Kiefer in Berlin: Andreas Huyssen

Anselm Kiefer Lilith's Daughters, Lilith's Töchter, 1991.

Anselm Kiefer. Lilith's Töchter (Lilith's Daughters), 1991.


German newspapers never tire of pointing out that Anselm Kiefer's reputation as the most successful German artist since Beuys was made in the United States, and there, it is intimated, by a mysteriously homogeneous group of Jewish-American collectors. The subtext is that those misguided souls bought his art at a time when the German critical establishment knew that Kiefer, with his Teutonic image worlds, his Wagnerian monumentalism, and his nebulous disposition toward myth and catastrophe, was an irrationalist and a reactionary, if not a protofascist.[1] Kiefer and Syberberg, consensus has it, were the twin evils of an otherwise reputable culture. Still today German critics often reproach the American reception of Kiefer in toto for its lack of critical awareness and pictorial skepticism toward an art that is said to rely on facile fascination and bombastic mise-en-scene.[2] America is said to have given in to the lure of morbid images of an aestheticized apocalypse and to the hype about the artist as redeemer.

German and American views stand in a strange reciprocity: while the Germans believe that Kiefer's problematic "Germanness" has undeservedly enhanced his reputation in the United States, the American triumphalists have embraced Kiefer as an artist who is not properly appreciated in his home country for political reasons.[3] While there is some truth to both propositions, such judgments betray mainly projective needs and the temptation of scandal: Whose Kiefer is it? And how German is he? For they block the more interesting question of how this Germanness functions differently in the United States and in Germany. When American critics praise Kiefer as the lone artist-hero who struggles against the repression of the fascist past in his own country, they simply betray ignorance of the fact that a Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a coming to terms with the past, has been the dominant ethos in German intellectual life for the past thirty years.[4] To accuse a predominantly left-liberal German culture of the repression of fascism is ludicrous. For German critics the issue was rather how Kiefer went about dealing with this past. To them Kiefer's deliberate strategy of opening the Pandora's box of fascist and nationalist imagery amounted to a kind of original sin of the post-Auschwitz era.

Yes, in his earlier work Kiefer was indeed fighting repression. However, it was not Germany's unconscious repression of guilt that his work tried to blow open. He took aim rather at the deliberate and conscious repression of fascist themes and icons on which the left-liberal consensus of Vergangenheitsbewältigung was built, and insisted that Nazi culture's exploitation and abuse of traditional German image worlds had to be worked through as well. [5] But this difference in registers of repression was simply not recognized by either side in this transatlantic non-dialogue: America wanted the artist as lone ranger; Germany wanted to maintain the comfort and good conscience of its antifascist taboo zone.

There is reason to hope that the Kiefer show at the National galerie in Berlin in spring 1991 will help move the debate about Kiefer's work away from such questions of national identity and projections of ultimate greatness. As images of fascist architecture and nineteenth-century nationalist traditions have given way in Kiefer's more recent work to clusters of images related to the Kabbalah, the Old Testament, and to Greek and Oriental mythology, the fascism reproach has already receded, but the specter of the ”Jewish-American collector” and the made-in-America reputation still haunts the critics and serves as a loaded cipher for their continuing discomfort with the artist's work. [6] As the reviews of the show demonstrate, the reasons for this discomfort were increasingly, if tentatively, articulated in properly aesthetic terms (theatricality, monumentalism, kitsch, eclecticism), but feuilleton reactions to the exhibit still suffered both from an overload of expectations and from the aftershocks of the earlier controversy. The Syberberg-Kiefer parallel, at any rate, has fortunately been dropped from the gamut of criticism an indication perhaps that German reactions to Kiefer's work are now shifting.

