Gagosian Quarterly

June 22, 2022

Anselm Kiefer:Architect of landscape and cosmology

Jérôme Sans visits La Ribaute in Barjac, France, the vast studio-estate transformed by Anselm Kiefer over the course of decades. The labyrinthine site, now open to the public, stands as a total work of art, reflecting through its grounds, pavilions, and passageways major themes in Kiefer’s oeuvre: regeneration, mythology, memory, and more.

La Ribaute, Barjac, France. Photo: Georges Poncet

La Ribaute, Barjac, France. Photo: Georges Poncet

Jérôme Sans

Jérôme Sans is a world-renowned curator, art critic, artistic director, and director of institutions. He cofounded and directed the Palais de Tokyo in Paris together with Nicolas Bourriaud and directed the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing. He served as creative director and editor-in-chief of L’Officiel Art and has curated numerous international exhibitions, including the Taipei Biennial (2000), Biennale de Lyon (2005), and recently Erwin Wurm: One Minute Forever at the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade (2022). Photo: Janarbek Amankulov/Saparlas

When I walk through my studio at night, somewhat tired, when I’m no longer working, I’m no longer in logic but in another world: I see my studio, I walk through my brain. I see the synapses.

—Anselm Kiefer, 2016

Barjac is not only a site, an exhibition venue, a work space, a laboratory; its ground has also supplied a substantial proportion of the materials I have used in my work, the sunflowers for example, which were sown here and have reached more than seven meters tall. Thousands of tulips have been planted here that, once gathered and dried, were used in paintings dedicated to Arab poets. . . . I continue to work the land, to develop the underground structures. 

—Anselm Kiefer, 2011

A visit to La Ribaute is an invitation to lose oneself in entire territories of Anselm Kiefer’s work, to get lost in the expanses of rich, abundant, resilient thought that infuse the entire atelier de création, which is also a site of life where he became both orchestrator and the first viewer of his own work. It means setting out to discover an entirely different dimension of the artist, of Kiefer himself, of the history of his work and his invisible side. It means attempting to untangle a complex personal cosmology, one that is almost impenetrable at first, and giving in to a kind of speleology, exploring his underground cartography, one belonging to an artist who is enlivened by architectural depth and the reinvention of his own world. Here, he crossed the borderline between the space of the painting and the space of the land to enter into the space of the landscape. La Ribaute gives rise to the figure of the artist of architecture and landscape.

Kiefer’s work has always taken on a monumental scale—the scale of Germany as terrain of ruins; the scale of this property nestled in the Cévennes. “I have often compared my studios to laboratories. But one can also picture them as refineries or mines,” he explains.1 Crossing through the alleys, the caves, the corridors of La Ribaute, one gives in to a maze, plunges into the guts of the history of the world and cosmologies. It is the history of life, of searching for one’s voice, searching for the other and for oneself: wandering from one point to the next, without arriving and always finding something else. Numerous trails and corridors delineate an exquisite corpse through the landscape. All are connected by a route constructed in asphalt—both mineral and natural—that spells out a path through this teeming nature in which one might roam or get lost. The entire site recalls the muddy furrows, like desolate train tracks, that capture our attention in his ambitious landscapes leveled by destruction. All of a sudden, the mineral, sedimented world he tirelessly reconstructs in his thick paintings encrusted with clay, plants, ash, and lead changes perspective, becomes a landscape to cross physically, mentally, and spiritually. Like an abandoned village inhabited only by works that have emerged and wait to be revealed in the silence of their enclosures.

Outside the clamor of human activity, the studio becomes a world in itself, one that Anselm Kiefer shapes by successive reworking and strata.

