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 shallow ideas and foggy beliefs.”5

Although Danto was, I think, responding as much to the way Kiefer’s art was written about in Rosenthal’s catalog as he was to the art itself, his criticism raised some disturbing questions, having less to do with Kiefer’s art than with the unpleasant associations connected with his subjects and his ambitions. Are we to believe that certain aspects of German culture have been so contaminated by the terrible ends they were made to serve under the Nazis that they should be banished from discourse among decent people? Or is there perhaps some way to revive and renew them? If so, has Anselm Kiefer found a way to do it? These are questions that Kiefer’s art raises; and it sets them out as virtually inseparable from certain pictorial questions as well, thus compounding difficult subjects with difficult formal structures.

For both his advocates and his adversaries, what most distinguishes Kiefer from his contemporaries is his intense preoccupation with historical, mythical, mystical, and philosophical themes. His earlier works frequently contained complicated and arcane references to Germanic history, literature, and mythology, and more recently he has been preoccupied with Jewish themes and by alchemy, cabala, and other esoteric and mystical traditions. Though he developed at a time when subject matter per se was de-emphasized in avant-garde painting, he has continually insisted on the importance of his subjects—in interviews about his art, as well as in the titles he gives to his works and the words that he frequently writes in them.

His epic landscape entitled Nuremberg (1982), for example, might be taken simply for a picture of a large ploughed field were it not for the words “Nürnberg—Festspiel—Wiese” (Nuremberg, Festival Performance, Field) written in script over the buildings in the distance, like the shorthand notations that people put on travel snapshots. These words evoke, independently of the pictorial image in which they are inscribed, a stream of related associations, such as the medieval mastersingers of Nuremberg and Richard Wagner’s opera about them (a favorite of Hitler’s), as well as the city’s Nazi convocations and anti-Jewish laws before the Second World war, and the war crimes trials that were staged after it.


Mixing visual and verbal languages has long been considered an “impure” practice. In the classic argument for the strict separation of painting and poetry in Lessing’s Laocoon, where the natural medium of painting is considered to be space and that of poetry to be time, it is held that “Painting and poetry should be like two just and friendly neighbors, neither of whom indeed is allowed to take unseemly liberties in the other’s domain, but who exercise mutual forbearance on the borders….”6 In the most influential modernist justification for the separation of word and image, Clement Greenberg argues that “Purity in art consists in the acceptance, willing acceptance, of the limitations of the medium of the specific art,” and goes on to assert that “It is easier to isolate the medium in the case of the plastic arts, and consequently avant-garde painting and sculpture can be said to have attained a much more radical purity than avant-garde poetry.”7 Indeed, this isolation has been one of the fundamental characteristics of modernist art in general; although perhaps as a function of its freedom from literary association, a good deal of modernist art has combined words and images as foreground elements—as in cubist collages or in the works of Miró or Klee.

On a less theoretical level, it could be argued that a visual artist is expected to show us pictorially rather than tell us, and that if he has to resort to words, it indicates a certain weakness in his use of his medium. And indeed, in his review of Kiefer’s 1988 exhibition Danto wrote that Kiefer’s kind of symbolic art “is the lowest order of fine art, largely because one has to learn the meaning of a symbol the way one learns the meaning of a name,” and that “Kiefer’s symbols are purely external, the kind you look up in books.”8

Moreover, while many contemporary artists try to discourage clear associations between their works and literary or historical subjects, Kiefer seems to encourage them. In a sense Kiefer himself may be considered one of the leading interpreters of his own works, not only in what he says about them but through the photographs he takes of them—a subject which has had surprisingly little attention. In addition to the “impurity” of mixing verbal and visual languages, Kiefer also mixes figurative and abstract pictorial imagery, and handmade and mechanically reproduced forms—combining, as he frequently does, painting, sculpture, and photography.

I want to argue here that the unorthodox mixture of sign-systems in Kiefer’s work is an important source of its originality and strength, and that Kiefer is one of the few contemporary artists who have been able to put to meaningful use the tensions between words and images, and between the handmade and the mechanical. He does this by leaving the conflict between word and image open-ended—as he does with many other tensions in his work.