Here it is important to remember that with one exception (Düsseldorf, 1984), all the major Kiefer exhibitions had taken place abroad, and knowledge of the big American retrospective of 1987-88 had only come to Germany in bits and pieces. All the more intense were the expectations at the extensive Berlin exhibition.The timing could hardly have been better: Kiefer comes to Berlin, the political and cultural capital of the new, reunited Germany. And he comes massively: with fifty-eight paintings, graphic works, and sculptures, most of them huge and heavy, only eight of which predate 1985. Most of the National galerie exhibition halls had to be emptied for the show, and ceilings had to be reinforced to carry the immense weight of the lead sculptures.This was to be the biggest Kiefer exhibit in Germany yet, and the pre-opening advertising made sure everybody knew it. Would it be the triumphalist home coming of the painter-hero whose earlier work might now look like a prophecy of nation and unification? Or would his recent work confirm the fears of German intellectuals concerned about a Fourth Reich waiting in the wings?[7] Of course, such questions would have been even more pertinent had the show opened, as originally planned, during the unity celebrations in the fall of 1990, before the long and painful slide of the Eastern provinces into economic and social disaster, not to mention the German triumph of the will to total peace during the Gulf War. By the time the show opened in March 1991, unification euphoria had gone flat; Germany rather than George Bush was the wimp; and Berlin could not even be sure any longer whether it would become the seat of government or remain capital for representational functions only. Kiefer in Berlin: for certain expectations, based on the earlier controversy nothing seemed to work. But if the anticipated scenario never got off the ground, it was due to the protean nature of Kiefer's work itself as much as to the sheer force of political contingencies.


In the summer of 1990 I visited with Kiefer in his studio-factory in Buchen to discuss the upcoming exhibit in Berlin. At the time I was already struck by the fact that the national imagery of his earlier work had all but disappeared from the more recent projects and that the imminent unification of Germany did not elicit any kind of emphatic response from him.

If one asks what is new in his work, apart from the abandonment of Germanic themes in favor of motifs taken from Jewish mysticism, Greek and Oriental mythology there are three immediate answers: the use of Saturnian lead as a magically subtle, visually rich, and conceptually loaded material; the attempt to leave the image routine and move into sculpture, with the lead airplanes and libraries as well as with an expansion of the sculptural elements on the paintings; and a new experimentation with perspective that is more complex and fragmented in the recent works than it was in the central-perspective, high-horizon paintings of the 1970s.

Rather than speaking of a new departure, however, it would be more appropriate to speak of a thematic and formal expansion in concentric circles. The concern with basic and mythic materials was always there: lead now replaces straw and clay. The making of books also goes back to the early years. Thus the three massive and weighty lead libraries (Zweistromland, 60 Millionen Erbsen, Bruch der Gefäße) only represent the move from the artist's book to large-scale sculpture. Similarly, the lead airplanes can be seen as a conceptual expansion of the flying palettes of the earlier work. Just as the palette was always emblematic of the art of painting and seeing, the airplanes must be conceptually connected with the shift to aerial views, to the gaze from above, in much of the more recent work.

Also new is Kiefer's willingness to abandon his former seclusion,to give interviews, and to have some of his projects presented photographically in a newspaper magazine.[8] Such interviews have made it clear that Kiefer sees his work in dialogue with Warhol and Beuys, Duchamp and Pollock, Informel and Conceptual Art, rather than simply as a contemporary revival of Northern romanticism a la Caspar David Friedrich or as a postmodern break with the experiments post-1945 avant-gardism. While he does not share Beuys's provocative view that everybody is an artist, he has gone to great lengths to reject the mystification of the individual artist as genius so often attributed to him by the Kiefer triumphalists. Whether his own stated view of the artist as medium, as carrier of cultural memory, is ultimately more than a deindividualized variant of the traditional view and thus still closer to the notion of a privileged aesthetic creativity than the radical experiments of Beuys and Warhol, is certainly open to debate. But even if it were, that in itself would not necessarily vitiate Kiefer's project of picture-making. The ethos of an aesthetic democratism, so characteristic of 1960s avant-garde practices and their important demystification of "painting," has itself been a complex mix of reality and rhetoric and holds no absolute claim on truth.

