Gray is toneless and immobile. This immobility, however, is of a different character from the tranquillity of green, which is the product of two active colors and lies midway between them. Gray is therefore the disconsolate lack of motion. The deeper this gray becomes, the more the disconsolate element is emphasized, until it becomes suffocating.
In Germany impassioned hearts are strangely divorced from logical heads. And so the honest Teuton is never slow to assume the existence of anything whose existence appears to be desirable.
An infinitesimal music of the boundless world-space...is the grand legacy of the Faustian soul.
Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West
What is new is not true and what is true is not new.
The first thing I sensed when I saw Anselm Kiefer's new paintings (2002) was the permanence of their grayness. They're enormous fields of gray, sometimes marked by bits of luminosity, sometimes deeply informed with light, which spreads through the gray without overcoming it. There are also passages of pitch blackness -- completely dead spots, as it were, within the larger play of gray and light. Is it dawn that we are witnessing or dusk? It is not possible to say. There is a general sense of what I call "central European comatose," with higher consciousness -- represented by the muted, gloom-infested light -- trying to break through. Or is it disappearing?
The sense of a permanently overcast sky -- with a certain resemblance to the fogged-in world that appears in some of Caspar David Friedrich's works -- is inescapable. Everything dissolves in the gray, obscured into oblivion, although spectral vestiges of it remain, the white shadows that are the concepts left when things are no longer clear. It seems the fog over Germany -- and the mystifying country it is, what with its dismal history, majestic music and what Nietzsche calls the obscurantist intellectualizing that passes for philosophy in it -- will never lift.
The light that simmers, sometimes boils in the gray -- the light at the end of the dreary tunnel of German history -- may be a will o' the wisp: an illusion, a deceptive moment of illumination, a fake revelation. It is really more of a corpse-littered dungeon, and the light seems more like the phosphorescent glow of the perpetually decaying corpses than the spark of self-understanding.
To call Kiefer a master of chiaroscuro or even tenebrism is to sell the uncanny, disorienting effect of his grayness short. It cancels into invisibility more than it allows to become visible, creating a sense of enigma that adds to the spectacle of the space by cloaking it in uncertainty, and suggesting despair. Spengler notes that "in Germany the organ. . . developed into [a] space-commanding giant." Kiefer pulls all the stops of his space-commanding grayness, creating a sense of boundless world-space that is the ghost of the German Faustian spirit. It was once a menacing giant, but Kiefer shrinks it to a haunting fog, which however illimitable has limited power -- although it can still cause panic, to recall Goya's image of that giant. Kiefer's gray, with its insidious, non-committal tonelessness -- the numinous become bankrupt, vacated, barren, the sublime turned inside out, showing the vacuum of feeling which it secretly is, the void given metaphysical status, preciousness, and dignity by reason of its apotheosis as art -- conveys a sense of insurmountable, inconsolable loss, depletion, absence and finally lifelessness.
Kiefer's roughhewn surface -- whether of paint or other material it has a carved, "Gothic" look (sometimes the paint is cracked, suggesting the brittleness of Germany as well as the effect of time, thus undermining the sense of timeless infinity the formless gray evokes) -- does nothing to lift the bleak spell of the gray. The irregular surface seems to overcompensate for its inertia and uniformity, but does nothing to dispel the gray and bring life to Kiefer's tomb-like cosmos. In Poe's tomb the dead were buried alive, but in Kiefer's tomb there is no body, only an idea -- the idea of Germany, a never-never land of the morbid imagination. Both tell tall Gothic tales, but Poe's suggest a defeated yearned-for life while Kiefer's show an unmistakable love of death -- a romance with death, indeed, a seduction by death, in which life seems beside the point. Poe's Ligeia is much more vital, however sickly, than Kiefer's German femme fatale -- his faithless gray lady.
The sense of loss in Kiefer's gray cosmos is so complete that no amount of mourning can liberate one from it. The light that flickers in it, the tide of stars that rises and falls in it, are hardly enough to lift -- brighten -- one's spirit. Mystically marked with numbers, as though to give them a Pythagorean heritage, the constellations remain grand illusions -- ironical oases -- in the gray desert. Kiefer's cosmos is not the fulsome space of a cornucopia, and his stars are not its ripe fruit. Kant once said that the heavenly stars suggested that the cosmos had a moral order, but Kiefer's stars have lost the moral innocence we once imagined they had to console us for their indifference to our lot. We once made the remote intimate by imagining that it was inhabited by gods who cared for us, in their own sloppy way -- better than none -- but the gods have departed from Kiefer's cosmos. He may be struggling to re-enchant it, but it remains disenchanted. Kiefer seems to agree with Shakespeare: the fault is not in the stars but in us -- in our fantasy, indeed, our fantasy that the heavens are the utopia that our wretched earth will never be. For what Kiefer represents is the primordial dream of the city of God, in Kabbalistic disguise.
