Richard Calvocoressi is a scholar and art historian. He has served as a curator at the Tate, London, director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, and director of the Henry Moore Foundation. He joined Gagosian in 2015. Calvocoressi’s Georg Baselitz was published by Thames and Hudson in May 2021.
Anselm Kiefer’s monumental body of work represents a microcosm of collective memory, visually encapsulating a broad range of cultural, literary, and philosophical allusions as well as symbols from religion, mysticism, mythology, history, and poetry.
In the late spring of 2018, at Rockefeller Center, Anselm Kiefer installed a huge winged book held aloft twenty-five feet above the ground, with massive wings outstretched as if in flight, attended by a serpent wrapped around a supporting column and a field of colossal books strewn at its base. This iconic sculpture was a majestic new image for New York. Deftly using lead, the heaviest of all base metals, and working on an architectural scale, Uraeus evoked classical mythology in form and content and resonated with the many allegorical figures—including the winged figure of Mercury—embedded in the art and architecture of Rockefeller Center itself.
Richard Calvocoressi Does the column encircled by a snake refer to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing, who carries a staff with a snake twined around it?
Anselm Kiefer Yes, but the snake has so many symbolic meanings. In Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, for example, the snake and the eagle play important roles. Nietzsche describes the eagle in the air and the snake wrapped around the eagle.
AK Yes. Normally, eagles eat snakes, they kill them, but in Nietzsche they have a kind of love dance, they embrace. And in this context the snake is also an expression for how Nietzsche understands time. Time is not linear for Nietzsche, it’s cyclical.
RC Eternal recurrence.
AK Yes, and in Greek philosophy there’s Ouroboros, the snake who eats its own tail, an image alluding to infinity. There are a lot of allusions to snakes in Christian mythology; obviously the snake appears in Paradise. Snakes are often symbols of both intelligence and its dangers.
RC The snake was used in healing ceremonies in ancient Greece—the most famous one was at Epidaurus, in the Peloponnese, and there was one on the slopes of the Acropolis. Nonpoisonous snakes were used as part of the healing process. In your painting Seraphim, from 1983–84, there’s another snake. Seraphim appear in Christian, Judaic, and Islamic traditions; in Christian iconography they’re a higher form of angel, with six wings, which is the highest one you can aspire to.
AK That painting describes the first fight in Christian mythology, the fight of the angels. There were angels who wanted to be more powerful than God, so there came to be two groups: one fighting for God and one fighting against them. The angels fighting for God won, so after the battle, the rest were sent down to Earth in the form of dragons and snakes. You know, when Alexander conquered Egypt and wanted to go to a sacred place, he asked the snake to guide him. It’s fantastic to have all these historical allusions.
RC The title of your sculpture is Uraeus. Can you talk a little about that?
AK I thought about the title for a long time, because there are so many possible allusions with the snake and the eagle. Uraeus is the symbol of the reunified Egypt. There was Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, and they had two different gods: Lower Egypt had Wadjet, a god represented by a cobra, and Upper Egypt was represented by a vulture. (In my case it’s an eagle, but a vulture is even bigger and more impressive.) And when these two Egypts were unified, in about 3000 before Jesus Christ, the god was represented by a combination of a snake and a bird.
RC Why did you choose Rockefeller Center as the work’s site?
AK Oh, that’s a long story. We started the conversation eight years ago. I had different ideas: first I wanted to do something on the pier in front of the Standard Hotel—it was an old pier, there was nothing there, it was wonderful—and I had the idea to build a house on it, like one I did in the South of France. And then the next year the pier was gone, kaput. So then I had other ideas, and we continued. My idea was that the artwork, regardless of whether it was a sculpture or a painting, should have its own room. It should not be exposed. You have to be very careful with something like this: if you put a great work in the wrong context, it gets ruined. And I needed time to reflect. In the end I chose the location on Fifth Avenue, where I’m not dominated by the environment. In fact the skyscrapers act as a frame for the sculpture.
RC Yes, the scale and setting are actually perfect.
AK When I was a child, you know, five, six years old, I lived in a small village without television or radio. It was really very primitive. And I was always drawing skyscrapers, I was fascinated by them.
RC When you incorporated the eagle into Uraeus, were you thinking of the Reichsadler, the imperial German eagle?
AK No, not at all. Germans are not the only people who use power, there are others too. It’s everywhere. For me, the eagle is not just a sign of power, it’s a sign of globalism.
RC These symbols of power have appeared throughout your career. In 1973, you made a painting called Quaternity.
AK The painting shows the attic in my first studio in Germany.
RC In the works of this period your attic is a setting where you dramatize certain ideas or metaphysical concepts.
AK Yes, I made a lot of installations and actions with this attic.
RC A winged palette appears in a painting from 1974, Resumptio. Why the palette?
