Anselm Kiefer Raises History’s Ghosts
BARJAC, France — For Anselm Kiefer, there is no innocent landscape. The German artist, born beneath the bombs of the last months of World War II, sees in everything a cycle of ruin and rebirth. From dust and debris something stirs. Here at La Ribaute, the sprawling property in southern France where he lived and worked for 15 years, Kiefer has created a labyrinth of his obsessions in the form of more than 70 often disconcerting works installed on-site.
Leaning towers made of discarded ship containers defy gravity to send shadows into rippling pools. A large amphitheater, hung with fading reels of film, is a monument to possibility and decay, from its upper light-filled balconies to the cloying tunnels beneath the stage. Dried sunflowers and books fashioned from lead are recurrent themes of a world that hovers in the penumbra between life and death.
“If there were no death, we wouldn’t be,” Kiefer told me in an interview. “It is how we are defined. I think about this, but not in a morbid way.” Even in the event of nuclear war, he continued, even if humanity were wiped out, “there would be some bacteria in a glacier somewhere and a new evolution would begin.” Everything is nonlinear flux, the alchemy of elements. “I put the contemporary together with the depths of history,” he said.
One of Kiefer’s “Seven Heavenly Palaces,” a sculpture series, on the estate in Barjac, France.Credit…Anselm Kiefer; Julien Mignot for The New York Times
His own evolution at La Ribaute, a former silk factory where Kiefer lived with his family from 1992 to 2007, has spawned an unlikely settlement of structures and pavilions inhabited not by people but by works of art. Spread over almost 100 acres, connected by footbridges and underground passageways, layered like an archaeological dig, the property opened to the public for the first time this year. It is now a permanent exhibit, open annually from May to October.
At 77, Kiefer has arrived at a kind of apotheosis. One of just two living artists with a painting in the Louvre, he was commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron in 2020 to create a work now installed in the Pantheon. He is so venerated in France that Le Monde newspaper suggested last year he was close to becoming the country’s official artist. In the United States, where his renown has grown over decades, two shows called “Exodus” open this month at the Gagosian galleries in New York and Los Angeles.
Yet in his native Germany, he is often disparaged. Something in Kiefer’s relentless exploration of what he calls the “morbid precision” of the Nazi killing machine, something in his spatula’s thick, daubed gray-and-black probing of a vast twilight zone, something about his love of what the French writer Pierre Corneille called “this dark brightness that falls from the stars,” has long proved too discomfiting, and repetitive, for Germans to swallow. “Only we in this country still have not quite understood what he has to proclaim,” a critic in the German newspaper Die Welt once observed.
“They are not hesitant about my work, they are just against it,” Kiefer said. “And now they say I am out of time, old-fashioned.” He shrugged, as if to say this is an old story no longer worth his consideration.
A man obsessed by borders — and none was more bloodstained until the mid-20th century than the frontier between France and Germany — he finds himself straddling the German landscape he left behind, yet still loves, and the France where he found the freedom to work. This is an old feeling. As a child, when the nearby Rhine flooded the basement of his home, he liked the idea that he was now in France because the river border had shifted.
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“Every boundary is an illusion, constructed in order to becalm us, in order to give us the impressions of a definite place,” he has written. “But there are no definite places.”
Even his works are shifting things. “A painting in my case is never finished — never. It always goes on and on,” he said. “I work on paintings from the late ’60s that are still in containers.” Even those at La Ribaute? “Well, they are considered to be finished because I cannot change them anymore, they are now in a museum or something.”
Or something: La Ribaute is hard to classify. It is now controlled by a foundation for which Kiefer chose the name “Eschaton,” meaning the final event in the divine plan, or the end of the world. “You can say it’s the end of the beginning,” Kiefer said. “Eschaton means that something comes after.” So why, I asked, did he pick this name? “Because it’s the beginning.”
Kiefer is an austere man of medium build with an intense bespectacled gaze and a neatly trimmed gray beard. He speaks in succinct staccato sentences that are full of ambiguity, riddle and eclectic literary references. These range from the kabbalah to perhaps his favored poet, Paul Celan.
I met Kiefer just east of Paris at his current workplace in Croissy-Beaubourg, a former department store warehouse. He wore loose-fitting, paint-stained shorts and black socks without shoes, and he sat in an immense book-filled room of white walls and scant furniture. Kiefer needs empty space. He is a minimalist whose artistic expression is maximalist.
I asked him what drew him here after La Ribaute and a spell in Paris. “The length: It was 250 meters long” — or 820 feet. Anything else? “The airstrip opposite. There is nothing. It is fantastic.” He pondered his form of asceticism. “I don’t want to feel gemütlich,” he said, using the German word for cozy. “It is not fruitful.”