The key to Kiefer's allegorical cosmos is the idea of the seven heavenly palaces -- the "Hekhal" of Sefer Hechaoloth (2000) is Hebrew for "palace" -- in which wise and good men will dwell, along with God. (What happened to the women? Is there no place for them in sacred space? Not even as concubines and servants, which is what they were -- with a few notable exceptions, and when they weren't perpetuating the tribe -- in the Old Testament.) Kiefer seems to think he is one of these holy men -- indeed, he identifies with God, as his mimicry of the divine act of creation suggests. "The earth was without form and void," Genesis tells us, until God gave it form (and with that significance), and Kiefer shows us the emergence of differentiated form from formless chaos or undifferentiated matter. He shows us the formative process itself -- the creative, "originative," mysterious moment which is a revelation, sign and proof of God's power. Thus we have the divine Kiefer, along with the divine Michelangelo, and a perpetuation of the myth of the artist as mini-God, or God's representative on earth, his surrogate presence. But Kiefer gives the myth a devious twist, subtly debunking it. Indeed, he punctures the balloon of his own -- and German -- grandiosity, for he implies that the dream of the primordial palace of everlasting life has perversely faded. We can no longer even dream of realizing it, however much we try to hold on to it.
Kiefer's is an art of disillusionment, for all the illusions it creates. It is a demonstration of the truth of Robert Jay Lifton's remark that historical catastrophe -- annihilation on such a grand social scale that it seems to end history -- shatters the belief in symbolic immortality. Kiefer's new works, no doubt meant to greet the millennium, proverbially a time of apocalypse -- that is, a time when time ends and the eternal makes itself felt and even manifest -- are about the spiritual nihilism, not to say spiritlessness, that follows in the wake of earth-shattering catastrophe, ironically underlined by an abortive, futile attempt at regeneration, that is, a mystical return to origins. For Kiefer, the defeat and collapse of German imperialistic ambition -- the imperialism ironically survives in the all-encompassing gray -- announces the failure of Western civilization as a humanizing endeavor, however much the creative spark of its Faustian spirit seems to survive in the gray ash of its art -- the gray ash that is Kiefer's art. It offers the dream of resurrection in the midst of the reality of spiritual ruin -- a wish-fulfillment, like all dreams, that can never be fulfilled in reality.
In Die Sieben Himmelspaläste molten white objects, each a numbered chunk of lead, appear in steel traps, and in The Seven Palaces similar lumps appear in wire cages. It's the same device we saw in Kiefer's early Meistersinger "combine paintings." There pieces of straw symbolize the master singers, here pieces of formless lead symbolize the seven heavenly palaces. Is Kiefer suggesting that the promise of heaven is a dumb trap -- a royal deception, not to say self-deception? The device is clearly ironical. The raw lumps of heavy lead hardly suggest the refined golden palaces of heaven: the lead clearly awaits the magic of alchemy to be miraculously transformed into gold. As Eliade and Jung point out, alchemy is a metaphor for spiritual renewal and salvation: sin is repented, leading to salvation, and what was unconscious becomes clearly conscious -- what was in the dark emerges into the light of consciousness -- thus losing its power over one's life. But this never happens in Kiefer's art. We are left in the gray area -- purgatory? -- between sin and salvation, unconsciousness and consciousness, chaos and creativity, degeneration and regeneration, death and transfiguration. This is not a matter of philosophical undecidability, but of the existential impossibility of alchemical transformation -- its inadequacy to the horrendous task of transforming world catastrophe into the saving grace of art. Our times are relentlessly holocaustal, Kiefer implies, and art becomes impotent in the face of the unrepentant powers unleashed by universal, irreversible catastrophe. It cannot represent what is inherently unrepresentable, however much it is no longer unthinkable. It may have once been thought in myth, but it is now a realistic possibility rapidly becoming actual.