It is now almost thirty years since Kiefer began transforming this former abandoned silk factory, originally intended to be a transitional place, into certainly one of the century’s most eminent Gesamtkunstwerks. “Gesamtkunstwerk” is a notion that Kiefer claims to reject for being polluted, contaminated by Nazi ideology. Nevertheless, there is something of the total artwork at La Ribaute. Here are years of life, of labor, of energy that this alchemist of matter immersed into this project, away from the eyes of the world. The reason for its inaccessibility can perhaps be explained by the balance between art and life that is inherent to its state of incompletion, which means that he refused to welcome any visitors as long as the pieces were unfinished, not definitive. On this subject, Kiefer refers to Jean Genet’s 1949 novel Journal d’un voleur (The Thief’s Journal): “The genius of this book resides in its ability to carve out situations, to designate the exact place where life transforms into art. . . . I do not like the works to be seen while they are being developed.”2

Stripped of the weight of museographic conventions, which at times suffocate Kiefer’s work, La Ribaute engages the most complete immersion, a holistic trajectory through his creations, as if in an echo chamber where their vibration can be experienced with absolute accuracy and intensity. His intention to create a powerful encounter with the work infuses the whole site: a universe forged by sedimentation and excess, a devastated landscape, traversed by multiple tracks, the ruins of a set in the making where time runs its course. Outside the clamor of human activity, the studio becomes a world in itself, one that Kiefer has shaped by successive reworking and strata, but it also becomes a masterful exhibition venue, a kind of exploded museum or wild garden, never set in stone, always in development. Gaston Bachelard wrote these words in his Poétique de la rêverie (The Poetics of Reverie, 1960), which might echo Kiefer’s relationship to the world: “One has never seen the world well if one has not dreamed what one was seeing. In a reverie of solitude which increases the solitude of the dreamer, two depths pair off, reverberate in echoes which go from the depths of being of the world to a depth of being of the dreamer. Time is suspended. Time no longer has any yesterday and no longer any tomorrow. Time is engulfed in the double depth of the dreamer and the world. The World is so majestic that nothing any longer happens there: the World reposes in its tranquility.”3

Anselm Kiefer: Architect of Landscape and Cosmology

Anselm Kiefer, Les Femmes de la Révolution, 2006, installation of 14 steel beds, lead, water, and photograph on lead and mixed media, overall: 17 feet 8 ⅝ inches × 56 feet 1 ¼ inches × 20 feet 2 ⅛ inches (5.4 × 17.1 × 6.2 m), installation view, La Ribaute, Barjac, France. Photo: Charles Duprat

Kiefer’s obsession with digging into the earth’s belly is Sisyphean. At La Ribaute, his engagement was a physical wrestling, the task being phenomenal, almost demiurgic, similar to the scale of the means involved and the questions it raises. His process of incessant reworking has created a rhizome with roots that climb and stretch into catacombs and pavilions in every direction throughout the landscape. He emerges as not only a visual artist; here we see his desire to go from the representation of architecture to construction, even as architecture was invading his pictorial representations: what occurs is the rare transition from flat reality to the most complete immersion. Inexhaustible, Kiefer took possession of this land that seems to groan with a telluric breath as if he were submitting to two opposing forces: a celestial aspiration, a feeling of elevation, and a powerful magnetism that forever draws him back toward the depths of the past, of our anguish, of war. Everywhere, the land’s absorption of light occurs through sporadic—not systematic—openings and fissures, like open wounds. It is an inverted architecture, punctuated by points of light. “One day, the idea of tunnels came to me. Not finding anything satisfying on the surface, I went down deep. In truth, it was not an idea, but rather a reflex. This incessant excavation was like an extension of the residence into subterranean construction. After completing the first tunnel, the idea of seven celestial palaces came to my mind and I focused on the goal of building seven buildings and greenhouses interconnected by tunnels,” the artist has said of this instinctive and archaeological gesture.4 Thanks to these underground passages, we can travel through time and space, from a military hospital, from Paleolithic caves, to the period of ancient Greek tragedies, from the time of Christ to our present day. In the belly of the earth, “I felt like an outsider there. . . . I began constructing with an energy that I imagine was proportional to my desire to take possession of this place,” he explains with regard to his determination to forge this landscape so that it resonates with his oeuvre.5

