There has been almost no art-world conversation about Anselm Kiefer since 1993, when a bizarre show at Marian Goodman Gallery left a confused, even traumatized silence that has not dissipated. That occasion incidentally strained my sometime friendship with the great German, whose art I had often celebrated. I still think he's great. His recent works may be retreads of familiar motifs, but they are beautiful in the Kiefer way: brutal and exquisite, operatic and hushed. New vast paintings and massive books at Gagosian, based on Kiefer's photographs of brickyards in India and inscribed with phrases of poetry, move me almost as of old, when I am looking at them, though they lack his best work's staying power in the mind.
In the 1970s and early '80s, Kiefer changed the world as much as an artist can. Esthetically, he dissolved seemingly permanent contradictions between photo-based, intellectually dry Conceptualism and old-time, emotionally sublime Abstract Expressionism. He did so in service to a recklessly brave critical mission, unpacking mythic pathos and historical ironies of modern German horrors. For many, including me, his work melted a frozen curse on German civilization. Kiefer made his fellow Germans very nervous. He was received with thrilled gratitude nearly everywhere else (notably including Israel). His career is a stirring, complicated story, now in the blind spot of art talk.
A major revival of interest in Kiefer seems inevitable at some point, but it will be difficult. He is a difficult -- a troubled and troubling -- man, as his jawdrop revelations of 1993 made plain. Shortly before that, he left his wife, children and longtime home in a forest town near Frankfurt and moved to his present home in the south of France. He did something wild with his huge collection of his own artworks, worth millions even in that moment of market recession. Rather than truck them down to France, he made a ceiling-high stack of them strewn with dirt and dried vegetation. He titled the never-to-be disassembled junk pile 20 Years of Solitude.
The reference to solitude was no mere literary conceit, it turned out. Hundreds of heaped, white-painted ledgers and handmade books comprised the rest of his 1993 show. The pages were stained with the artist's semen. If one believed him -- and I have never known Kiefer to lie -- his sex life during his last 20 years in Germany consisted largely of frequent masturbation onto paper. This weird form of self-publication gave "bibliophilia" a whole new meaning, or it could have if anyone discussed the matter. Kiefer asked me to write a text for a catalogue of the masturbation books. I tried. Between lingering shock and fits of giggles, I failed. Other critics simply clammed up and tip-toed away. Ever since, it has been as if the show never happened.
On the fresh May night of the 1993 opening, Kiefer and his companion Renate Graf threw an immense dinner party in a candlelit West Village commercial loft hung with white muslin, carpeted with white sand and staffed with mimes in whiteface. An elite throng of the New York art world was served a many-course meal of mostly white, uniformly ghastly food, including pancreas and other arcane organ meats. (Seated across from me, the artist Sherrie Levine remarked, "You know, it's funny, I always thought I could eat anything.") Authored by a figure of legendarily hermitlike reticence, that event, pitched somewhere between Federico Fellini and Caligula, still bemuses. What did Kiefer expect? He got embarrassed shrugs. People couldn't forget the opulent ordeal fast enough.
Subsequently, Kiefer and Graf have divided their time between rural domesticity and adventurous world travels. Outside brick factories in India, he discovered bricks stacked by the thousands in arrays as monumental and hieratically evocative as they are actually funky and temporary. He was reading the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann (who died in a fire in Rome at age 47 in 1973). Bachmann's abstract elegies on love and time are up Kiefer's metaphysical alley, and her identity suggests a valentine to Graf, who is Austrian, too.
The show's centerpiece, an 18-foot-long painting of a pyramid, bears in German the charcoaled Bachmann line, "Your age and mine and the age of the world." Such algebra of littleness and bigness (human age weighed against eons) is Kieferian. He typically operates at simultaneous extremes of epic and lyric, grand and humble, transcendent image and crude material, high-holy-day prophecy and workaday artisanship. A subtle, devilish humor results. Kiefer rarely gets credit for being funny, which he usually is. He seems to me dead serious only in intimate dynamics of touch and tone, stuff and color. Viewed from inches away, his work can just about break your heart.
Starting each of his new paintings and book spreads with an image in photographic emulsion, Kiefer adds acrylic, shellac, clay and sand to build textures of incredible variety and sensitivity -- ranging from grossness like that of volcanic debris to delicacy like that of lichen. You can get lost in the terrain, and you will be glad if you do. Note, in a blizzard of sand colors, faint effusions of pink, rose or rust like heart-stopping, Proustian odors. I was transfixed by a zone at the right-hand edge of the 24-foot-long The Square, where apparently Kiefer used a blowtorch to char, curl and crackle a bit of the surface. The effect is like a small, melancholy song tucked into a symphony.
Kiefer's command of the big and the little -- macrocosmic scale, microscopic beauty -- remains unbeatable, but he has rung no major changes on it in a decade. Nor has he found any truly compelling new theme for his work since some exciting explorations of Christian and Jewish mysticism that succeeded his night journeys through the Third Reich. His subject matter feels generic now. It smacks of erudite travelogue and of rainy afternoons in libraries. He says what is easy for him to say -- though, granted, no one else can even begin to say it. For all I know, his genius, once subject to torments that nobody suspected, may have succumbed to late-blooming health and happiness. Meanwhile, our art culture is struck with this brilliant, strange spirit, and we ought to muster the nerve to take him on.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.