In addition to a subversive pictorial impurity, Kiefer’s work is also characterized by what might be called ideological impurity, especially in his use of themes taken from Nazism and the Holocaust—subjects that touch upon deep taboos and unhealed wounds, and are commonly supposed to be beyond the proper limits of art. Moreover, Kiefer addresses these subjects with an aggressiveness that borders on obsession, and he seems unwilling to pay the usual lip service to the pieties usually gathered around them. (One such piety is that they are so enormous that no mere artist can approach them in good conscience, that to do so is in and of itself to trivialize them.)

Kiefer first attracted wide public attention with a series of black-and-white photographs taken of himself in 1969 doing Sieg Heil salutes in Montpellier, Arles, Paestum, Rome, and other European cities. Although he incorporated some of these photographs into his early handmade books shortly after they were taken, they were not widely seen until 1975, when a group of them appeared in a magazine under the provocative title “Besetzungen” (“Occupations”).9

These photographs, which look like a cross between tourist snapshots and pictures in an official archive, are oddly affecting. In most of them the mustached artist, wearing high boots, jodhpurs, and a vaguely martial but rumpled coat, stands solemnly saluting, dwarfed by his surroundings. On the one hand there is a tragicomical quality about the forlorn defiance of the stiff salute—as if we are looking at Kiefer playing Charlie Chaplin playing Hitler. But at the same time, by their very ordinariness the photographs also evoke a real sense of menace. This comes in part from the emotional charge that the Heil Hitler salute still carries, and in part from the calculatedly banal way in which Kiefer gives the salute, which evokes the truly lethal banality of Hitler himself.


The initial publication of these photographs caused a stir in Germany, where Kiefer was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer. But subsequently, especially in the United States, they have been rather piously cited as evidence of Kiefer’s strong anti-Nazism. The widely differing reactions to these photographs are, I think, typical both of the deep and willful ambivalence in Kiefer’s work and of an unfortunate tendency not only by critics but by journalists and many people who look at painting to try to undercut that ambivalence by posing simple questions about it, such as: “Is this man a Nazi or isn’t he?”

In fact, these photographs are neither simply a spoof nor an espousal of Nazism, nor can they be dismissed as merely a prank or the clever gimmick of a young artist to attract attention (although they contain all these elements). They are much more ambiguous and much more charged in the way that they mix irony with deadly seriousness and in the way that they force fixed, conventional images to take on fluid meanings.

In the pair of juxtaposed photographs taken at the Roman Colosseum, for example, the Colosseum itself looks like two different buildings. In the first photograph we see Kiefer and the building from a considerable distance and the familiar pictorial image of the arena is almost as conventional a sign as the word “Colosseum” that is typed below it (or, for that matter, the Nazi salute that the artist is performing). The second photograph is more of a close-up, taken inside the arcade. Here the vertical rhythms of the barely recognizable edifice might almost be taken from one of Albert Speer’s grim, imposing Third Reich façades. In this setting, moreover, the Sieg Heil comes to look very much like the ancient Roman salute on which it was modeled, sending us obliquely back through history.

When the photographs first appeared, the specters of German nationalism and the will to power that they evoked were taboo for German artists, and had been since the end of the Second World War. The dramatic visual imagery of “Nazi kitsch” was strictly proscribed in Germany, and Kiefer’s “Occupations” photographs were among the first significant violations of that taboo. And while the desolate solitude of the saluting artist in these photographs situates the visual image of the will to power within absurdly feeble circumstances, nonetheless it retrieves it from the systematic repression in which it had been buried. With these photographs, especially as he used them in his handmade books, Heroic Symbols and For Genet (1969), Kiefer began a dialogue with other forbidden imagery, as he reached back beyond the postwar period to many traditional German themes.10

Moreover, he did so with as exaggerated a pictorial rhetoric as had been created in Germany since 1945.


If Kiefer’s choice of subjects went against the grain, so did his way of rendering them. When he began painting in the late 1960s, German art was dominated by a combination of minimalism and cool formalism. “Grand messages” were considered to be politically charged in a country that had had its fill of grand messages. Similarly, figurative imagery was seen as reactionary in avant-garde circles. (So, indeed, was painting itself, which was repeatedly pronounced “dead.”) Yet at precisely this time Kiefer insisted on painting grand messages, often in a turn-of-the-century representational style, as in Man in the Forest (1971), a narcissistic self-portrait in which the artist stands among stately trees solemnly holding a burning branch and dressed in a white robe, like the leader of a mystical cult.