Born in Donaueschingen, two months before the end of World War II, Kiefer has built an allegoric oeuvre while drawing on the great Germanic myths. He is a German artist “of the second generation,” as it is called, which has known neither the war nor the Shoah—a veritable amnesia of history that he was unable to address in his immediate environment. In 1992, he left Germany to reside in Barjac and set up his studio there. While the rewriting of German history and its memory since 1945 plays into the politics of concealment that has lasted almost thirty years, this is also the amount of time Kiefer has needed to realize La Ribaute. He reveals his creation from a cosmological, mystical, and theological perspective that encompasses every dimension of life. It is particularly visible in the great painting cycles on the cosmos—Die berühmten Orden der Nacht (1997), Lichtzwang (1999), Sternenfall (1998)—but also, in terms of alchemy, for example, in his series dedicated to Robert Fludd, the seventeenth-century English philosopher who maintained that every plant on earth also existed in the form of stars. One also recalls his large herbariums and botanical explorations comprising painted photographs and sunflower seeds, the latter of which also constellate frescoes such as The Secret Life of Plants (1998) and Cette obscure clarté qui tombe des étoiles (1996). Nevertheless, in the first years of La Ribaute, Kiefer executed works that are palimpsests of memories, fragments, photographs, books, materials. Quickly, he experienced a period of intense creativity and set out to build, develop, map out routes, dig tunnels, set up buildings for his works, plant trees, sow sunflower seeds . . . In the underground passages of La Ribaute, however, various objects and materials are still stored, like an encyclopedia of life, a reactivation of “the Arsenal” of his old studio in Höpfingen, Germany, where a relegation of waste from society mingled with abandoned objects awaiting redemption in subsequent works.

Anselm Kiefer: Architect of Landscape and Cosmology

Anselm Kiefer, Die berühmten Orden der Nacht, 1997, acrylic and emulsion on canvas, 202 ⅜ × 198 × 3 ⅛ inches (514 × 503 × 8 cm), Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain. Photo: courtesy Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Like a treasure hunt, La Ribaute ensnares all the constellations of work that Kiefer has created from his early years to the present. The thousands of synapses—to use his term—of his creative process make up an ecosystem that extends beyond the sole center of gravity of his relationship to history and to memory and innervates much greater mythological, cosmological, literary, archaeological, and organic territories. A library for his books made of lead, traditionally considered the material of melancholy, a monumental amphitheater in reinforced concrete, a vast system of old factory buildings, greenhouses, grottoes, forests of earthy columns and crypts, apocalyptic towers reaching skyward: all these works germinate along a large underground root system connecting one hundred acres. This living organism has limbs that dig deep into and grow in a sedimented soil where nature converses with history. In this sense, La Ribaute is a place of life and death, but also of regeneration and fertilization. The seeds of heavy sunflowers Kiefer sowed here fertilize paintings fueled with great, cosmological myths of Germanity and its cycles associated with kabbalistic mystique.

The long process of excavation and transformation at La Ribaute, of painting and sculpting actual earth, of construction through destruction, has given rise to an inverted architecture, beyond time or any human scale. The truly cyclical dimension of Kiefer’s logic of creation becomes clear, this memory in progress, always awaiting reconstruction. Working like a diviner searching for life, like a shaman in the soil, he has grown columns and stalks, marked the land, dug for samples, created armatures and stalagmites that transport us from the caves at Lascaux to future dystopias. His expressive power is always in the service of a deep humanity. He thus retraces multiple paths of history and of oblivion, like these endless claustrophobic corridors and rooms like fallout shelters, where one can both get lost and find a form of deliverance.

Anselm Kiefer: Architect of Landscape and Cosmology

Anselm Kiefer, Amphitheater, 1999–2002, installation view, La Ribaute, Barjac, France. Photo: Charles Duprat

The art historian Daniel Arasse cites the metaphor of the labyrinth to grasp Kiefers creative process: constant recoveries, grafts, stratifications, gaps. La Ribaute has a labyrinthine structure that could extend endlessly, without precise order, without chronology. As in life, there is no set path through this landscape, no one route of discovery, and as in the world, inevitably it will be impossible to see everything. Given the difficulty of grasping the place as a whole, one will have to forget certain passages and resolve to remember only fragments, gaps, snippets of memories.

At the center of La Ribaute is an immense crypt, 16,000 square feet (1,500 square meters), roughly excavated from the clay and punctuated by forests of earthen pillars as large as those of the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, also known by the Turkish name Yerebatan Sarnici, “the buried palace.” Each column is like a painting that has become a circular sculpture between earth and sky. We’re reminded of the powerful sequence in the 1978 film Midnight Express where the protagonist Billy Hayes, a tourist in Turkey who is serving a life sentence in prison, spins endlessly around a column in order to remain connected to the world, to not lose his footing: he spins in a reverse direction, against the flow of the other prisoners, in an attempt to step outside their torpor and to rediscover, alone, the axis of life, the axis of freedom.