Kiefer’s palette is not cozy or comforting. If anything, it is astral, a reminder that this small Earth and the life on it are spinning through infinite space charged with mystery. “My paintings normally start with a lot of color, then it’s reduced, reduced,” he said. “I think color is important, it’s a scientific thing: It depends on what part of the kaleidoscope it is coming through.” He paused. “I pretend that my gray is more colorful than Monet. Gray is colorful, you know? It’s more rich. It has more color in it than poor red.”
Lead is a favorite material. Kiefer told me he had an old house in Germany with lead pipes, some of which were obsolete, and called a plumber to replace them. He became fascinated by the lead and asked the plumber how to liquefy and weld it. “I just had an intuition, and then my interest became more rationalized,” he said. “Lead is important for the alchemist, who wanted to turn lead into gold.”
At La Ribaute, a work called “Souk” consists of seven cubical buildings each containing a sculpture. One, called “Emanation,” is made of poured lead hung from the ceiling. It is so heavy that the building has cracked from the weight, and it seems to capture the cyclical eddying between creation and crumbling that so captivates the artist.
Lead is the first and the oldest of the seven metals of alchemy; it is also toxic and used for bullets. Another work of galvanized sheet metal and lead borrows a line of Goethe for its title: “Steigend, steigend, sinke nieder,” or, loosely, “Rising, Rising, Sink Into the Depths.” Across the property, structures rise over muddy subterranean crypts that appear like the remains of prehistoric temples. It is easy to be lost, which may be a way to be found.
Nature may not be innocent, but it is there. In some of the most beautiful corners of La Ribaute, the interaction of a work with trees or water forms an enchanting balance. Kiefer’s view of life does not place humankind at its center. “We are not the crown of creation,” he said. He likes a line that paraphrases the Book of Isaiah: “Over your cities grass will grow.”
Newly planted poplars shimmer pale green next to a pile of lead books set on a rock. Busts of headless women martyrs, their white dresses cinched at the waist, dot a hillside, symbolizing feminine endeavor and creation in every field of life. In one building, a surprise: Early watercolors in pinks, greens and yellows, whose subjects are often women, alternately grimacing, dreaming or ecstatic.
If the artist is driven by a kind of primal intuition about the world, he is also fiercely disciplined. His work on large canvases is hard. He is often hoisted on a mechanical platform applying paint with a long spatula. (He rarely uses a paint brush.) Werner Herzog, the movie director, once told him that most of his own work was discipline. “I was surprised,” Kiefer said. “But discipline is important, because you cannot live from intuitions.”
The Gagosian shows in New York and Los Angeles feature large-format paintings layered with materials — rope, wire, terra cotta, sediments, copper, gold leaf, random objects — that reflect Kiefer’s lifelong quest for the essence or the fundamental. Rubble, ash, straw, things scavenged: These are his elements.
His art teacher at school was a former member of the Nazi SS. When Kiefer studied law, his teachers were former Nazis. Silence hung over all of this in postwar Germany. The truth was hidden. After that, he could not believe in the surface of things.
The night he was born, his house was bombed. He had no toys as a child in what the Germans call “Stunde Null,” or the “zero hour,” of 1945. There were ruins beside his home. He used fragments found to build. “I always built houses, even as a little boy,” he said.
How could such evil be? The question haunted Kiefer. The Germans, a civilized people, had turned to industrialized mass murder of the Jews. As a young man, age 24, he donned his father’s Wehrmacht uniform and made the Nazi salute in various locations, shocking a Germany that had not yet confronted its past openly. Kiefer, borrowing from a 1943 article in the official Nazi arts magazine, called the resulting photographs “Heroic Symbols.”
This was not a provocation, he insisted. It was a protest against silence and a means to self-knowledge. “I was putting myself in the role. I wanted to know what I would have done. Because it is not easy in such times to stand against power, like now in Russia.”
One day, as a child, Kiefer killed a chicken. Chickens had been eating the family vegetable patch and the family had no money. “I can still see the blood running across the earth. I was shocked about me. I was completely shocked. I was allowed to do it, and so I did it, and this was interesting. I found in myself the evil.”
Ever since, it seems, Kiefer has been pushing himself, exploring the limits, the things from which humanity would avert its eyes. “When I start a painting,” he said, “I know in the same time it’s a failure.” But, he added, “I do it nonetheless. I continue. I just continue.”
He looked at me. “I don’t think I can do a chef d’oeuvre, a masterpiece. I cannot. I try. But it will not happen.”
The fact that many would disagree does not concern Kiefer. He has lived by his own compass.
Anselm Kiefer: Exodus
Through Dec. 23 at Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, Manhattan, and through March 25, 2023, at Gagosian at Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles; gagosian. com.