Kiefer has also counteracted the pretentiousness of many learned explanations of his use of mythical themes, names, and materials. He particularly rejects the role of erudite allegorist, emphasizing instead the banal everyday character of objects, materials, and words as initial impetus for aesthetic discoveries. Thus he points to the fact that certain names such as Lilith, Jason and Medea, Isis and Osiris have been overlaid with inexhaustible sedimentations of meaning which in turn have created a kind of aura. Even names from recent poetry–Margarete and Shulamite from Paul Celan's famous "Todesfuge" (Death fugue) or Ingeborg Bachman's Karfunkelfee from "Das Spiel ist aus" (The game is up)–can be carriers of this poetic aura.The tension between word and image, operative in most of Kiefer's work, is so strong that one maybe tempted to see him as a poete manque, a writer who cannot resist the pull of the image and somehow ends up in the wrong medium. At any rate, while his rejection of the pictor doctus role may contain an element of strategic self-demystification, it should give pause to those bent on creating ever-more learned commentaries on Kiefer's use of the Kabbalah, on the alchemists' fascination with lead, or on his views on the myths of creation. It is the layered and fragmented complexity of the mythic materials, names, and symbols that he wants to capture in visual sedimentations. No learned exegesis will ever put all the fragments back together again.

Thus even as Kiefer relies on our ability to conjure up some of the auratic qualities of names, places, and materials,the spectator is not required to be a Bildungsburger. On the contrary, Kiefer knows too well that the educated bourgeoisie of old has disappeared and cannot be resurrected. But that leaves him in the dilemma of having to explain how spectators can gain access to the mythic materials around which he weaves his images. His solution to the problem lies in something like the Jungian archetypes. "Our memory," he said in a recent interview, "is not just formed when we are being born; it comes from far away, has stored basic experiences and attitudes that have accumulated in thousands of years.”[9] This reliance on collective memory is as problematic today as when Walter Benjamin resorted to Jung to read the myth worlds of nineteenth-century modernity as a collective unconscious. More pragmatically one could argue that in the processes of acculturation mythical materials are still being recycled today to the extent that many viewers' imaginations will be set in motion when they are confronted with Jason and the Golden Fleece, Siegfried and Brunhilde, Lilith and the myths of creation. Particularly if one considers that many of the myths central to Kiefer's work do not primarily come to us from the depths of the past, but from the generationally living memories of the late nineteenth century (Wagner and the the Nibelungen), the whole issue of some mystical collective memory can be laid to rest.

Ultimately, it depends on the individual spectator as to what extent he or she wants to engage with the writing and inscriptions how far he or she wants to follow the thread of the mythic stories Kiefer alludes to, conjures up, and erases all at the same time. Just as Kiefer has described the material process in his picture-making as a kind of reverse archaeology, the viewer, too, is free to add layers of allusion and meaning. The spectator's guilt about lack of knowledge, which reappears as resentment in the critics' complaint about Kiefer's reliance on distant bodies of knowledge, may say more about the state of contemporary culture than about his paintings, which,in their fragmentation and allegorical procedure, also participate in the forgetting they are meant to counteract. For even if one wants to give oneself over to the visual imagery alone, immerse oneself in the sedimentations of photography, paint, ashes, emulsions, shellac, and lead, and ignore the complex layers of naming, titling, inscribing the aesthetic perception will still be richly textured-and the popular success of the Berlin show testifies to that. One of the characteristics of Kiefer's work seems to be that it is both easily accessible and subtly hermetic–hermetic not in the sense of a body of hidden knowledge, but in the sense of an elusiveness that prevents seeing and interpreting from ever coming to rest.