Anselm Kiefer: Architect of Landscape and Cosmology

Anselm Kiefer, Die Himmelspaläste, 2003–18, reinforced concrete and lead, overall dimensions variable, installation view, La Ribaute, Barjac, France. Photo: Charles Duprat

Aboveground, Die Himmelspaläste (2003–18), “the heavenly palaces,” inhabit the bucolic expanses of La Ribaute. Suspended in a state between rising and collapsing, these gigantic towers that take the form of stacked shipping containers stand vertiginously in search of their own equilibrium. Like watchtowers or Towers of Babel, they also vaguely bring to mind an element of industrial archaeology or, more tragically, contemporary ruins. The Himmelspaläste amalgamate a reference to the Hebrew mystical narrative of our celestial ascension through the gradual loss of our material bodies, the representation of the ruins of Western civilization after 1945, and the image of ruins in the making. Here they confer an apocalyptic atmosphere permeated by creation, destruction, and permanent degradation, always in a state of tension in the artist’s work.

 In 1966, as a young adult, Kiefer discovered the architecture of Le Corbusier at the Couvent Sainte-Marie de La Tourette in Éveux, France. Numerous details of the convent inspired his towers, which map out faltering vertical lines in this no-man’s-land. They are reminiscent of that chapel where “there was notably a terrace with a wall so high that the monks did not see the landscape, they saw only the sky. . . . It is both spiritual and cynical.”6 It is also at Barjac that the artist introduced concrete—“pure, rough”—into his work for the first time. His architectural system is based on the module of the shipping container, a metaphor for an architecture in motion, fluid and light. With these paradoxical containers, which, made of heavy concrete, become difficult to move, to transport, he erects towering walls without the help of architects or engineers. For Kiefer, the containers symbolize globalization and elementary constructive forms, as well as permanent movement—that of architecture, like this brutalist concrete, which solidifies, becomes cold, and cracks over time. He is also interested in agricultural greenhouses, made from glass. This architecture of transparency, which serves to protect fragile plants, protects some of his works at La Ribaute. Sporadically punctuating the grounds, greenhouses appear and disappear in the landscape; unlike the ostentatious containers, in a play of opposites, they blend in, almost disappear, constantly withdrawing. This modesty, this minimalism, this great simplicity is a philosophical principle in itself. The works are arranged beneath these windows in the heat, beneath bright sunlight, dazzling after the darkness of the containers. Kiefer makes architecture beginning with non-architecture, in its most modest, most humble, most reduced form, as if it were an architectural readymade that could not override the work, the landscape, or history. Its relationship to architecture plays out over this passage, this crest, of shadow toward light, but it is always about an architecture of protection.

Anselm Kiefer: Architect of Landscape and Cosmology

Le Corbusier, Couvent Sainte-Marie de La Tourette, Éveux, France, 1958. Photo: © Jacqueline Salmon/Artedia/© F.L.C. /ADAGP, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2022

Later, Kiefer composed a monumental five-story amphitheater, a centerpiece of La Ribaute. “I see my images like ruins, or like building blocks that can be put together. They are material with which you can build something, but they are not perfect. They are closer to nothing than perfection,” he writes.7 The amphitheater is a form of spontaneous architecture, almost childish, a precarious stacking of blocks without foundation, shaky. It has the appearance of a building site, of ruins—totally inorganic, brutalist, vaguely like a prison camp. We are the actors here, subjected to an indefinite wait, as in a play by Beckett; but the aura of the place also evokes great tragedies set between the heavens and limbo. It creates a “radiant city” to be activated at each stage. The amphitheater also strangely resembles ancient, tiered archaeological wells, like those in Hampi, in Karnataka, India, where Kiefer traveled just before his move to the Cévennes. His life has been punctuated by journeys to Yemen, Egypt, India, Brazil, and Central America, where he has been drawn to the architectures developed by builders of the past, particularly the gigantic constructions made of stone, clay, and earth in the regions of the Nile and the Ganges.8