For the next few years, much of Kiefer’s work suffered from a too direct, illustrational quality, in which the relationship between subjects and imagery was sometimes heavy-handed, but it nonetheless had a crude force. Furthermore, even in these early paintings, the subjects and the identifications of specific details are often made explicit by words rather than depicted pictorially, and the pictorial means are oddly attenuated, because the pictures are so large. In Germany’s Spiritual Heroes (1973), a long, low, attic-like space is rendered with a mechanically insistent one-point perspective that is rather weakly played off against the overly detailed graining of the wooden architecture. In front of the windows in this claustrophobic room torches burn above the inscribed names of a dozen or so artistic “heroes,” including Richard Wagner, Caspar David Friedrich, Hans Thoma, and Joseph Beuys. Apart from its evocation of the rows of torches favored at Nazi rallies and its wooden, or volkisch, version of grandiose Nazi edifices, this canvas—which is over twenty-two feet wide—is simply too big for the imagery that it carries. It is overinflated physically as well as spiritually.

Even when Kiefer relied on pictorial rather than verbal description, many of the pictures he did at this time were marred by a too literal, heavy-handed, and melodramatic symbolism. This is especially apparent in Resurrexit (1973), in which a snake crawls portentously through a winter forest, above which hover wooden stairs leading to a doorway, drawn as in a book illustration.

In the mid-1970s, however, Kiefer’s work underwent a deep change, partly in response to the teachings of Joseph Beuys, with whom he had studied informally, and partly because he began to draw on the work of Jackson Pollock and Marcel Duchamp. Pollock provided a model for conceiving of the canvas as an abstract field that could be worked on rhythmically and through physical gestures, and that could incorporate diverse materials and textures, while Duchamp suggested ways of using irony and ambivalence and of breaking down traditional categories.

But it was Beuys who seems to have had the greatest influence on Kiefer’s development at this time, providing an example of how a radical artist could act in Germany. In particular, Beuys’s conception of the artist as a kind of shaman or alchemist who could transform disparate elements into something significant seems to have made a deep impression on Kiefer. Beuys’s widely known account of how, as a downed fighter pilot in the Crimea, he was saved from freezing by tribesmen who covered his body with fat and wrapped it in felt has become widely understood as redeeming the use of conventionally repellent and incompatible materials. Beuys conceived of teaching as an integral part of his art, and he had a strong influence on other aspiring artists of Kiefer’s generation, who had quite literally grown up playing amid the ruins of postwar Germany, and for whom the unexpected materials in the rubble were both familiar and potentially meaningful.

Around this time, Kiefer’s works were becoming pictorially more complex, and these are often quite moving even when their underlying symbolical references are obscure. A painting like Nuremberg has force and urgency independent of the words written in it, and an imposing physical presence, quite apart from its size. The insistent perspective of the brown, furrowed field evokes an illusionistic spatial grandeur in counterpoint to the richly worked surface, which contains not only paint and emulsion but which also has stalks of straw strewn across it in an abstract-expressionist manner.

The surfaces of Kiefer’s paintings became richer and more expressive after 1974 and were frequently enlivened with such diverse materials as straw, sticks, molten lead, zinc, and charcoal. The way Kiefer works these materials into his thick, heavily encrusted surfaces emphasizes, even dramatizes, the work of creation. At his best, he is able to use his mixed-media technique in a richly metaphorical way to achieve breathtaking effects. In the large Jerusalem (1986), painted after Kiefer visited Israel, the entire surface—paint, emulsion, gold leaf, lead, and steel—is transformed into a virtual storm of energy, at once solidly material in fact and ethereal in effect.

The ambivalence with which Kiefer fuses his subjects and formal means is especially apparent in the imagery he has borrowed from Nazi architecture. When he incorporates grandiose architectural images from Albert Speer’s Reich Chancellery or from Wilhelm Kreis’s soldiers’ monuments into his books and paintings, he goes beyond mere irony. This, perhaps, is one of the essential differences between Kiefer and his American contemporaries. When Julian Schnabel fills his canvases with broken plates, or branches, or antlers, it is possible to write him off as simply naughty; when David Salle gives us ambiguous renderings of recycled popular imagery, we can snicker with approval or be outraged by the lack of “taste.” But Kiefer’s imagery has another kind of engagement with history and works within a different moral universe.

