The Books of Anselm Kiefer, 1969-1990
Anselm Kiefer: The High Priestess
Anselm Kiefer: Lilith
Anselm Kiefer: Jason
Anselm Kiefer, born in Germany in 1945, has come to be recognized as one of the leading artists of his generation. He is also among its most controversial, because of his obsessive use of themes from Germanic myth and history, and especially because of his use of imagery related to Nazism.
Yet notwithstanding the intensely German character of his work, Kiefer is avidly collected in the United States, where his reputation received a strong boost from an American museum retrospective in 1987–1988, which was accompanied by an influential catalog written by the curator, Mark Rosenthal. Supporters, including Rosenthal and the authors of the other books under review, praise Kiefer for what they see as his lofty spirituality, vast intellectual breadth, and political courage. In fact, I cannot think of another contemporary artist who has been eulogized in such expansive terms. But Kiefer has also been accused of obscurantism, opportunism, megalomania, and even neo-Nazism.1
The arguments for and against are almost never made merely in terms of “taste” or “quality.” They are much more extreme, usually expressed in explicitly ethical or political terms. When Kiefer’s first museum retrospective opened at the Art Institute of Chicago, Robert Hughes called him “the best painter of his generation on either side of the Atlantic,” and despite reservations about a certain heavy-handedness in his work, declared it “a victory for the moral imagination.”2 Hilton Kramer saw Kiefer as an artist whose work “speaks to our own appetite for an art that transcends the aesthetic,” and who demonstrates the limits of painting “when it comes to dealing with the great moral and historical issues of the modern era.” Although Kramer had some reservations about Kiefer’s ultimate success in dealing with those issues, and a certain uneasiness about what he perceived as a streak of sentimentality in Kiefer’s work, he expressed his “undiminished” admiration for the artist.3
A year later, though, when Kiefer’s retrospective exhibition came to New York, feelings about him had noticeably cooled. The stream of hyperbolic praise that had accompanied the exhibition, and the way that the artist himself seemed to vacillate between an ostentatious reclusiveness and subtle self-promotion, began to get on many people’s nerves. And his work, which had looked so grand in the Art Institute of Chicago’s spacious galleries, verged on the grandiose in the Museum of Modern Art’s rather cramped spaces.
Kramer, backing away from his earlier enthusiasm, noted that his original feeling about Kiefer had “become somewhat compromised by elements of doubt and disappointment,” and expressed exasperation with Kiefer’s “heavy, portentous sentimentality.”4 The usually tolerant Arthur C. Danto said he was horrified by what he saw as Kiefer’s “mission to reconnect Germany with its true heroic past and prod it in the direction of its true heroic future.” Danto characterized most of Kiefer’s undertaking as an “absurd masquerade,” which resulted in “the usual Wagnerian war music, tooted and thumped by the oompah brass of the marching bands of German nationalism, a heavy-handed compost of…
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