To me the interest in the newer work lies precisely in the inability to decide whether Kiefer works as a painter or a storyteller. He constantly crosses the threshold. He loads his images with words and transforms names into powerful images. It is as if he reenacts the historical iconoclasm controversy–the ninth-century Bilderstreit to which Kiefer has often alluded in previous works–and tries to validate both sides of the issue: sometimes with words against images, sometimes with images against words. At best, the inscriptions, still typically in childlike handwriting, can function to break the lure of immediacy, opening the painting up to multiple layers of reading; and the images in turn, say in the gorgeous Lilith painting of 1990 (unfinished), in which a mane of black hair forms the center of a whirl of ashes invading a painted-over city scape seen obliquely from above, can force a visual eruption in the imagination. In this case Kiefer conjures up the story of Adam's legendary first wife, the non-Eve, whose identity has always been coded as demonic and insubordinate and whose independence was rooted in the fact that she was not formed from Adam's rib. The old story of Lilith meeting the demon in the ruins merges with visions of cities in ruins, urban decay, the haze of pollution.The violent whirl of ashes conjures up the Brechtian poetic topos "Of these cities will remain what blew through them, the wind. "The age-old topos of equating the metropolitan body with the female body (the great whore Babylon) is deliberately restated as myth and retracted by the double disembodiment of Lilith, who appears in the form of hair and language only. Of course, the story is never fully told by a single picture. Other Lilith paintings take up other parts of the legend, and the grayish little dresses, encrusted with ashes and attached to the canvas in Lilith's Daughters, appear as well in other paintings that have nothing much to do with the persona of Lilith (e.g., Jason and Medea), thus displacing us from one narrative nexus to another. All we get is fragments from a memory that itself lies in ruins. Words and image combine to form material Denkbilder, in which narrative and conceptual, material, and pictorial elements remain in a permanent fluctuation that eludes any attempt to pin them down. The same names and words appear on different pictures, thus complicating the web of narrative and pictorial elements. Here mythic repetition does not provide a stable ground, however. Clearly the disparate narrative elements never amount to some meta-narrative. Even well-known mythic stories such as those of Jason or Lilith appear only in fragmentary form in which, as it were, memory-ruins of the past are overlaid by the debris of the present, such as metal coils or dried flowers and plants. Whether Kiefer's work on myth ultimately aims at some great synthesis, at some grand recit, is hard to tell. Whatever he himself may say in interviews, his work is asking the questions rather than pretending to give answers. If anything, the space of the grand recit is postulated as an absence, nonrepresentable and forever elusive, around which Kiefer's pictures circle in futile but beautiful (too beautiful, some would say) motion.

It has often been suggested, though never fully elaborated, that Kiefer's work on myth goes back to Beuys. But despite certain similarities (the critique of modern science and progress, the rediscovery of aura, the rejection of symbol and allegory in a traditional sense), Kiefer handles myth very differently, and the use of writing as opposed to Beuys's oral performances is key here. Contrary to Beuys, from whom Kiefer learned much in the 1970s, Kiefer is not a latter-day shaman whose use of materials and performance strategies comes out of an existential experience and gains its utopian healing power within that frame-work. Kiefer works more like a secular bricoleur with a gargantuan appetite for mythic stories and references, it is true, but also with an acute consciousness of loss and insight into the impossibility of attaining some ultimate reconciliation. Beuys's fat and felt can be read to embody an emphatic vision of healing and nurturing. Kiefer's lead, by contrast, remains fundamentally ambivalent: it may turn into the alchemist's gold, but it is poisonous. It protects against radiation, but it absorbs all light. It is gray, dead matter, but begins to shine when subjected to processes of erosion and oxidation. It is associated with Saturn, the least-lit planet in our solar system, with darkness, black gall, and melancholy, but then melancholy has often been considered central to the artistic imagination, and it certainly has been a prevalent element in the psyche of the post-Auschwitz generation in Germany. For Kiefer myth itself is neither some primary reality nor guarantee of an unquestioned origin. It is rather an attempt to construct meaning and reality via story telling in images.


Kiefer's work as bricoleur of images, names, stories, materials, and concepts involves taking risks. The main risks are those of unchecked repetition, illustration, and overcoding, and nowhere are those risks more visible than in the airplane sculptures. The very fact that so many critics felt obliged to make some trite reference to Mesopotamian bombers and the Gulf War (the land of Euphraites and Tigris plays an important role in Kiefer's recent imagery, though not because of Saddam Hussein) shows that something here didn't work, and one should not blame only the critics for it. Material and conceptual execution fall apart when the plane entitled Jason features little showcases in the wings that display human teeth, referring to the teeth of the dragon that, seeded, produced the warriors Jason had to fight. Other such display windows feature lumps of earth in a rocket (Resurrexit), snakeskin in a cockpit (the snake and the eagle, earth and the sky), a woman's hair in the wing of a plane entitled Berenike after the mythical figure who sacrificed her hair, which then turned into a constellation in the skies. One plane, entitled Melancholy, carries Durer's poly-hedron filled with dust and debris from the studio floor on its wing. Such literalness, which is exactly matched by the literalness of the critics' babbling about bombers and the Gulf, is at best whimsical. The step from the sublime to the ridiculous can be a small one, but it is to Kiefer's credit that he risks taking it without safety nets.

