James Lawrence is a critic and historian of postwar and contemporary art. He is a frequent contributor to The Burlington Magazine and his writings appear in many gallery and museum publications around the world.
We are in Anselm Kiefer’s studio outside Paris on a hot day in September 2016, looking at some of the works to appear in his forthcoming exhibition at Gagosian, Transition from Cool to Warm. A few books rest on tables in the library, a long and airy section of the upper floor. The pages in the largest of the books are bigger than A1 paper, which is a little under two by three feet; even the smaller books are the size of a large atlas. Each page carries a female nude, sometimes formally graceful, sometimes erotically contorted, always eloquently limned and modeled. Some appear in yoga poses next to bodies of water; others evoke the watercolors of Auguste Rodin, to whom Kiefer pays tribute in the book The Cathedrals of France (2013) by combining sexually charged figures and renderings of ecclesiastical architecture, two abiding interests of the earlier artist.
The pages of the books seem lighter than their rigidity and thickness would suggest. Hands accustomed to the flexibility of even the heaviest paper somehow anticipate greater heft as they turn the stiff bound sheets. Each cardboard leaf has a coating of plaster so mineral dry that it promises an insatiable thirst. Instead, painted figures and fluid stains almost float on sized surfaces that are much less absorbent than paper. The results deliver the sensation of a gessoed fresco painting, along with the visual impression of a watercolor and the aura of a codex.
In other paintings Kiefer invokes love as something unsatisfied, sinister, fatal, or tragic—the ruins of love, one might say.James Lawrence
Kiefer’s studio is a huge industrial cuboid across the road from an aerodrome in the town of Croissy-Beaubourg, a dozen miles east of Paris. At 375,000 square feet, it has slightly more floor space than Tate Modern. In this former department-store warehouse, even the largest works can seem almost casually deposited in place, as though by a distracted giant. We pass corrugated towers from the set of An Amfang (At the beginning), the opera that Kiefer and Jörg Widmann created in 2009. We pass large canvases on dollies; tubs of well-categorized materials, both raw and reclaimed; and vitrines that seem familiar from this or that exhibition. One might turn a corner and find pieces of surplus Cold War military hardware—perhaps from the decommissioned MiG-21 that arrived at Kiefer’s studio a few years ago—just as easily as one might find a pool with a field of inverted dried sunflowers suspended just over the water’s surface. It soon becomes apparent how easy becoming completely lost would be, not only because the improbably capacious space is disorienting but also because its internal arrangement—like Kiefer’s art in general—discourages any sense of closure or segregation. The notion of completion rapidly recedes behind the pervasive atmosphere of concurrence. It is as though factory, warehouse, archive, and scrapyard were all located in the same time and place, each nourishing the others.
Most of Kiefer’s creative effort—more than 60 percent, by his own estimate—revolves around his books, which he has made by hand since the beginning of his career in the late 1960s. This lineage can be traced back to a splendidly prognostic piece of juvenilia: in 1954, the young Kiefer handwrote and illustrated his own retelling of “Marouf the Cobbler,” the closing tale from One Thousand and One Nights. The formal components of a well-presented book are evident in this work from childhood: an abstract frontispiece, a title page with hand-stamped decoration, and—in a fit of youthful confidence—the number “42” written on the back of the book, as though many other such volumes had already appeared and more were to follow. In the late 1960s Kiefer started to use the book form less for its narrative continuity and more for its singular ability to weaken the constraints of time. The pages of a book are physically sequential, but the reader may disrupt or interrupt their linear flow at will. On the other hand, each page, when the book is opened to it, obscures all the others, denying the simultaneity of a painting. For Kiefer, the resulting freedom serves a double purpose: it allows connotations to flourish, and it also provides rich soil for his own ideas as they take shape.
Kiefer’s books and works on paper remind us that his sense of magnitude and longevity is anchored in the quiet assembly of intimate thoughts in material form.James Lawrence
Kiefer’s bibliophilia and love of the written word are pervasive throughout his work. Handwritten inscriptions guide us gently through the fluid iconography of his paintings and sculpture, adding a distinctive visual mood as they do so. His lead-leaved emulations of books are renowned. It is nonetheless difficult to grasp the aesthetic magnitude of his works, or their polymathic frames of reference, without sacrificing some perspectives for others. Perhaps we dwell on scale: the size of his compositions, the scope of his ambitions, the breadth of his allusions, and the temporal reach to which he aspires. Some commentary thrives on the proliferation of his work, its sheer mass and volume of expressive material. Some thrives in the byways that lead from its more straightforward connotations into the forbiddingly esoteric. Whether or not we are familiar with Kiefer’s lexicon and syntax, their gravity dominates leavening phrases of wit, humor, sweetness, and levity that speak in more intimately human terms.
Transition from Cool to Warm takes its title from Kiefer’s book Erotik im Fernen Osten oder: Transition from Cool to Warm (1976), in which atmospheric renderings of an arctic seascape lead to the emergence of a female figure and then to a series of loose, abstracted, and exquisitely stained nudes. Kiefer’s engagement with erotic figuration is thematically complex, as a mock-up of the forthcoming show makes clear. Temporary walls have turned a section of the studio into a full-scale model of Gagosian’s 21st Street gallery. Over the course of several months, Kiefer has experimented with various configurations of large watercolors and vitrines that contain books in order to tilt the conversation among them in different directions.
