Wednesday, January 1st, 2003

The Irony and the Ecstasy: Michael Craig-Martin and Anselm Kiefer at Gagosian

Michael Craig-Martin: Eye of the Storm
Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, through February 15

Anselm Kiefer: Merkaba ran from November 8 to December 14; the catalogue is available from Gagosian Gallery at $80.

Michael Craig-Martin Inhale (white) 2002 acrylic on canvas, 96 x 72 inches  This and other images, courtesy Gagosian Gallery
Michael Craig-Martin, Inhale (white) 2002 acrylic on canvas, 96 x 72 inches This and other images, courtesy Gagosian Gallery

What extraordinary scene changes an art gallery can witness. Take the Gagosian Gallery. One week it’s Anselm Kiefer, the next Michael Craig-Martin. Where else can a charnel house become a nursery within seven days? The make over gives new meaning to the expression, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Truly, Craig-Martin’s rip off (Adami/Caulfield) neo-conceptualist wallpaper represents a low point in contemporary artistic culture. But maybe it’s just the eye candy we all needed chez Gagosian after all that sturm und drang. And just maybe, I hear a doubting Thomas sound in my head as I try to sort out my feelings about St Anselm, the change is not so drastic after all.

Anselm Kiefer Oroborus 2002 Painted photograph, 45 x 30-3/4 inches  Photo: Tom Powel
Anselm Kiefer, Oroborus 2002 Painted photograph, 45 x 30-3/4 inches Photo: Tom Powel

If I am understanding correctly the claim made by legendary literary critic Harold Bloom in his catalogue essay for Larry Gagosian, then Anselm Kiefer, dean of romantic neo-expressionists, has taken on the Almighty as a counter-creator ex nihilo. Professor Bloom magisterially vaunts Anselm Kiefer as the most intellectually and spiritually ambitious creator in any medium at work today. The critic’s prose, written it would seem in a kabbalistic trance, finds its match in the artist’s materials as far as bombast and density are concerned. Kiefer’s monumental installations in lead, concrete, and rusted steel, his landscapes painted, literally, in scorched earth, heaped-on straw and other appropriated matter, have an eerie, post-nuclear grandeur about them. The German artist, who was born in 1945, transformed the already hangar-like Gagosian Gallery into an occult cathedral with his installation, Merkaba, the title of which alludes to the celestial visions of the prophet Ezekiel.

The scale alone of Kiefer’s fiercely monumental works seems to lay claim to a contemporary sublime, and that’s before the viewer focuses upon the heady themes and issues at stake. The disasters of modernity, including the Holocaust, jostle disconsolately in a bubbling cauldron of ideas and associations with explicit references to Jewish mysticism and European poetry. But to a skeptic unwilling to see the new Michelangelo in all this melancholy murk, Harry, Larry and Anselm form a veritable triumvurate of hubris.

Bloom and Gloom certainly both know how to lay it on thick. The essay is a mystical-heretical romp through occultism, literary theory, and modernist poetics, a heady heap of allusions, wild associations, and creative misreadings. Kiefer’s art, meanwhile, is every bit as highly textured, literally as well as intellectually. There is paint on photographs, with lines of verse and portentous names and references scribbled in the artist’s nervous hand. There are broken up staircases, burned books, wire cages and steel traps. NASA star numbers transform this artful mess into a map of the universe. It is easy for artist and viewer alike simply to wallow in all this gorgeous texture. These earthy, charred, rusting swamps of primordial chaos are a kind of post-apocalyptic lily pond. Underneath all his heady metaphysics, Kiefer is a supremely tasteful decorator.

Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom

And I don’t mean this as a slight. Meaning has an entirely different currency in criticism and art. In art, mystification is fine; “fool’s gold” can buy you a retirement plan. The mere sensation of metaphysics, a little highbrow name-dropping, “purposiveness without purpose” as Kant called it – texture, in other words – are swell. But in criticism one really is after boring old-fashioned clarity; whereas grand claims, befuddlement, false leads, bravura connections are somehow perfectly fine for art, where posture and ambiguity can point to deeper meanings. To me, it feels less blasphemous for Kiefer to play God than for Bloom to play artist.