Indeed, the exploration of the tension between banality and sublimity may be as central to Kiefer's work as the Baudelairean dialectic of the eternal and the fugitive was to modernism.That tension is persuasively maintained in the book sculptures, but not in the airplanes. To my mind the planes can only function aesthetically if held to a rigorous conceptual register.They work conceptually as carriers of ideas, transporters of stories, vehicles of a gaze. The problem, sensed by Kiefer, that as sculptures they remain quite redundant is not solved by the differing narrative inscriptions. As soon as one loads these planes with particular stories (Jason, Berenike), they crash as art works and fail as sculpture.

There is, however, one exception: Mohn und Gedachtnis (Poppy and memory), which refers to Paul Celan's first book of poetry of 1952. It is a low-hanging plane with four jets under the wings and two additional ones on the oversized tail. More than any of the others it looks like a stranded bird, with the cockpit window as an eye and the welding of the nose barely hinting at a bird's beak. Like a Baudelairean albatross, emblem of stifled creativity, it was the first work one saw upon entering the museum. The wings are weighted down with oversize lead books whose pages ooze out dried poppy flowers in the direction of flight. The future has already been forgotten. The rumpled and bumpy lead surfaces of the plane display a supernatural white shine, as if the material were in the process of turning into silver. Emblem of time and forgetting, the impossible desire to fly, the burden of knowledge and the necessity to forget in order to remember–this sculpture works as a rich conceptual work of a figurative kind. It was already exhibited once at the Galerie Paul Maenz in Cologne in a show entitled "The Angel of History," a reference to the famous image in Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History" of the angel looking backward at the ever-growing ruins of the past as he is helplessly propelled into the future by a storm from paradise caught in his wings. Here the overloading works, and it works because it remains conceptual and allegorical rather than turning narrative.The trajectory from the banal materiality of the lead object to the spirituality of an overdetermined montage of allusions rendered visual is successfully completed; the tension between the massive gravity of things and the light spirituality of Benjamin's image or Celan's poetic language is maintained, and the ridiculous avoided.

Similarly successful are the three library sculptures, especially the one entitled Zweistromland (titled in English High Priestess), which refers to the land of the two rivers, Euphrates and Tigris, land of Gilgameshand of writing on fired clay tablets at the dawn of civilization, legendary place of origin for Christian, Jewish, and Assyrian traditions.Two four-meter-high steel shelves, slightly angled and separated only by a large rectangular glass, hold close to two hundred heavy lead folios of different sizes, most of them in ruinous shape. The tomes are loosely arranged–some are piled up horizontally; some look more disintegrated than others; and torn and crumpled lead pages seem to flow over the edges of the shelves. Even though some seventy of the folios contain collaged materials, photographs of clouds, aerial views, landscapes and cityscapes worked over with emulsions, oxidations in aquarelle-like colors reaching from light green to pale pink to ocher, this is not a library for reading. These books remain inaccessible to the human gaze except in their sheer weight and materiality. They are simultaneously monument and elegy to the power of knowledge, an embodiment of the burden of wisdom, written in lead, the primary matter destined to turn into gold, if not into pure spirituality. clusters of copper wires,carriers of energy, protruding here and there from the folios and sticking into space, may signal the electrical implications of "Zweistromland" (Strom meaning stream, river, and current), but against the backdrop of the white wall behind or the transparent glass they work beautifully as a kind of drawing in space, much better than in some of the paintings that also feature copper wires in front of the painted and sculpted surfaces.