La Ribaute is a proposition different from institutional spaces, white cubes, where works are orphans and in transit. Is it a critique of the museum institution itself? Aware that his works, installed in unsuitable spaces, would completely lose their power, the artist has imagined a succession of buildings conceived for each of them, a series of pavilions in various forms, to connect them to their entire family of works and ensure that they cease being orphans. Thus, La Ribaute is both the birthplace of each work and its place of fulfillment. When Kiefer builds a pavilion, it is the artwork within that provides the ideal dimension. Spectacular but direct, these works cannot be displayed in a generic setting; they are in situ—each having its own territory of life, of growth—but they also exercise an influence on their environment. The pavilions are not solely a zone of transit for works awaiting other horizons, but their destination, Kiefer’s modus operandi often entailing their retention, temporarily or definitively, beyond the exhibition period, to allow the work of time to happen. “My idea of time is that the more we return to the past, the further we go into the future. It is a contradictory double movement that expands time,” the artist explains.9

Anselm Kiefer: Architect of Landscape and Cosmology

Anselm Kiefer, Mésopotamie, 2007–20 (detail), ensemble of 15 paintings, overall dimensions variable, installation view, La Ribaute, Barjac, France. Photo: Georges Poncet

A sepulchral atmosphere emanates from certain underground crypts, from paths covered with vegetation where Kiefer has abandoned works to the elements, the wind, water, rain. Some are created from perishable materials such as wheat rush, while others are subjected to electrolysis or acid baths that alter canvases and pigments. This singular relationship to time, to degradation, even to death has pursued Kiefer like a shadow. Hence another greenhouse contains the debris of a lead airplane, run aground in a landscape from which sunflowers spring, drying in the sunlight. They symbolize the flight of poetry and art, like the Jewish poet Paul Celan’s poppies of drunkenness, hallucination, and dream. The work is entitled Mohn und Gedächtnis (2014), referencing Celan’s poetry collection of the same name (1952; translated as Poppy and Memory), just like a twin work, Die grosse Fracht (2014), which Kiefer likens to a “sun ship,” the title alluding to a 1953 poem by Ingeborg Bachmann that refers to “the summer’s heavy cargo.” Evoking another aircraft bearing the title of the Celan collection, Kiefer himself offers an interpretation: “As in everything I do, this sculpture overcomes the opposition between destruction and creation, those two inseparable actions in art. Ruins are the constant trace of civilizations, of battles, in brief, of history, ruins are history and the poppies sift through concrete like bullets that say: don’t forget, don’t forget, don’t forget.”10 Other pavilions serve as nests or boxes for installations, paintings, and sculptures on the theme of the Holocaust and bear witness to the death of German history and thought.

Also found scattered about are books made of lead, resting on stone blocks or placed directly on the ground, a metaphor for knowledge and the ruins of history. They are an allusion to a form of “memory without recollections,”11 in the manner of Yiddish “memory books,”12 which gather together lists of names, communities, places gone forever. “Sixty percent of my work is books. A painting is only an apparition. A book includes time. You work with time when you flip through a book,” Kiefer explains.13 Crushed by the weight of German history, and of all humanity, these lead volumes selectively give form to voluminous libraries that interrogate the uncertain survival of books, their accumulated knowledge, their extreme fragility.

Anselm Kiefer: Architect of Landscape and Cosmology

Anselm Kiefer, Sol Invictus, 2007, emulsion, shellac, oil, and chalk on linen canvas, 401 ⅝ × 171 ⅝ inches (10.2 × 4.4 m). Photo: Georges Poncet

Elsewhere, bullet holes seem to spangle large groups of paintings on the theme of String Theory (2018–19) or, in the pavilion Für Ingeborg Bachmann, nur mit Wind mit Zeit und mit Klang (1999–2003), the painting that is a counterpoint to the steel and lead sculpture Meteoriten (1999). With reference to string theory, Kiefer evokes this unverifiable physical and metaphysical pursuit of the harmonization of the universe, the search for an experience that would make it possible to find empirical evidence proving or refuting the existence of the elementary particle, which he interweaves with various cosmological narratives. “I have always been fascinated by the completeness of stars, by stars in all their numbers. The sky should be brilliantly illuminated, but it constantly grows darker now and again.”14 This cycle of paintings incorporates various materials—shellac, ash, lead, straw, earth and sand, sunflower seeds, symbols of regeneration and resurrection, picked on this land in Barjac and scattered like cosmic dust over the surface of the canvas. This flower is also the subject of paintings from this period, notably Sol Invictus (2007), where the artist lies on the ground, his naked body overshadowed by a huge sunflower.

