Until now there seemed to be two kinds of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: mediocre and English. Its collection is the mediocre part; a notoriously out-of-it mix of minor-major and minor-minor artists. At the same time, its exhibitions of contemporary artists have been heavily weighted toward England, with Lucian Freud, R.B. Kitaj, and Howard Hodgkin as faves. Now the Met has discovered a third kind of contemporary art: Anselm Kiefer’s.
At the moment it has an iffy exhibition of 54 works on paper, all dated from 1969 to 1993, consisting of 36 smallish watercolors, 15 larger photographic-based works, and three big, multipanel woodcuts. Guess what—the Met owns them all. But don’t get the wrong idea; they haven’t been buying the work all along. They acquired the entire parcel—which had been kept together by Kiefer himself—at once, in 1995. So much for connoisseurship. The selections, even if Kiefer’s own, feel arbitrary and imbalanced, but there is an upside. Backed up by curator Nan Rosenthal’s scrupulously evenhanded catalogue essay, and without the domineering presence of his paintings, this exhibition of relatively unknown, comparatively small works avoids that blood-and-thunder creature created nearly 20 years ago—the dreaded Kiefer Monster.
Close your eyes and try to remember the ’80s, or perhaps you should try to forget. Maybe you had to be there, but Kiefer was once the Big Kahuna of ’80s art, a God of Painting, the redeemer of Germany’s Nazi past. By the early 1990s, art-world love turned to hate, or shame; Kiefer had to be excommunicated. Europeans claimed America made him; Americans pointed out that he had a half-dozen museum exhibitions in Europe before his first gallery show here, in 1981. It was ugly; it was predictable. Evidently, everyone had secretly been in the Resistance. Kiefer himself got into the act when, in 1993, he exhibited a huge funeral pyre made of his own works. Now the hype has faded, and this show—flawed as it is—provides an opportunity to see what this artist does and doesn’t do well.
Unfortunately, drawing isn’t Kiefer’s strong suit. Most of the work here feels very after the fact, echoes of what he does best. Some resemble greeting cards, mementos, or love letters (12 of them, in fact, are inscribed “For Julia,” his first wife). Some are pretty—not a word you often hear around Kiefer. A few are wonderful. Everyone Stands Under His Own Dome of Heaven (1970) has a hint of the space in his paintings, and a rare whiff of almost Monty Python humor. It’s a heartrending self-portrait of the artist with his arm raised in a pathetic heil Hitler salute, standing in a field and encased in a translucent blue biosphere. Sick Art (1974) is a nice, loose, Beuys-inspired landscape with juicy pink spots spread across the surface. The image gets dumb, though, if you read it literally: nature+wounds=sick art.
Kiefer has said, “If you have a very big idea, a big theme, you need a small format.” Sounds good, but he’s wrong if he thinks it applies to him. Big ideas sometimes need big formats. A lot of the work here feels cramped and claustrophobic. Many of the drawings are simply conventional, others look like works by Rafael Ferrer or Andrew Wyeth. Some are kitsch, including a sappy watercolor from 1974 of a single flower scrawled with the words “From Oscar Wilde for Julia.” Some are schmaltzy, like Herzeleide (1979), a portrait of a good German woman who cradles a painter’s palette like a baby. And Essence (1975), in which that word, in German, is written across a cloudy sky looks like a nice conceptual piece, and an idea that Julian Schnabel would lift years later.
The photographic works are better, but because the Met doesn’t own any of his large books, you’d never know how this work fits in or where it comes from. It’s frustrating. In the mid ’70s Kiefer began building setups in his studio of World War II battlefields or mythic scenarios. He would photograph these mock-ups—built out of bricks, mud, flowers, or whatever—and manipulate the enlarged image via painting, drawing, or cutting. These genuinely refreshing, aggressively imaginative works are among his best and reveal his more ironic, Brechtian side. But you wouldn’t know this from the mostly second-rate pieces the Met owns. One is terrific, though. Miracle of the Serpents (1985) features torn bits of photograph laid out like mosaic staffs or stalks of wheat, and shows how Kiefer can be majestic by doing very little.
As an artist Kiefer has three cards he plays well, one he holds back to good effect, and one he can’t stop showing. He’s great with scale, space, and materials. He made some of the biggest paintings of the last 20 years and many of them could have been bigger. His early landscapes are thrilling to look at, with a thrusting whoosh of deep perspectival space. It’s like being in a helicopter and banking low to the scorched earth, then back to the high horizon—you can almost hear the roar of Die Walküre. Often he heaped materials like straw or mud across these colossal surfaces, causing the illusionistic surge to lurch into full frontal physical fact. The card he holds back is color. Usually limited to blacks, browns, and a hayish yellow, Kiefer’s colors melded with the landscapes; his paintings were almost earth works. But he’s such a bulldozer that after a while these vast, nearly monochromatic receding spaces become monotonous—a device or a trademark. He’s lost without it. By the early 1990s, he was mounting gigantic lead airplanes on the surface of his paintings. His grand Raft of the Medusa scale had turned to gratuitous size, and his art became a parody of itself. But even though Kiefer’s work is grandiose, pious, and ponderous at its best, it is also undeniable. Which brings us to the card he can’t not play: history.
This son of the Fatherland paints in its mother tongue: German. He paints with the homesickness of Friedrich and the vehemence of Nolde. There is something high-minded, overwrought, and romantic about the way Kiefer approaches history. He doesn’t simply want to reenact history, he wants to sanctify it. People say his paintings are about the tragedy of war, but really his work is less about the loss of life than about the loss of land. Land is everything to Kiefer. His work is more about Germany than it is about Germans; life is an abstraction. People are too small for him, unless he turns them into icons, which is what he does in the most powerful work in this show: On the Rhine (1982–87). A large woodcut, it pictures the banks of the Rhine looking like the bulrushes of Egypt; a fire burns in the foreground, an eternal flame to the haunted portraits which hover above. Here Kiefer cries for a German pantheon of heroes and scoundrels: military men, poets, philosophers, and a storm trooper.
Kiefer’s endless allusions to Germany, the Third Reich, and the war can be creepy, but they feel important. It’s impossible to say, but his art about a country cleaved in two may be one of 100,000 reasons for the reunification of Germany in 1989. What’s so unfair about this show, in the end, is that anyone unfamiliar with Kiefer’s art will walk away with a distorted picture of him. There should be one more wall text posted at the end of the show. It should read, “He’s better than this.”