The idea of welding thin lead sheets together into books gains yet another dimension in Breaking of the Vessels, a title that refers to the creation myths of the Kabbalah. Here the books stand in for the vessels of the Sefirot that contained the divine light and substance but could not hold it and broke. Visually intriguing is the way in which these books are made to look as if they are tumbling off their shelves and releasing shards of glass that end up lying shattered on the ground. Here again a whole set of associations could set in, from the custom of breaking glass at wedding ceremonies (both in the Jewish and Christian traditions) to the Kristallnacht pogroms, from the notion of shattered transparency to that of the ultimate fragmentation of all knowledge. But the central force that holds this work together is the material constellation of the lead books and the glass shards. The lead, which makes up the pages of the books, is impenetrable and opaque, and thereby far from the luminosity of white paper. But it remains flexible and soft rather than brittle like aging paper. Glass, on the other hand, is transparent, but hard, rigid, and inflexible. What better material embodiment could there be imagined of both the mysteries the scriptures hold and the reified use a culture makes of them in its multiple reductive codifications? But then there is also the inscribed half-circle of glass crowning the sculpture, as if it were a crucifix, and six helpless-looking arms or signposts sticking out from the sides and illustrating the names of the vessels of the Sefirot.

Here less would have been more, just as in the third library, 60 Millionen Erbsen, which works as a whimsical satire on a recent and much-opposed government attempt to use a national census as a means to increase surveillance and data gathering. The rectangular sculpture is made up of three sides of solid walls of lead books on steel shelves, leaving only a small entrance on the fourth side through which the spectator can enter this prison of dead data. Sixty million peas, one per capita of the population, have been pressed into the lead pages of the books. Counting peas (counting beans in American parlance) is a motif of punishment in the folktale, but here it signifies the sheer stupidity of counting a population. Some of the peas have fallen off their pages, leaving little holes that make the pages look like the early punched computer cards. The claustrophobic effect inside this installation combined with the sarcasm of the pea-counting enterprise and the reminder of the authoritarian threat of writing and scripture would have carried the work. But Kiefer added a whole set of such instruments of surveillance as lead cameras, filmstrips, a doctor's speculum, etc., all of which just overcode and illustrate rather than adding substantially to the play of significations the sculpture triggers. The question, of course, is whether such a critique, based on the notion "less is more," does not itself embody an aesthetic sensibility that Kiefer's work has set out to counteract in the first place. However one may stand on this issue, I would nonetheless suggest that it is with the book sculptures that Kiefer has moved most successfully from "painting" into "sculpture."

All the more regrettable is the absence of examples of Kiefer's smaller-scale book projects in this exhibition.The reason is understandable: an exhibition of Kiefer's books from1969 to 1990 has been on display in Tilbingen, Munich, and finally Zurich in 1990-91. And yet at least a few representative samples could have provided another perspective on the book sculptures, just as they could have elucidated the function of the book as experimentation ground for the large pictures. Kiefer's books are a necessary link between his painterly and sculptural projects.


In the beginning was the book–if this is indeed the pattern of Kiefer's working process, then one will easily understand his recent turning to film as another medium based on sequential narrative rather than on visual simultaneity. While he does not (yet?) make films, he mounts film strips and film spools on the surfaces of paintings. The Golden Fleece (1990, unfinished) and The Cutting Table (1990) are works that exemplify the more recent straight view from top down, the gaze at a flat surface.The paraphernalia of film strips, spools, and cutting table equipment mounted on the surface have the same dysfunctional, desolate look as the books: another archive in ruin. While photography has always served Kiefer as a starting point for his picture-making archaeology in reverse, it is too early to tell what will become of his new engagement with film. So far it seems primarily thematic.