The year prior to his move to the Cévennes, Kiefer set out on one of his major trips, this time to the Gobi desert, between China and Mongolia, where he confronted a new way of viewing the landscape. The desert would become a recurring theme, a counterpoint to the starry nights that populate his canvases like cartographies, navigational tools. Thus in 1996, in Barjac, he created the first of his desert paintings, Cette obscure clarté qui tombe des étoiles, where the horizon line that indistinctly separates the terrestrial and celestial realms is never completely fixed in the sand itself and transports us into the painting. Cette obscure clarté qui tombe des étoiles—the title is taken from a famous line in Corneille’s “Le Cid”—also evokes Kant’s definition of the sublime: “The starry heavens above, the moral law within.”15 Likewise, in the paintings on the subject of string theory, the surfaces are worked in thick striations of paint that create a swirling cosmos. For Kiefer, “an artist produces a sense that it is possible to associate with the constellations that, themselves, are images arbitrarily designed by human beings. . . . We can reinvent them millions of times. This shows once again the many layers of the mythical.”16 The numbers inscribed near these stars, on thin labels, are those given by NASA scientists to indicate the stars’ distance, color, and size, an illusory scientific paradise according to the artist, because the constellations are only “illusions or ghosts,”17 flashes of memory faded over billions of years. Further away, the sunflower seeds planted at La Ribaute become seeds of stars in Der Morgenthau Plan (2012), a pavilion littered with dry wheat and a coiled snake, inspired by the memento mori in Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego (1637–38). The use of straw, where each ear is covered in gold leaf, represents a liberation of energy and heat when it is burned. The ash that results makes way for new creation, thus echoing the life cycles that pass through all of Kiefer’s work.

This world of La Ribaute is also inhabited by the spectral presence of a multitude of women—Die Frauen der Antike (1999–2002), the Femmes martyres (2018–19)who navigate expanses of vegetation, beneath the drying power of the sun or among the steps of the amphitheater. They seem like heroines of a timeless drama. With their headless silhouettes, their bridal gowns soiled by inclement weather, rust, and wear and tear, the artist summons phantoms of historical and mythological women, often concealed by a male-dominated history spanning millennia. Sappho, Electra, Circe, the queens of France, goddesses, heroines, saints, medusas, savants; elegant, warlike, or silent . . . The artist creates a litany with this succession of immutable women in relationship to architecture, astronomy, freemasonry, tragedy, mythology, revolution, and so many other references. As he explains, “All the political and social changes in the world can be seen through these women who, as Michelet said, are ‘the leaders of the world.’ . . . If the women I depict in my sculptures do not have heads, it is because for a long time, and due to men, they didn’t have the right to have a personality.”18  Kiefer dresses them in materials altered by water, darkened by time, to reinforce their emotional charge, which becomes as heavy as the burdens they lift: imposing chains, colossal books, metal globes, barbed wire. These muses seem to be the last human-looking residents of this place, a place of humility, which is not the final work, but which makes it possible to understand the entire signification, the scope of Kiefer’s approach.

Anselm Kiefer: Architect of Landscape and Cosmology

Anselm Kiefer, Die Frauen der Antike, 1999–2002, installation of 17 sculptures in a glasshouse, overall dimensions variable, installation view, La Ribaute, Barjac, France. Photo: Charles Duprat

La Ribaute is a story where there is neither beginning nor end, but where a scenario to be constructed eternally unfolds. It is a territory for breaking free from history by building bridges that take us back. The artist does not have sole control, having invited other artists to be present here through their works as well. Like his oeuvre, this territory never stops; it is not a progression, but cycles continuously, with fascinating mutability.