Even the “old-fashioned,” one-point perspective that he uses in his pictorial construction of these buildings is significant, suggesting in and of itself an ambivalent dialogue between form and subject, and between fixed and fluid symbols. The imposing symmetry, the expansive vistas, and the insistently perspectival constructions of Kiefer’s architectural imagery evoke the pictorial language of the official and the “objective,” which, set in counterpoint to the rough, expressionistic technique with which he renders them, gives those somber pictures a peculiar sense of menace. In effect, he rescues clichéd imagery by recasting it in a contradictory setting. It is here in particular, I think, that Kiefer makes it pointedly clear that the chaos of the past cannot be calmed down by the language of symmetry, order, and objectivity. And it is here that one senses most fully the forcefulness of his almost hypnotic fascination with the icons of the German past—whether those are as remote and attractive as Siegfried and Brunhilde, or as recent and appalling as Hitler and Speer.

Like Joseph Beuys, Kiefer is in many ways a romantic artist, working in a German romantic tradition that emphasizes the artist’s ties to the earth and to atavistic beliefs and feelings which are assumed to be more authentic and worthwhile than the commonly held values of contemporary society. Like Beuys, Kiefer revels in putting together unexpected forms and objects and in seeing himself as a kind of shaman or alchemist. And like Beuys, Kiefer seems to conceive of himself as acting on behalf of Germany and the German spirit—as a kind of Pied Piper leading away the demons of the Third Reich. At the same time, Kiefer has tried to find ways to make traditional pictorial forms, such as paintings and books, carry his thoughts and feelings; and he also has a canny sense of how he fits into the history of German art and into the contemporary art market.

Although Kiefer’s pictorial means are highly evocative, his technical range is fairly limited. His color is generally confined to earth and metallic tones, and his drawing often lacks rigor and subtlety. And while his best works have an intense poetry and can be hauntingly evocative, he can also be banal and obvious.

The conflict between genuine poetry and a somewhat uneasy self-consciousness runs throughout Kiefer’s work. From early in his career, like Beuys he has been deeply involved in dramatizing himself and creating a public persona based on a romanticized personal mythology. This is reflected in the cryptic autobiographical sketch that he published in 1977 (translated in Rosenthal’s catalog) in which he defined important moments in his own life in relation to great men (Rilke, Rodin, van Gogh, Wagner) and to grand conceptions (“Paintings on Trinity Quaternity, above-below, I-Thou,” Nibelung, Parsifal, “Siegfried Forgets Brunhilde”). As with Beuys, too, his theatricality is sometimes so extreme that it makes you doubt the honesty of his enterprise. The seer and the trickster are sometimes conflated in unsettling ways. This is particularly evident in Kiefer’s interviews, which, like his artworks, he has “marketed” as commodities made all the more desirable by their rarity; and in which he is sometimes as portentous and obscure—and always as controlling—as he is in his art.


Kiefer has been involved in the production of handmade books throughout his career, and these are among his most original and powerful work. Each book exists in only a single copy, usually made of mixed materials, including photographs (which are sometimes painted over), drawings, and other materials, such as bits of hair, ashes, tar, and lead. Although they frequently suggest an almost cinematic sense of narrative—based on sequences of carefully staged photographs taken by the artist—exactly what they are supposed to be narrating is never quite clear. Like his paintings, Kiefer’s books are ambiguous and contradictory.

Some combine photographs and abstract imagery in an oddly documentary fashion. The book entitled Märkischer Sand V (1977), for example, is composed of thirty-six high-contrast photographs of a wheat field. As you turn the pages, the photographic images are progressively covered by actual sand that has been glued down on top of them, until, in the final fourteen pages, the photos of the field are completely obscured by the sand. These abstract sand compositions, with which the book ends, are at once lovely and tragic in their engulfing finality. Other books make use of staged studio photographs mixed with somber documentary shots of the Second World War or of the German countryside. In Operation “Sea Lion” (1975), for example, photographs of model battleships floating in a zinc bathtub are played off against photographs of real ships being sunk during the war.

