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Anslem Kiefer: Heaven and Earth

“There is always hope, but that must be combined with irony and, more important, skepticism.”
– Anselm Kiefer

There is a danger in titling a show – “Heaven and Earth”, it is the concern that you can’t really be prepared for one because in doing so you are ignoring the other. You could think of this as balancing spiritual as well as earthly concerns or even political and personal ideology. Artists in post-war germany (WWII) have had a unique challenge in creating images that inspire utopia while at the same time having to deal with memories of the past. Theodor Adorno’s quote – “After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric” clearly demonstrates a dual problem with post war German art. This is a problem that has only been solved by a handful of artists – most notably Joeseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer and very few others.

The Hirshhorn has devoted the entire second floor to this exhibition of large scale painting, sculpture and book arts. This massively sprawling show is challenging and at the same time approachable. I have always thought of AK as more of a painter – with some sculptural elements, this show presents a more rounded approach to his work. For me the book work was by far the most surprising and in its presentation to most problematic and eventually the least successful of the work shown. I’m going to stay away from the book pieces for this review because I think the presentation – due to the potential danger of a fragile piece of multiple page art is almost impossible to show in a safe environment.

That said a high point of the show for me was “Sefer Hechaloth” (above) I thought of Rene Duamal’s unfinished novel “Mt. Analogue” – the place where earth is connected to heaven, and a mans story discovering and eventually attempting to climb the mountain. This painting is a simple image of steps connecting the earthbound to the spiritual, is to me the lynchpin of the exhibition although that said this is not that easy an exhibition for the viewer. This overall theme of heaven and earth is only a starting point to connect with the viewer on personal, spiritual, and political levels.

While this multi-leveled connecting is happening – at the same time, iconic imagery is presented as well, the obvious choice for this is a sculpture – “Book with Wings” this lead and tin artwork is exactly what the title says – its a book with wings and in this case are we to think this is a holy book or a diary of hidden thoughts? (you could think of this as a book of hidden knowledge or conspiracy – the decision could be yours either way)

Kiefer is probably the undisputed master of monumental painting this is hammered home with the inclusion of “Ash Flower” incorporating an image of Albert Speer’s ceremonial Hall as well as a sculptural flower, this 150 x 300 inch painting, quietly and incessantly controls the entire gallery that is trying desperately to hold it in. It is a transformation of the physical and symbolic form that drives much of this exhibits works and is displayed with a grace and lightness that seems at odds with it’s size and presence.

This exhibit stays clear of the imagery of World War II that Kiefer has used to counter balance his ideas in other works, it also stays away from what some have come to believe is a cult of personality around the artist and his work. “Heaven and Earth” is a dense and complicated show – I have tried to give a few guide marks – I will end this as I started this with a quote from the artist.

“We can’t escape religion, but there is a difference between Religion and Heaven, and one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other.”

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