Contrary to what his international renown might suggest, Kiefer seems to have sought a form of retreat, favoring a contemplative life, to reflect on his art and on the world, a space for feeling at peace and escaping his own inner chaos: “I am someone who lives completely in and through illusion because I cannot see meaning in the world. To survive, I create meaning, and this is my art. I create it there where the horizontal and vertical lines that traverse space intersect: historical, geological, astral lines. I need to be there where they meet, where they touch each other. There are also waves, the existence of which is certain: waves of sunlight, infrared waves, gamma waves, and all sorts of others, up to 99.99% invisible. And I would suggest that the artist renders them visible, in small part.”19 He then adds, on the subject of Barjac, “I believe above all that I have wanted to construct a palace of my memory—because my memory is my only homeland.”20

“It may seem paradoxical, but it seems to me that you cannot inhabit a place unless you have the possibility of abandoning it, of leaving it. Inhabiting is the opposite of imprisonment, of forced immobility, of inertia,” Leïla Slimani writes.21  These words might also hold true for Kiefer, who left Barjac in 2007 and returned regularly to complete his work over the following years. “I will give life to ghosts. Because literature, like art, doesn’t recognize the time of daily life. It doesn’t care about boundaries between past and present. It makes the future come true, it reminds us of the bright forests of childhood. The past, when you write, is not dead,” Slimani later adds.22 Kiefer’s works never achieve a definitive form but dwell in a state of uncertainty, suspended in time, waiting for the artist to return, to stratify new layers of meaning, to welcome other allegories or to remain in a state of temporary abandonment. As in a story to be continued, the story of a moment or of a life.

The epigraphs are from: “Les cycles du monde: Anselm Kiefer en conversation avec Jean-Michel Bouhours,” Code couleur, no. 24 (January–April 2016), pp. 10–17, available online at; and Anselm Kiefer, “Création artistique,” L’annuaire du Collège de France 2010–2011, no. 111 (2012), pp. 761–67, available online at

1Anselm Kiefer, “Barjac,” in Anselm Kiefer au Collège de France: L’art survivra à ses ruines/Art Will Survive Its Ruins (Paris: Éditions du Regard, 2011), pp. 328–37, excerpt available online at

2Kiefer, “Création artistique.”

3Gaston Bachelard, La poétique de la rêverie (1960; Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France, 4th ed., 1968), pp. 179–80; English translation: The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos, trans. Daniel S. Russell (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), p. 173.

4Kiefer, “Création artistique.”

5Kiefer, quoted in Rachel Kent, “Anselm Kiefer, Darkness to Light,” in Anselm Kiefer (Copenhagen: Copenhagen Contemporary, 2017), p. 79.

6Kiefer, in “Les cycles du monde.” 

7Kiefer, quoted in “Anselm Kiefer: The Seven Heavenly Palaces 2004–2015, Pirelli HangarBicocca,” Hisour Art Culture Histoire,

8Germano Celant, “Anselm Kiefer: Ut pictura poesis,” in Celant, Anselm Kiefer (Milan: Skira, 2007), pp. 53–54.

9Kiefer, in “Les cycles du monde.”

10“Interview d’Anselm Kiefer et de Pascal Dusapin par Jean de Loisy” (2020), excerpt available online at

11Georges Didi-Huberman, Essayer voir (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 2014).

12Daniel Arasse, Anselm Kiefer (Paris: Éditions du Regard, 2012), p. 82.

13Kiefer, quoted in Guy Duplat, “Fantômes de femmes à la villa Médicis,” La Libre, February 2, 2005.

14Kiefer, in Duplat, “Fantômes de femmes à la villa Médicis.” 

15Dominique Baqué, Anselm Kiefer: Entre mythe et concept (Paris: Éditions du regard, 2015), pp. 169–70.

16Kiefer, in “Kunst und Gnosis: Anselm Kiefer und Thomas H. Macho im Gespräch,” in Anselm Kiefer: Am Anfang (Salzburg: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, 2003); published in French translation in Jean-Michel Bouhours, ed., Anselm Kiefer (Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2015), p. 268.

17“Heaven and Earth,” interview with Anselm Kiefer by Michael Auping, in Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth (Fort Worth: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 2005); reprinted in Celant, Anselm Kiefer, p. 339.