In the series The Burning of the Rural District of Buchen (1975), murky black-and-white photographs of the countryside eventually give way to images of the countryside on fire, which are subsequently supplanted by dense encrustations of blackish pigment on thick burlap pages. This produces an ominous charred effect that makes the book look like a surviving relic of some immense catastrophe. The conceit of destruction as a form of creation runs through much of Kiefer’s work at this time, and is explicitly stated in Painting = Burning (1974), where an image of scorched fields is overlaid by an enormous, ghostly painter’s palette.

Kiefer’s thick wordless volumes invite us to reconsider what books are. They are make-believe books, almost like something a child might have done, without texts, sometimes even without recognizable imagery. Then, too, their rough, almost scruffy physical presence often suggests great age, as if they were ancient manuscripts, full of palimpsests, repairs, and revisions, suggesting the way that books accrue histories, both as texts and as objects which pass from place to place and from person to person, sometimes sharing the fates of the people who possess them.11

Paradoxically, Kiefer’s books are among his least accessible works, literally, for when they are exhibited it is usually not possible to see more than a couple of pages at a time. A publication like The Books of Anselm Kiefer is therefore particularly welcome, since it brings together in one volume seventy-five of the artist’s books, carefully and handsomely reproduced on a 1:3 scale, with occasional full-page details and blowups. Although only a selection of pages from each of the books is reproduced, the handsomely printed illustrations give a fair idea of what the original books are like. What is not quite captured, however, is a sense of the physical presence and emotional power of the actual books.

This volume also contains documentary material, along with four essays. And here, in what it offers to read rather than to look at, it is much less satisfactory. Both Götz Adriani’s introduction and Toni Stooss’s essay on The Painter’s Studio suffer from being overwrought and frequently obscure, attempting to carry so much meaning that they end up having almost none. Trying to connect Kiefer’s pictures of 1973 and 1974, such as Germany’s Spiritual Heroes, to his 1977 autobiographical statement, Stooss offers the following interpretation:

First of all, Kiefer places his subjectively reflected preoccupation with the Christological theme of the Trinity (and the quaternity as well) into the wooden heaven of [his] studio in the Hornbach schoolhouse, which offers him positively paradigmatic possibilities for experiencing and illustrating the above-below, the I-you, the mythological tripartition into underworld (Hades, hell), earth, and heaven (Valhalla).

To anyone familiar with contemporary art criticism, the obscurity of this passage will come as no surprise. Still, the obfuscation and extravagant philosophical claims in writing about Kiefer are in a class of their own. This probably has something to do with the overlapping between the artist as the subject and as the author of books about him. In a certain sense, his presence makes itself felt behind all of the books under review here, partly because in their interpretations they seem to repeat uncritically what Kiefer himself has said in interviews and conversations.12

The overlapping of the artist as author and as subject can be seen in The High Priestess and in Jason, where Kiefer quite literally plays a double role. Both books include essays by others about Kiefer’s work, along with beautifully reproduced folios of his own dramatic black-and-white photographs of his work—photographs that are at once works about art and works of art in themselves.

Kiefer has been a major interpreter, through photography, of his own works—which he has captured in dramatically composed, silvery photographs that seem bent on restoring the “aura” to mechanically reproduced works. Significantly, his photographs are very different from those usually taken of art works, which tend to be impersonal and “documentary.” Kiefer’s photographs, by contrast, at once dramatize the effect and obscure the details of his work. In and of themselves, they are often very beautiful. But they are also like much of the partisan writing about him, presenting a view of the work that is frankly adoring.