The provisional installation on display in early September included Extases féminines (Feminine ecstasies, 2013) a magisterial composite watercolor with numerous panels joined together in a fragmented but legible composition of flora, seascape, and two deeply erotic female nudes. This arrangement, like the joined woodcuts that Kiefer made in the 1980s, presents a lateral analogue of the sequential book form: a flat, simultaneous burst of bright color and arresting images rather than a gradual apprehension of information and recollections. The result is appropriately epiphanic. Kiefer has written the name “Jean-Noël Vuarnet” in the upper-left corner, a reference to the author whose study of erotic religious ecstasy, Extases féminines (1980), helped to provide the inspiration and framework for Kiefer’s own explorations of the theme. Watercolor is an apt medium for this subject, with its undercurrent of circumvented authority and unsanctioned expression.
Kiefer handles watercolor lightly, with acute sensitivity to its inherent unruliness. Its fluid unpredictability defies the kind of calculated control that more viscous materials permit. Nothing in watercolor remains inert, least of all the paper support, which swells and ripples as it absorbs liquid and participates actively in its own process of transition from one state to another. Sometimes Kiefer amplifies that transitional quality with encrustations of charcoal that convey some of the weight and density of his works in other media. Even without that additional texture, the behavior of soaked paper creates enough topographic undulation to give the impression of heft. The paintings gain body.
Allusions in the works often lead back to the medieval or early-modern eras, though with a refreshing joie de vivre. In addition to Vuarnet, Kiefer also cites Walther von der Vogelweide, a renowned lyric poet and minnesinger of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Walther’s prototypical German patriotism, so resonant in the wake of Romanticism, has receded behind the more universal appeal of his poems on the subject of love. On a watercolor that shows a supine female nude and nebulous foliage, Kiefer has inscribed the first lines of Unter den Linden, Walther’s tantalizing description of a tryst between a knight and a maid, told from the maid’s point of view. Elsewhere Kiefer invokes alchemy, Rosicrucianism, and the esoteric Jacobean scientist Robert Fludd. dat rosa miel apibus (2015) is a watercolor whose two joined sheets establish Kiefer’s characteristic dichotomy of heaven and earth. The lower sheet is filled with verdant and florid blooms of soaked pigment; the upper carries a soft-focus but perfectly legible airliner. The title, an aphorism that translates as “The rose gives honey to the bees,” comes from an allegorical concept of wisdom as a process. Its best-known representation is an engraving, attributed to Johann Theodor de Bry, that appears on the title page of two of Fludd’s works, published in the early seventeenth century. Kiefer’s revision of the motif detaches iconography from symbolism, leaving a sweetly mysterious and witty paraphrase that requires no arcane system of beliefs for support. These disparate influences convey an overall impression of activities that lie apart from the dominant currents of history, whether those activities are episodes of female expression in an era of imposed voicelessness, or the quest for knowledge in the face of profound epistemological uncertainty.
In other paintings Kiefer invokes love as something unsatisfied, sinister, fatal, or tragic—the ruins of love, one might say. A couple of watercolors quote from Goethe’s poem of unrequited desire Heidenröslein (Rose of the field, 1779), their imagery and handwritten text hinting at violation rather than mere disappointment. A landscape at sundown refers to Hans Leip’s 1915 poem “Lili Marleen,” written during World War I and turned into a popular song during its successor. The spectrum of emotional and sexual states that illuminates these paintings suggests that Kiefer regards the flux of human relations as a natural manifestation of the flux of existential relations. His treatments of erotic subjects are based in reciprocity: in the mischievous Rodinesque courtship of sacred and profane in The Cathedrals of France, in the aqueous grace of nudes in landscapes, or in the rhetoric of sexualized inspiration that permeates the theme of ecstasy. He presents loosened allegories of transition, not far removed from the cyclical symbiosis of rose and bee that Fludd admired.
Kiefer’s approach to the physical aspects of art has an expansionist side, not least in his acquisition of studios that gradually become large-scale works of art in their own right. His books and works on paper remind us that his sense of magnitude and longevity is anchored in the quiet assembly of intimate thoughts in material form. For all their sometimes breathtaking presence, even the grandest of Kiefer’s works have an undercurrent of modesty. They do not set out to change the world but to illuminate those aspects of it that we either cannot or prefer not to see. At the reduced, private scale of books and paper, his vast studio condenses into what the hand can touch and turn. Perhaps the studio comes to resemble a medieval scriptorium, where rarefied knowledge took gloriously drawn and tinted shape. It is easy to imagine Kiefer in such a setting, working as a conduit for the realization of spiritual precepts even as his drolleries turn the world upside-down in the margins. In the contemporary, high-technological, digitized world, our ruins are industrial, and habitual pleasures of touch are slipping away. As long as there is something to desire and a connection between eye and hand, however, there is invariably hope. For Kiefer at least, there is always something to assemble from the pieces.
Artwork © Anselm Kiefer. Photos by Georges Poncet unless otherwise noted