18Kiefer, in Duplat, “Fantômes de femmes à la villa Médicis.” 

19“Anselm Kiefer: ‘Pour survivre, je crée un sens, et c’est mon art,’” interview by Philippe Dagen, Le Monde, August 3, 2005, available online at

20“Anselm Kiefer: ‘Pour survivre, je crée un sens, et c’est mon art.’”

21Leïla Slimani, Le parfum des fleurs la nuit (Paris: Stock, 2021), p. 140.

22Slimani, Le parfum des fleurs la nuit, p. 148.

Translated from the French by Marguerite Shore

Artwork © Anselm Kiefer

Jerome Rothenberg in a chair

In Conversation
Jerome Rothenberg and Charles Bernstein

Gagosian and Beyond Baroque Literary | Arts Center hosted a conversation between poets Jerome Rothenberg and Charles Bernstein inside Anselm Kiefer’s exhibition Exodus at Gagosian at Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles. Rothenberg and Bernstein explored some of the themes that occupy Kiefer—Jewish mysticism, the poetry of Paul Celan, and the formulation of a global poetics in response to the Holocaust—in a discussion and readings of their poetry.

Michael Govan and Anselm Kiefer

In Conversation
Anselm Kiefer and Michael Govan

On the occasion of his exhibition Anselm Kiefer: Exodus at Gagosian at Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles, the artist spoke with Michael Govan about his works that elaborate on themes of loss, history, and redemption.

Anna Weyant’s Two Eileens (2022) on the cover of Gagosian Quarterly, Winter 2022

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Winter 2022

The Winter 2022 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Anna Weyant’s Two Eileens (2022) on its cover.

Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Questionnaire: Anselm Kiefer

Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Questionnaire: Anselm Kiefer

In this ongoing series, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has devised a set of thirty-seven questions that invite artists, authors, musicians, and other visionaries to address key elements of their lives and creative practices. Respondents make a selection from the larger questionnaire and reply in as many or as few words as they desire. For the fourth installment, we are honored to present the artist Anselm Kiefer.

Two dress sculptures in the landscape at Barjac

La Ribaute: Transitive, It Transforms

Camille Morineau writes of the triumph of the feminine at Anselm Kiefer’s former studio-estate in Barjac, France, describing the site and its installations as a demonstration of women’s power, a meditation on inversion and permeability, and a reversal of the long invisibility of women in history and myth.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1928. Photo: Lou Andreas-Salomé

Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies

Bobbie Sheng explores the symbiotic relationship between the poet and visual artists of his time and tracks the enduring influence of his poetry on artists working today.


Mythologies: A Conversation with Erlend Høyersten

Gagosian’s Georges Armaos speaks with the director of ARoS Aarhus Art Museum, Denmark, about the exhibition Mythologies: The Beginning and End of Civilizations, the art of Anselm Kiefer, and the role of museums during times of crisis.

Anselm Kiefer, Volkszählung (Census), 1991, steel, lead, glass, peas, and photographs, 163 ⅜ × 224 ½ × 315 inches (4.1 × 5.7 × 8 m)/

Cast of Characters

James Lawrence explores how contemporary artists have grappled with the subject of the library.

Anselm Kiefer, Maginot, 1977–93.

Veil and Vault

An exhibition at the Broad in Los Angeles prompts James Lawrence to examine how artists give shape and meaning to the passage of time, and how the passage of time shapes our evolving accounts of art.



Richard Calvocoressi speaks with Anselm Kiefer about the range of mythological and historical symbols in the artist’s sculpture Uraeus.

Anselm Kiefer, Uraeus (2017-18), installation view, Rockefeller Center, New York.

Anselm Kiefer: Uraeus

Taking viewers behind the scenes during the installation of Anselm Kiefer’s Uraeus at Channel Gardens, Rockefeller Center®, New York, this video features interviews with Kiefer, Robin Vousden, Nicholas Baume, and Richard Calvocoressi. The speakers detail the conception, installation, and symbolism of this monumental public sculpture.

Transition from Cool to Warm

Transition from Cool to Warm

Art historian James Lawrence explores Anselm Kiefer’s latest body of work.