The atmosphere of adoration also pervades the books under review, which obliquely raise issues about how contemporary art in general is written about and interpreted. As a whole they make clear to what degree writing about contemporary artists can be separated into “official” and “unofficial” publications—that is, texts that are either sponsored or approved of by the artist and his minions (dealers or curators who are promoting his work)—and texts that are written without such approval. All of the books being considered here are “official,” and most of the essays in them suffer from this. In fact, the “unofficial” literature on the artist is given little careful attention in most of these essays.13

Much writing about Kiefer, not surprisingly, attaches a disproportionate importance to his subject matter alone, independent of its relation to specific works. And since Kiefer’s subjects are at times portentous, writings about him can also weigh down the reader. Anselm Kiefer: The High Priestess is a handsomely produced book about Kiefer’s Zweistromland (“land between two rivers”; 1985–1989), an impressive construction of nearly two hundred lead books mounted in two enormous steel bookcases, which are supposed to symbolize the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In her foreword to this book, Anne Seymour writes of the project as follows:

In his god-like rôle as artist Kiefer simultaneously gives and takes away. He hides the contents of his books and yet permits the publication of some of them…. The artist has provided an introductory sequence of photographs specifically entitled “Zweistrom-land,” which precedes all exposition and places the work firmly on the ground, in the local context in which it was created. Thus the reality of its origins and the ideas suggested by the work, at least, can be available to all, even though the monumental object itself, like the famous oracles of history, will have a relatively fixed existence.

In writing like this, the artist is talked about as if he were a cross between the Dalai Lama and the Delphic oracle. Armin Zweite’s essay in the The High Priestess starts off in the same hyperbolic mode with the claim that “Painting, for Anselm Kiefer, is primarily an interpretation of the world, not an evocation of subjective experiences or formal discoveries”—ignoring the obvious fact that since Kiefer is not himself the world, his interpretation of the world is, virtually by definition, subjective and articulated through invented form. Zweite continues:

Kiefer sees himself not as a history painter but as an artist who seeks to apprehend the totality of the Cosmos through vivid metaphors and world-encompassing allegorical landscapes. The work of the visual artist, as he sees it, is an act…to re-establish a supposed primordial unity between man and the universe: to reconcile history and myth.

Here the repeated reference to the artist’s own intentions gives the impression, as in other writings about Kiefer, that what we are being told is not only what the critic thinks about the art, but what the artist has told him to think about it. This sense of being directed by the artist is, as we have seen, evident also in the way Kiefer uses words inside his pictures and most especially in his highly interpretive photographs of his own works.

A similar intrusion of the artist’s interpretation is felt even in what at first seems to be the most objective and scholarly approach to Kiefer’s art, the iconographical approach used by Mark Rosenthal, which has become a kind of touchstone for writing about Kiefer in English. Rosenthal’s text is especially troubling because, in thoroughly documenting Kiefer’s work, it simultaneously performs a valuable service for its readers and does them a grave disservice in its interpretation of that work.

Because there is such a strong literary component in Kiefer, and so much of his symbolism is aimed at a cultivated German audience, Rosenthal rightly tries to provide background information for American readers by identifying literary and historical references associated with specific works. But this traditional iconographical method, which was designed to deal with premodern art, doesn’t work in quite the same way for modern art. Traditional iconography is based on the relatively static and publicly acknowledged meanings of specific elements within a picture—a lily in an Annunciation is a symbol of the virgin’s purity. But in most modern painting (including Kiefer’s), such symbols are often used more privately, fluidly, and ambiguously, so that their exact sense remains elusive. One might even say that the ambivalence in Kiefer’s work, the simultaneous assertion and criticism of what is asserted, is one of its great strengths. As a result, Rosenthal’s rigid and frequently pretentious readings of individual pictures tend to undermine and trivialize them.

Moreover, while Rosenthal’s interviews with the artist provide us with detailed information about how Kiefer conceived the symbolism of his paintings, they also frequently result in an inability to disentangle the artist’s self-mythologizing from what he has actually done.14 It is useful to know, for example, that Kiefer’s imagery in Margarete and Shulamith refers to Paul Celan’s poem “Death Fugue,” which was written in a concentration camp in 1945, and which contrasts the archetypically blonde, Nordic Margarete with the ashen image of the Jewish Shulamith. This duality is repeated like a refrain throughout the poem:

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith

But when Rosenthal discusses Kiefer’s paintings in relation to Celan’s themes, it is hard to know if he is basing his interpretations on what is visible in the pictures or if he is simply taking the artist’s intentions at face value. At times this results in extreme naiveté:

In Kiefer’s view, Germany maimed itself and its civilization by destroying its Jewish members and so, by frequently alluding to both figures, he attempts to make Germany whole again.