Personally I find the abandonment of illusionistic space and the return to sculpturally enriched abstract expressionist surfaces in what one might call the film paintings rather less interesting than the attempt to experiment with multiple perspectives as in Barren Landscape (1987-89), another powerful and threatening metropolitan scene that combines an angled aerial view of a metropolis with an almost indecipherable tunnel view from bottom up. Also successful in the sense of the simultaneous positing and erasing of perspective is the overlay of cartography in lead over a high-horizon landscape painting in Fuel Rods (1984-87), arguably one of the most strikingly beautiful paintings in the exhibition. Nowhere is the ambivalence of lead as both destructive and protective suggested more imaginatively than in this work in which peeling-off and ripped sheet lead covers the landscape while simultaneously protecting it from nuclear radiation. Conceptual articulation and material surface are brought into a richly textured and suggestive negotiation. Similarly striking is the clash of illusionistic effects with large and flat oxidized lead surfaces invading the picture space from above as a kind of emanation that resembles a curtain falling over a landscape, most effectively executed perhaps in Entfaltung der Sefirot (1985–88).

Often these landscapes have been described as apocalyptic and catastrophic–landscapes after the end of history. Certainly the violence palpable in the burning and ripping, the bruising and scratching of the very surfaces of the paintings might support that reading. But then there is the undeniable and stunning beauty of the visual effects, the luminosity of the horizon in Fuel Rods, the utopian promise of the lead book in front of the oceanscape in The Book (1979–85). Thus one may just as well see them as landscapes of an imaginary mythic beginning, of creative chaos in which the gray and dead primary matter of lead begins its trajectory toward new dimensions of visuality.

Just as in the case of the sculptures, the danger of overcoding and illustration haunts the paintings as well. Clearly Kiefer uses the humorous, whimsical side of his imagination to retract or to relativize the potentially pompous and megalomaniac effect of his large-scale paintings and their apocalyptic subject matter. But when he affixes little self-made toy airplanes or ships to his canvases, the effect is in many cases rather too literal, if not just plain silly. Again, the experiment on the threshold between the sublime and the banal is crossed here toward the ridiculous. But "failures" such as these are more than compensated by all those works in which sheer visual beauty and conceptual lucidity emerge from the clash of the nonrepresentable and the trivial.


This newer work of Kiefer's has drawn any number of reproaches in Germany. I will not take up here the continuing inability of some German intellectuals to see Kiefer's use of myth as anything but an irrational denial of history, their obsessive rejection of Kiefer's references to first and last things, and the claim that such concerns only represent the artist's hubris of recreating a lost identity.[10] These criticisms are too facile and are based more on a projection of the critics' own fears and self-righteousness than on a sustained looking at Kiefer's work. More interesting is the reproach that Kiefer's paintings are too beautiful, that while his work articulates the immolations of painting in the sheer violence of their execution, it fails to problematize its suggestiveand seductive aesthetic semblance.The necessity of self-reflection was a modernist credo, and to engage with the beautiful remains a powerful taboo in the world of contemporary art. Even in the discourse of postmodernism, the beautiful is often simply equated with design, if not with the affirmative lure of advertising or the machinations of mass culture. No place for it in art. The recent privileging of the sublime over the beautiful in Lyotard's impressive and influential work has given us the new postmodernist-modernist legitimation for denigrating the beautiful.[11] But isn't this Lyotardian coding of the sublime as the nonrepresentable itself a rewriting of the old modernist desire for transcendence? Isn't the revived dichotomy of the sublime and the beautiful, inherited as it is from eighteenth-century aesthetics, precisely indebted to the modernist struggle against mass culture, to the often obsessive separation of authentic art from the "merely beautiful," which was defined as false harmony or forced reconciliation?

I think one can respond in two ways to this reproach. The weaker though by no means illegitimate response would be to insist that Kiefer actually does problematize the role of painting and sculpture. Crashing palettes, stranded airplanes, his use of materials, all the eclectic inscriptions of the art of the past forty years in his project point to the fact that he and his work are fully conscious of the crisis situation of art in the late twentieth century. This response, however, might not allay the fears of those who would argue that Kiefer has always only recuperated the crisis of art in order to redeem aesthetic value. The stronger response would be to say that, yes, there is this undeniable beauty even in the works that problematize painting today. But rather than collapse the beautiful with inconsequential affirmation (as if the sublime had a hold on critical aesthetic effectiveness), one can see Kiefer's search for beauty, his deliberate embrace of visual theatricality, his immersion in the diaspora of mythical stories and conceptual narratives as so many attempts to break out of the prison house of an aesthetic that remains tied to the long-standing denigration of the "merely beautiful."

