1514), is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. See also Neff 1987, pp. 10-11 and notes 13-16.

[43] See C G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968 [1944]), 25-26.

[44] Patricia Cox Miller, " 'Plenty Sleeps There': The Myth of Eros and Psyche in Plotinus and Gnosticism," in Wallis, 232-234.

[45] Conversations with the artist, May-June 1987. It should be added, however, that since his move to southern France after the reunification of Germany in 1990, Keifer has resisted being identified as a "German" artist, including refusing to participate in exhibitions organized according to the artists' countries of origin.

[46] Adam Gopnik proposes that "the deepest roots of his art lie in German theatrical design of the twenties — in Adolphe Appia," in "Alchemist" (The Art World), The New Yorker (21 November 1988): 138.