Eventually we find that charged and overdetermined meanings are read into the most common elements in Kiefer’s work. A fern placed in a painting leads to a short discourse on ferns:

The fern has existed almost since the beginning of the physical world, according to the artist. The fern forest is associated with a period preceding the ice age, and from the fern came early forms of energy, including coal and wood.

This sort of speculation, unfortunately, has become more or less standard in writing on Kiefer, at least among the true believers. If lead is present in a work, then the reader is treated to a capsule history of the meaning of lead in cabala, and informed that “in some traditions” lead is “the primordial Matter, in which the volatile Spirit conceals itself and from which it can be released.”15 Repeatedly, subject and materials are considered in a disembodied way, quite independent of their use in specific works of art.

Turgid interpretation of this sort ill serves the artist by making his work appear to be as ridiculously reductive as his severest critics take it to be. In a Burlington Magazine article on recent acquisitions at the Cleveland Museum of Art, for example, there is a reproduction of a 1989 Kiefer painting entitled Lot’s Wife, in which a view of railroad tracks receding to the horizon is combined with abstract landscape elements and splattered paint (which the caption informs us has been mixed with salt). This complex and ambiguous picture mixes different pictorial languages and different time frames, but it is boiled down as follows:

The motifs and materials help to decipher the implied symbolism: the railway tracks refer to the Holocaust, the transformed landscape to human suffering, the heating coil to environmental warming, and the salt to the title, with its implications of catastrophe in the offing. 16

Such reductive reading makes the work in question seem closer to kitsch than to philosophy and myth. And this is a great shame. For Kiefer’s best work, in my view, draws its strength precisely from the way that it simultaneously implies and denies narrative—the way that the complexities of its pictorial structure keep its symbolic content from becoming too reductive and too melodramatic. In fact, it is this constant tension between form and symbol that makes Kiefer’s art so singular and that prevents it, despite its excesses, from descending into banality.

Although I believe that Kiefer is a powerful artist, I think that he is currently caught in a difficult critical position. While the claims of his supporters can be absurdly overblown, he is much better than his severest critics would have us think. The confusion about his work, moreover, is further exacerbated by his being perceived quite differently at home and abroad. In Germany Kiefer’s use of historically charged themes has for years produced mixed reactions. As might be expected, his evocation of the ghosts of National Socialism made many people very uneasy, while others admired him all the more for having broken political taboos and entered into a dialogue with those ghosts. As a result he is both condemned and admired for reasons that are extraneous to the quality of his art. Furthermore, although Kiefer continues to be esteemed in Germany for the energetic and original way he mixes different materials and styles, he is also perceived there as an artist who panders to his large American audience’s yearning to have, finally, an openly repentant German.

In America, by contrast, Kiefer is still widely seen as exemplifying the highest artistic ambitions. He is admired for the skillful way he mixes figurative and abstract elements in his work, and for the high seriousness and heroic grandeur of his subjects. Perhaps because of the openness with which he deals with guilt about the Second World War and the Holocaust, many of his most avid American supporters and collectors are Jewish. In fact, it would not be entirely unfair to say that in relation to Jewish themes Kiefer now occupies some of the territory formerly held by Marc Chagall. But in contrast to Chagall’s nostalgic reveries, Kiefer’s works are anything but reassuring. Their beauty is of a difficult and wild sort, ugly and disturbing. His pictures are at once somber and lyrical, and evoke terror as well as ecstasy—something that you could not say about Chagall.

At the same time, Kiefer’s pictures frequently seem to promise more than they deliver. They appear to reflect spiritual concerns, but their intentions often seem muddled. And this confusion is made even worse by the explanations that surround them, which frequently make them seem like illustrations for some sort of fuzzy, all-embracing New Age philosophy that undermines their vivid and very particular kind of energy and intelligence.

Kiefer’s work tends to evoke somewhat contradictory responses in the viewer. I myself find that I generally react quite positively to much of it when I first see it, but tend to have serious misgivings about his sometimes exaggerated pictorial rhetoric, and about the rhetoric of much of the writing about it. Though I generally believe that an artist shouldn’t be called to account for what is written about him, in Kiefer’s case I think that he has exercised so much control over it that he is to some degree responsible. The writing about him reflects the deep fissure that runs through his entire work, like a flaw inside a piece of fine marble.

This Issue

February 13, 1992