Kiefer's work does indeed call for a renewed engagement with the beautiful. That can be seen as a strong provocation rather than as a weakness. It is a strength because he does not just reverse the hierarchy of terms by privileging the beautiful: the beauty of his paintings remains fragile and tentative, with the hieroglyphic inscriptions resisting facile readings and easy reconciliation. Kiefer's aesthetic practice thus eludes the traditional dichotomy by opening it up to a hidden third term: banality, cliche, the trivial. With this triangular constellation, Kiefer destabilizes the discourse of the sublime both visually and conceptually and suggests,however indirectly, that the nonrepresentable sublime, as in abstraction after modernism, can be just as banal as the frills of fake beauty offered by the culture industry. The sublime is thereby demystified and brought down from the pedestal of the nonrepresentable, where Lyotard's still-metaphysical discourse has placed it. Beauty, in turn, can blend with the sublime by drawing on that which the sublime always excluded with a vengeance: fleeting banality, simple and undramatic repetition, the transitory ways of the world. The inscription of banality into the dichotomy of the sublime and the beautiful is, of course, not unique to Kiefer's work. It can be found in any number of contemporary artists and writers–Peter Handke in literature, Julian Schnabel or David Salle in art. What distinguishes Kiefer's use of this triangulation is its linkage to story telling and to memory, something he has in common with another postwar German artist with whom his work is rarely compared, Alexander Kluge.

Whether Kiefer's experimentations with the beautiful, the sublime, and the banal will prove successful in terms of a long-wave history of art is too early to tell. Some have answered that question, prematurely I think, by making Kiefer either into the painter-genius of the late twentieth century or, conversely, into our fin-de-siecle pompier. In its complex mix of risks taken, embarrassing failures, and stunning successes, Kiefer's work is not grasped by such facile generalizations. Only a sustained, contextualizing gaze at specific works will reveal the extent to which the work partakes in the best of an experimental modern tradition and its often unstable transformations and risky reinscriptions in a postmodern age.


1   This was the prevailing critical reaction in Germany to Kiefer's contribution to the 1980 Venice Biennale.

2   See Petra Kipphoff, "Das bleierne Land," Die Zeit, no. 31 (July 28, 1989), or Hans Joachim Muller, "Der Alchemist, der Erloser," Die Zeit, no. 13 (March 22, 1991).

3   See Peter Schjeldahl, "Our Kiefer, "Art in America 76 (March 1988).

4   See Donald Kuspit, "Flak from the 'Radicals': The American Case Against German Painting," in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: New Museum of ContemporaryArt, 1984).

5   On the German reception and the problem of repression, Andreas Huyssen, "Anselm Kiefer: The Terror of History, the Temptation of Myth, "October 48 (Spring 1989), pp. 25-45.

6   See, for example, Eduard Beaucamp, "Der Prophet und sein Bildertheater," Frankfurter Allgemein Zeeitung, no. 74 (March 28, 1991).

7   The warning of a Fourth Reich was the most extreme articulation of the wide spread intellectual opposition to German unification after the fall of the wall. See New German Critique 52 (Winter 1991), a special issue on German unification.

8   Christian Kammerling, Peter Pursche, "Nachts fahre ich mit dem Fahrrad von Bild zu Bild. ein Werkstattgesprach mit Anselm Kiefer," Suddeutsch Zeeitung, Magazin, no. 46 (November 16, 1990); Axel Hecht, Alfred Nemeczek, "Bei Anselm Kiefer im Atelier," Art (Hamburg), no. 1 (January 1990).

9   Kammerling and Pursche, "Nachts fahre ich," p. 24 (my translation).

10   On Kiefer's work with myth and history in his earlier painting see Huyssen, "Anselm Kiefer: The Terror of History, the Temptation of Myth."

11   See, for example, Jean Francois Lyotard, "Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime," Artforum 20 (April 1982), pp. 64-69.