For Kiefer, as for Beuys -- his debt to Beuys's ideas and methods are enormous (his works can even be understood as Beuysian performances, and he has Beuys's sense of the magical character and metamorphic potential of matter)-- art is a kind of alchemy. But where for Beuys art's alchemy works -- it turns the dross of the material and historical world into spiritually illuminating art -- for Kiefer art is failed alchemy. It leaves us with dumb material in ambiguous form -- more undifferentiated than differentiated (and thus more hellish than heavenly) -- suggesting the radical incompleteness of artistic transformation. Art can no longer do what its alchemy once seemed to do -- spiritualize the disspirited world, redeem history by "enlightening" its victims (all of us). Its alchemical magic no longer works -- art can no longer transform the prima materia of the lower world (represented by lead) into the gold of ultima materia that is the higher world (represented by the ironically autumnal -- spiritually decadent -- flickers of gold in several works).
The light of heaven is always impure -- contaminated by gray, which is the subtlest of hells -- in Kiefer's works. Art has become decadent in Kiefer's works -- decadent not only because it is no longer able to transmute historical truth into redeeming, uplifting, tranquil(izing) beauty (as classical art did), thus helping us bear the unbearable, but in Nietzsche's sense: art has lost its instinct for life and thus become incurably sick -- everlastingly devitalized, like Kiefer's gray.
The artist should be a Meistersinger, but Kiefer's artist can no longer sing -- suggesting Kiefer's doubts about his own art (colorless gray is the color of doubt) -- and his art masters nothing. The gray Nothingness that overwhelms it is unmasterable and uncontainable -- no amount of luminosity will ever infiltrate and eliminate it completely. Straw is an insubstantial, trivial material: like T. S. Eliot's hollow man, Kiefer's straw man is hardly a symbol of strength and power, and inspires no confidence. Thus Germany grasps at straws, and its manhood has been emasculated. It is hardly the sturdy heroic figure it once imagined itself to be. Think of the straw man in The Wizard of Oz: in the wizard Kiefer's vision -- and we may recall from the movie that the wizardry was a matter of intimidating spectacle and technological tricks (it took the dog Toto to discover the secret man behind the public wizard, suggesting that the great critic is always a smart dog who can see through illusions because he doesn't trust appearances) -- Germany has become a scarecrow made of dead stalks. This has a certain emotional as well as historical truth to it: Kiefer's straw figures are failed Germans as well as failed artists, just as his lumps of lead signify Germany's failure to spiritually renew itself in the aftermath of World War II as well as the rubble of heavenly palaces that never were.
Kiefer's new works are supposed to be about the Kabbalah, but I think they show his ongoing preoccupation with the Holocaust -- indeed, his obsession with the Jews Nazi Germany sacrificed to ensure victory as well as rid the world of degeneracy (the Holocaust had alchemical purpose, that is, it embodies Nazi Germany's alchemical ambition to make the world a pure place). The Kabbalah is an excuse to dwell on violence and loss -- and Kiefer's works reek of violent loss. They are more descendental than transcendental. The stairway in the lower part of Sefroth (2002) seems to descend rather than ascend -- it doesn't go very high, but does reaches to the bottom of the picture, that is, the earth. The Hebrew terms -- Kiefer litters his works with them -- are fading graffiti, suggesting the transience of Jewish beliefs even as it mystifies them. The Jewish star in the upper half of the picture is a fragile molecule that shines with reflected light, like the dead moon. There is no hope in Kiefer's works, only inevitability. Grayness alone has enduring presence in Kiefer's work, and also blackness.
Does the grayness symbolize mourning or melancholy? Does Kiefer reify the Holocaust into German melancholy or does he convincingly mourn for the Jews it destroyed? To rephrase Freud, there is mourning, which is alchemically successful, in that it liberates one from the dead, but mourning can become melancholy when one feels guilt toward them, as though blaming and punishing oneself for their death. One really disliked them -- and also felt they never really liked you, even though they lived with you. Thus one can't really get rid of them -- they remain alive inside one, like the exciting black patches in Kiefer's pictures. They darken one¹s self-image--they are the opaque abyss in oneself. I submit that Kiefer's pictures have more to do with melancholy than mourning -- traditional German melancholy, so closely related to traditional German mysticism (and Kiefer is a traditional German melancholy mystic, producing fragmentary modern versions of Dürer's Melencolia I (1514), conceived as German as well as artist's melancholy, that is, the artist's inability to reach the heavenly palace as well as Germany's failure to become one under the Nazis and in general, despite its musical pretensions to being one).
