Arts Listings

Arts: Anselm Kiefer Retrospective at SF MOMA

By Peter Selz, Special to the Planet
Friday December 01, 2006

Anselm Kiefer was born in Germany in 1945, a few months before the end of World War II. The horror of the Nazi regime and the divided nation in which he grew up find stronger response in his work than it has in many of his contemporaries. In fact, it is the most powerful work to come out of Germany, Kiefer delves into history and mythology—Greek, Nordic and especially the Bible and the Kabbala. He is well versed in modern poetry as well as art and its history. 

The superb exhibition, entitled “Heaven and Earth” deals with grand themes of life on this planet, which is dark. But earthly destruction, in Kiefer’s universe, is allied to heavenly knowledge. The artist made many beautiful paintings of battlefields after the war when the earth was scorched and its surface ashen.  

In “Falling Stars” (1995) a man—his own likeness—naked from the waist up, is stretched out on the earth, the sky and its innumerable stars. In ancient myths celestial bodies determined human destiny, which was “written in the stars.”  

In other canvases, such as “In the Beginning” (2003) and “Melancholia” (2004) we see geometric figures in grey skies above turbulent seas. The polyhedron in the latter refers to the famous “Melancholia” by the German Renaissance master Albrecht Durer. As Michael Auping, the curator of this exhibition writes in the catalogue, in “Im Anfang” and “Melancholia” Kiefer pits the rational architecture of the mind against the potentially unformed nature of the cosmos, imagining one explanation for our origin.  

He has said “It is the artist’s job to imagine the most impossible things. There are no answers. They are just possible entries into hidden things.” 

Kiefer’s canvases are painted with thick heavy materials. He may use combinations of oil, shellac, acrylic, straw, semen, achieving a powerful solidity that confronts the viewer and makes him/her stop in astonishment in front of these mural-like paintings. And the three-dimensional objects in the show are made of lead.  

The monumental “Wings” (1992-94) is a massive tome, which lies open on a high lectern. It has majestic wings which spread out to a width of 13 feet. Or “The Secret Life of Plants” (2001) is more than six feet high. He has said that ancient forests and plants “may contain secret knowledge.” He is fond of double meanings that may provide entry to the mysteries of the world. In his mysterious field of stars on the lead pages of the heavy book he has added the NASA identification numbers. 

This amazing fusion of mythology and science is essential to Kiefer’s work. Many of the sheets of lead were taken from the roof of Cologne Cathedral’s building which has played a significant role in German history and folklore. Lead, of course, was the material which the alchemists hoped to transform into gold. They also believed that this transformation could lead to higher consciousness, which of course, is the ultimate function of art. At this time, with the market rather than the artists’ work driving the art world, we rarely encounter such transcendence. Anselm Kiefer is one of the few living artists who accomplishes this task with the utmost painterly skill and with fervent passion. 



Through Jan. 21 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 151 Third St. San Francisco. (415) 357-4000. 


Photograph: Sternenfall (“Falling Stars”) (1995). (1992-94).