"Anselm Kiefer: Works on Paper, 1969-1993, " Dec. 15, 1998-Mar. 21, 1999, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.
Over the last three decades, Anselm Kiefer has become internationally celebrated for imposing, operatic works dealing with the historical, mythological and literary themes that animate post-war German culture. In 1995, the Metropolitan Museum was able to acquire a group of 54 works from the artist's own collection, works that have now been put on display for the first time. If nothing else, the show -- organized by Met curator Nan Rosenthal -- demonstrates the museum's commitment to contemporary art, still a somewhat unfamiliar role for the institution even after its stunning Lucian Freud retrospective several years ago.
The earliest works in the exhibition date from 1969, and include two depicting a tiny figure -- Kiefer himself -- in a landscape making the sieg Heil salute. This image is emblematic of what turns out to be a recurrent motif: his ambivalent relationship to the German past; the jarring, somewhat goofy sense of humor with which he confronts WWII taboos; and the use of barren landscapes to stage his dramas of Germany past and present. The title of one of the works, Heroic Symbols, comes from a 1943 National Socialist propaganda piece about the fine arts, lending to the piece's bitter irony.
One of the most powerful pieces in the show, in which the emotional content is less varnished, is the 1970 watercolor Winter Landscape. A disembodied female head, superimposed against a grey sky, bleeds from a neck wound, staining the snow. Kiefer allows the off-white of the paper to indicate the earth through sparingly applied pigment. This understatement is characteristic of many of the works on paper, in contrast to his often extensively worked paintings.
Several beautiful paintings from 1974-75 incorporate watercolor, gouache and ballpoint pen; their rich blues and browns are based on his trip to Norway's North Cape. These works explore the Norse myths that are a vital part of his vocabulary and inspiration. One watercolor contains a portrait of Ernst Bloch, the philosopher who believed that the potential for the future is latent in the present; this association imbues the land with a generative power that is bound up with the rich pigments.
Another frequent icon in Kiefer's oeuvre is the palette, his pointedly pedestrian symbol for the painter's enterprise. It appears in the 1976 Faith, Hope, Love, in which three mythic trees, inscribed with the names of the three virtues, sprout from a palette. Also present from the 1970s are Kiefer's works depicting the characters of Wagner's four-opera cycle of the Nibelung.
The exhbition underlines the sillier side of an artist perhaps better known as a sturm-und-drang Neo-Expressionist. In the 1980 work Brünhilde Sleeps, a snapshot of a sleeping Catherine Deneuve, taken off the screen in a movie theater, provides a "very French, very slim, very sexy, very cool" alternative (in Kiefer's words) to opera's archetypal "fat lady." With the same cool sense of humor, in the 1980 painted photograph Yggdrasil, the artist, bearing branches, wearing a borrowed dress and a vacant expression, stands in as the trunk of the vast ash tree central to medieval Norse poetry.
Two smaller works from the same period, principally in watercolor, combine darker themes with lush visual presentations. Your Golden Hair, Margarete (1980) quotes Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan's poem Death Fugue, which is set in a concentration camp. Kiefer has sometimes depicted the German heroine's locks as straw adhered to the canvas; in this work, they appear in watercolor as sheaves of wheat in a field. In Broken Flowers and Grass (1979), Kiefer layers graphite pencil slashes over a field of watercolor, gouache and acrylic. Rich, bright reds and yellows are trampled by the broad, gestural strokes of graphite in another possible metaphor for land violated by aggression.
The exhibition concludes with a selection of larger works from the 1980s and '90s that treat Wagnerian and German historical themes. The remarkable graphic power of Kiefer's work derives from the use of the same dramatic vistas and imposing structures that characterized Nazi parade-ground architecture. His almost primordial sense of texture, too, is represented here. Some works contain collaged lead and shellac on paper; in others, he uses woodblock printing to cover large expanses of paper or canvas, sometimes with repeated images, which he then paints over with acrylic.
In the striking, black-and-white woodblock Brünnhilde/Grane (1982-83), printed wood grain creates a riveting visual texture above a jarring profile view of the emaciated horse Grane (the sacred steed ridden by Brünnhilde), which stands in a flaming funeral pyre. To create a lineage for these distinctive works, the Met borrowed from the National Gallery Albrecht Dürer's vast 1515 woodcut and etching The Triumphal Arch of Maximilian, which hangs rather incongrously along with Kiefer's works.
The exhibition might have benefited from loans of a few more of Kiefer's large scale works. As it is, adjacent to the entrance of the show the museum has installed the large, impressive landscape, dotted with pink poppies, titled Bohemia Lies By the Sea (1996). This heavily textured work -- made of oil, emulsion, shellac, charcoal and powdered paint on burlap -- has the kind of tactile punch that Kiefer is famous for, and in itself makes a visit to an exceptional show even more worthwhile.
BRIAN BOUCHER is a museum educator and art historian who works in New York.