They are more about Germany's self-respect -- the great narcissistic wound it suffered in a century's worth of wars, which ironically disintegrated it into an unholy version of the Holy Roman Empire, a composite of fragments that had no organic unity -- than about Germany's wish to repair the damage caused by its own history. Kiefer is not mourning for the Jews, but using the Jews to mourn for Germany. That mourning must go on forever, for the Jews are a dead bone stuck permanently in the throat of a melancholy Germany, which is why Kiefer shows us -- and this is his radical honesty -- that his art no longer sings as art did in the work of Bach and Beethoven, Schiller and Goethe, among many other German masters. Kiefer's works are about Germany's loss of self-esteem -- the failure of its will to power, now become a failure of spiritual nerve -- rather than about the Jews or the Kabbalah, however much it cleverly mystifies the Nazi destruction of the Jews through its laudatory allusion to the Kabbalah.
For Kiefer, Germany is not the phoenix that has alchemically risen from its ashes, but spirit that has become all gray: the gray in which light and dark dissolve, the gray that is the dregs of spirit. Kandinsky, in On the Spiritual in Art, wrote about the struggle between light and dark, but in Kiefer's art both have been obliterated into gray -- the washed-out color of the stripes on concentration camp uniforms, canceling the individuality and human identity of those who wore them -- confirming that there is no longer anything spiritual about art, whatever illusion of spirituality it creates. Working with gray, Kiefer identifies with the anonymous Jewish victims of Nazi Germany. But by spreading gray ash on his head, as it were -- a traditional gesture of mourning -- he also identifies with the German victims of war. They are not the same thing: they did not perish the same way. Dust to dust, no doubt, but the Germans didn't turn to dust in a crematorium. They lost their lives fighting for a different cause.
A final word: the Kiefer exhibition is a welcome relief after the recent Richter exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. There are two kinds of German gray -- the gray of the murky depths and the gray of the shallow surface. The sacred lurks uncertainly in the one, the other is completely profane, and supposedly realistic. Kiefer is expert at plumbing the depths -- risking the possibility of spiritual depth in a shallow world -- while Richter is expert at skimming the surface: his art is insufferably shallow. For him the world is fundamentally gray -- certainly the East Germany he grew up in was militantly gray, which is why for him it is realistic to think in shades of gray -- even when it flashes with color. (His colorful quasi-Expressionistic works are inwardly gray -- pseudo-vital.) Kiefer is also immersed in grayness, but for him it is not absolute, however relentless. In pursuing the spirituality within spiritless gray, his art takes a creative risk that Richter's art never does, for Richter does not believe in the possibility of creativity -- let alone spiritual creativity, self-transformation however incomplete -- only endless reproduction, which is why his work is ironically selfless.
Thus Kiefer shows that German art still has the courage of its mystical convictions, which is why his art is vital for all its devitalizing gray, while Richter's art seems to have "Americanized" German art, for it has abandoned itself to the everyday shallowness that engulfs us all. It is no accident that Richter came to prominence with something called "Capitalist Realism," which however ironically meant initially -- a play on "Socialist Realism," the official people's style of Communist regimes -- proved to be non-ironical, like the American Pop art that inspired it. Like American Pop art, Richter's intellectualized Pop art ends up endorsing the society it supposedly criticizes.
In contrast, Kiefer came to prominence by confronting death (the gray is certainly confrontational), which remains more inescapable and challenging than everyday life, and, as has been said, concentrates the mind -- as well as art -- more. Both Kiefer and Richter have been understood to be conceptual painters, but clearly Kiefer's concepts -- including his ambitious concept of an art that synthesizes all the mediums -- are more demanding than those of Richter. This is why Richter's art is a symptom of passing modern times, of more social than artistic interest, while Kiefer's art, however much it speaks to its times, is not entirely of them. Indeed, it rejects modern secularism for age-old spiritual concerns, however much it uses modern means to express them.
Thus, like the Kabbalah, Kiefer's art transcends its times -- rises above history like the gray sky he maps and paints, as though he was memorializing a collapsed dome (each section of his concrete river is a fragment of it)-- which is why it will endure, that is, speak for eternity, as the ineffable Holocaust does.
Anselm Kiefer, "Merkaba," was on view Nov. 8-Dec. 14, 2002, at Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.