Is Anselm Kiefer a good painter?
Is Anselm Kiefer a good painter? Not necessarily, but the answer is not ambiguous. It is a question of whom Kiefer is, and how much he has changed. In the early 70s he was a maverick. In the late 80s and early 90s he was a master. In the mid-90s, he seemed to be moving away from the abstractness of his earlier work to a more pure, minimal approach. He seemed to be using his painterly sensibility to express what he had already learned from a long apprenticeship, and so this show was a reminder that he has kept pace with the times.The gallery was divided into two parts. One was given a large white room with a large white table. On the table, Kiefer placed a small vase of flowers, a flower bouquet on which he had painted the words flowers and place, for the year 2000. On the table were four ceramic pieces of various sizes, placed side by side. The vase is a classic modernist composition, but the objects and their arrangement are archaic, almost primitive. They are like old-master porcelain bowls, with a French-paint brush as its base. They are at once everything and nothing, and the vase, when opened, reveals a treasure trove of minute, fragile fragments. The bowls, like the vases, are filled with what one might call small-value objects—plastic-nickel-rod pieces of clay, among them a sphinx-like head and a pair of hand tools—and these fragments, like the vases, are individually fragile. They look as if they had been tossed aside; they have been removed from their original context, or, conversely, their meaning has been overwritten by others.Kiefer has always been interested in the visual dimension of things. His early work, in particular, showed a keen interest in the relationship between the painting surface and the space around it.
Is Anselm Kiefer a good painter? Is he really painting a picture? This question is implicit in the works title, which is taken from the German poet Georges Renère, who wrote, Bad painting is always a contradiction, always a good painting, but a contradiction in the most serious sense of the word. This is a double entendre that Kiefer raises against his own paintings. On the one hand, the paintings are very clearly symbolic—they are the stuff of which the symbols of the Self are formed. On the other hand, they are almost abstract (more or less), in the most exacting sense of the word. In the case of Bad painting, the contradiction is reproduced as a paradox. Kiefer creates paradoxes, and they are rarely resolved. Only in the right circumstances and with the right logic, paradox can become an artistic virtue. That is why the paintings are often less convincing and still more charming than they are in the West. The paradoxes that form the basis of Kiefers paintings are so strong that they are able to move the viewer from the gallery space into the gallery itself. With a few exceptions, the paintings are displayed on white pedestals that are rigidly fixed, but open at the edges. The viewer cannot walk around the pieces without feeling the tension, the tension between the rigid pedestals and the elegant paintings. This is the same tension that underlies the works that Kiefer paints on the walls of his studio. He paints on the wall, the pedestals and the paintings are in direct opposition. They are not the same, but they are not the same either, for they are based on different kinds of tension. Kiefer is the only one who uses the ideal, the ideal of painting, which is to paint the painting. But it is only on the basis of a few paintings by other painters that this ideal is realized.
Is Anselm Kiefer a good painter? The closest thing to the truth in the Kiefer case is the simple fact that they are the same painter, and that they have been included in the same group show. In the end, though, the show may not have been as impressive as it should have been. Kiefer is one of the best painters in Europe; one might have wished for a little more polish in his work, especially in light of the fact that his work has been the subject of more than a few exhibitions. But the latter is not really Kiefer at all. For him painting is a way of living, a sort of social activity, and if a painter wants to do something good he must find a way to show it. I am not suggesting that his work is necessarily bad, or even necessarily bad, but it certainly shows that he is less a great painter than a good journalist. His work is always first and foremost a function of an entire group of people.Kiefer has been included in a few international groups, among them the Cézannes, the Haken, and the Tristan Tzara. However, I am not suggesting that he is one of the best painters in these groups. His work does not show any particular affinity with those of any of them. I am suggesting, instead, that he is one of the few best artists in the group of artists who do not have to be ashamed of their works, who do not have to be ashamed of what they paint. And they are good painters, too. In Kiefers work it is not the painter who has to do with the medium, but rather the painter who has to choose between it and the person who is doing the medium. Kiefer chooses the medium, and the person who paints in it. He does not have to do anything else.Kiefer is not interested in doing anything other than painting.
Is Anselm Kiefer a good painter? I ask with a certain skepticism, even though I find it difficult to believe that one could ever be certain. Kiefer has shown a kind of affinity with Marcel Duchamp and Walter De Maria, but he is not the Duchamp of tradition, as the label might have it, and his work seems more modernist than classicist. This is not surprising, given that he was born in 1955 in Bergen, Norway, and studied at the Kunstakademie der Künste in Berlin. The work here, which was shown at the Deichtorhallen and in the galleries of the Galerie Paul Klee in Düsseldorf, was a mix of oil paintings and pastels, and they were all made over the course of the year. The paintings were broadly divided into two series: a group of three small paintings in oil on canvas and a series of two-dimensional drawings that were hung on the wall, made with the aid of a cloth-and-paper drawing aid. The paintings—two of them from the series The Silence, 2004–2005, and one from the series The Silence, 2004–2005—are hardly alone, since many contemporary artists—among them, Jason Rhoades, Thomas Struth, and Ian Pedigo—are practitioners of painting on paper. But what sets these artists apart is not so much their refusal to make use of the medium, but rather their emphasis on the process of painting itself. In contrast to the paintings, for instance, these drawings consist of abstract lines that form an undulating surface; yet, as in the paintings, the lines are also traces of the hand. It is not simply a question of a gap between the paint and the paper but of a gap between the paintings and the canvas itself. Kiefers paintings are canvases, and they show us a new, larger world, a more dynamic world, a world in which the paintings no longer exist.
Is Anselm Kiefer a good painter? Is he still relevant? The ten paintings here, which are made from crudely painted watercolors, had been in the show since 2002. They were exhibited together in the same room.The first work one encountered was the highly symbolic portrait of an elderly man, which was also the title of the exhibition, and the subject of a new work, Untitled, 2015, by Kiefer, who has also painted historical figures such as the poet Franz Kafka and the artist Georg Baselitz. Kiefer did not take these names as the artists, but they were selected for him as motifs and signs. He painted them onto canvas with a light brush and a brush, placing them in the same dimensions as the paintings. He then printed the resulting pictures on newspaper. The first of these works, Untitled, 2009, is a black-and-white version of the Berlinische Kunstakademie Düsseldorf portrait by Gustav Klimt, while the other works—the artist has written that the color of the papers was used as color, but this painting is also a red-black-and-white portrait by the French painter Pierre Lebrun—were made with a watercolor and a brush. The medium has become a vehicle for his works, and they use the technique of a watercolor, a style that is very familiar to him. Kiefer also uses a watercolor technique in the image of a walking female figure, Untitled, 2014. This female figure, who is not shown in his works, is part of a group of three. The figure is a stand-in for the artist, but she stands as a sort of symbol for Kiefer himself, a figure who cannot be identified but who stands out from the other three. Her absence is taken by the figure of a man, who is the same one who is depicted in the other works on display.