AK For me, it was much more powerful than depicting a figure. The palette was a symbol for the spirit, for an idea.
RC The winged palette crops up again in Icarus—Sand of the Brandenburg March (1981). I’m sure everybody knows the story of Icarus, again from Greek mythology, who flies too close to the sun with these wings made by his father, Daedalus, out of feathers and wax.
AK You find that myth all over the world.
RC And the landscape in Icarus, can you explain the significance?
AK The Märkischer Sand is the northeast part of Germany, where the Prussians developed their power. I literally took the sand from my pond—
RC And incorporated it into the painting.
RC I think of these works as antilandscapes, in a way.
AK For me, a landscape is never a landscape, it’s the memory of history. You see the ruins of history in the landscape.
RC Yes. You hack at these things, you burn them, you blacken them, you attack them with sharp instruments, and so on. Sometimes they incorporate straw and sand.
RC It’s also interesting to think about your use of lead.
AK It’s nice to do a wing out of lead because it’s heavy. So it’s contradictory, a paradox, you know?
RC Yes, exactly. Lead is heavy, but also very fluid when brought to a certain temperature.
AK With lead, you can do what you want. It’s a wonderful material. In alchemy it’s called the prima materia and it’s the first step to get to gold. All alchemists started with lead.
RC You have long included books in your practice.
AK Sixty percent of my work is books. I don’t print them, they’re unique.
RC Unique books, yes, one-offs.
AK I have a lot of them still in my personal collection.
RC You started off by making actual books, book works, but of course you also make sculptures of books in lead.
AK The first time I had the idea to add wings to a book was in 1985. The book looks like it belongs in a church.
RC Like a lectern.
It’s nice to do a wing out of lead because it’s heavy. So it’s contradictory, a paradox.Anselm Kiefer
AK The book is a symbol of wisdom that can travel all over the world—
RC It’s a universal symbol.
AK —It holds wisdom, a Bibliothek. And when you combine it with wings, it’s about wisdom that goes around the world.
RC Last year you had an exhibition in Copenhagen, dedicated to the French writer Céline—
AK For Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Voyage au bout de la nuit.
RC —an extraordinary story of World War I. And in that exhibition lead spoke of life, of regeneration.
AK Yes, and it’s a paradox to create a lead airplane. Lead never flies, you know? It’s too heavy.
RC They weren’t real aircraft but were based on real ones—they were lead versions of fighter planes.
AK I just invented them.
RC Sunflowers sprout out of them.
AK And poppies. And I called it Mohn und Gedächtnis, poppy and memory.
RC Oh, after the poet Paul Celan.
AK From Celan.
RC And the landscapes that were shown are of deserts—
AK Yes. I once walked through the Sahara for three weeks, and I took a lot of photos, and these are the landscapes. And there are sunflower seeds glued on, so the seeds could be waiting for rain in the desert. Or they could also be stars.
RC It was a powerful installation. Let’s wrap up by talking about your very early work. There was a series you called Besetzungen [Occupations, 1969]. They’re staged photographs of yourself doing the Nazi salute in a number of European cities—in the Colosseum in Rome, for example—some but not all of which had been occupied by the Germans during World War II.
AK Not Italy, they collaborated. It wasn’t occupied until later. Switzerland wasn’t occupied—but I occupied Switzerland!
RC What I think you were doing in Besetzungen—correct me if I’m wrong—was, in this provocative way, confronting the collective amnesia that you experienced among your parents’ generation in Germany.
AK I had no idea what happened, you know? And I wanted to know what this was. I found a recording, something the Americans made to educate the Germans. It had a lot of quotes from Hitler, Goebbels, you know. And I was fascinated by these Hitler speeches. I was born during the war, so this was my first naive understanding about what had happened, about my history.
RC You were faced with a kind of collective denial or repression among your parents’ generation.
AK Yes, sure.
RC What did people think of you? What was the reaction when these photos were published?
AK Oh, it was horrible. The Germans thought I was a neofascist. I made Besetzungen to graduate, and today it’s the first work I accept as mine. Everything before it was student work. And my professor had a difficult job [laughs]. There was one teacher in the school who had been in a concentration camp. He was the only one who understood the work—he said, “That’s good.” And you know, I made my career in America, not in Germany. All the Jews who had fled to America, they understood this.
RC Many of your works are in public collections in the United States. When was your first show in New York?
AK It was in 1981, with Marian Goodman.
RC It seems to me that the memory of war and its aftermath have been following you since you were a child.
AK Yes, I was born in ruins. I was born in the cellar of the hospital because our house was bombed that night.
RC So you’re very lucky to be alive.
AK As a young boy, I always played in ruins. I had no toys but I had old bricks. For me, ruins are the beginning of something new. Not the end, the beginning.
Artwork © Anselm Kiefer