To pursue the fool’s gold metaphor – the currency crisis with Kiefer, whose paintings genuinely awe the responsive viewer, has to do with form, not meaning. Sure, they sustain consistent emotion over an incredible space – no mean achievement – but once one comes to terms with the scale and one is duly impressed by the bravura handling and the intensity of the artist’s symbolism, there is this debilitating sense of gratuitousness. The conundrum in Kiefer is that to decipher is to detract, but left as charred books, rusty cages, and angst-ridden scrawls this stuff doesn’t really lead to formal satisfactions. Say, meanwhile, they did, Kiefer would be in worse trouble. For, if as Gauguin said, nothing that is pretty can be beautiful, then, even more so, is this true of the sublime.

The sublime is that which engenders deeply ambiguous emotion- fear, terror, the horror vacui. We are just too damned used, however, to the textures of angst and the tones of despair, learning all too easily to aestheticise them. Unless that is the point, that Kiefer is trading on an acutely post-war German frisson of guilty pleasure, of finding beauty where it should not be.

Anselm Kiefer Die Himmelspaläste 2002 Oil, emulsion, acrylic and lead objects on lead and canvas, 248 x 212½ inches Photo: Tom Powel
Anselm Kiefer, Die Himmelspaläste 2002 Oil, emulsion, acrylic and lead objects on lead and canvas, 248 x 212½ inches Photo: Tom Powel

In this respect, Kiefer’s whole joust with German history is eminently typical of the neo-expressionists who dominated the 1980s. His renderings of Albert Speer’s fascistic architecture and his allusions to Wagnerian themes were symptomatic of the Bad Boy stance of that period. Nazi paraphernalia teased the consciences of the new Germany in the work of countless painters such as Georg Baselitz and Markus Lüpertz. The zeitgeist determined that, for avantgardist street cred, painting (the very act of painting was transgressive after a 1970s dominated by conceptual art and installation) needed to be in giant, ever-so-intellectual quotation marks.

Kiefer launched his career with anything but subtle irony. He would dress as a storm trooper and stage performances “annexing to the Reich” art galleries in countries like Belgium which had not so long ago suffered occupation for real. He would stand at landmarks like the Colisseum in Rome and give the Hitler salute. On one occasion it was sig heil by the seaside, in emulation of Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic icon, Wanderer Over the Misty Sea.

Then came a “brown period” (literally, and still politically), a scorched earth policy of debunking romantic myth. By now, however, Kiefer was beginning to believe his own once-mock metaphysics. Irony fast evaporated as artist and audience alike somehow managed to forget the historical and political disasters his romanticism and mysticism were cooked up to confront. In this respect, I can’t help feeling that Kiefer is like an avantgarde composer who once, in a radical move, quoted an um-pa-pa band only to be stopped in his tracks by a lovely tune, thereafter devoting himself in earnest to pastiche waltzes.

In Harold Bloom’s Kiefer essay, a rare departure into art writing for Yale’s Sterling Professor of Humanities, the critic becomes prophet in the wilderness, his German artist a kind of art messiah. Bloom’s self-professed career obsession has been “the anxiety of influence”. He staked his reputation on audacious, brilliantly argued interpretations of poets like Blake and Milton “misreading” their predecessors in their oedipal struggles for originality. To Bloom, Kiefer presents the awesome spectacle of the divine artist who generates his own tropes, defying “what seems to me the immutable principles of influence in the arts.” Bloom sends us back to Joyce, Stravinsky, and Picasso in search of originators as original, but finds the pioneers of modernism lacking, by way of comparison. Even Blake is faulted for relying too heavily on Michelangelo. “Kiefer knowingly transcends the limits of any visual art.”

In point of fact, Kiefer is supremely conscious of his connections to art of the recent and distant past alike. Frankly, a Yale Art School freshman could put the Sterling Professor of Humanities right on this point. For a start, all that texture in Kiefer, the matière stuck onto his canvases and sprawled on the floor, is impossible without the French existentialist graffiti artist Dubuffet and without arte povera, the Italian minimalist movement, and without Rauschenberg, inventor of gray mush over photographs, and without Cy Twombly, master of the artful scrawl. None of this is to deny that Anselm Kiefer is highly inventive, possibly indeed superior to peers and forebears alike. But his art derives some at least of its meaning in relation to other art, and Professor Influence of all people should know this.

As for the artist as shaman, the melancholy romantic genius, giver of art life to gloom-filled detritus: totally impossible without the guru of German postmodernity, Joseph Beuys (also, incidentally, a big scribbler, in his case on blackboards.) It so happens that, on visual and conceptual grounds alike, I would take Kiefer over Beuys any day, but exalting the originality of the former without bothering with the latter is rather like attributing all the cinematic inventions of Alfred Hitchcock to Brian de Palma.