In 1987, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art went out on a limb and purchased a fresh-from-the-studio painting by the German Neo-Expressionist artist, Anselm Kiefer. Titled Osiris and Isis, the work is physically imposing, measuring 150 inches by 220 inches. Its imagery, which depicts an ancient pyramid, is not only composed of paint, but copper wire, porcelain, bits of circuit board and other non-traditional art-making materials. But the subject matter and media were the least of it. The local press became obsessed with the price -- reportedly $400,000.
At the time, this was considered an astronomical sum for an artist who was unproven in the marketplace -- and a German artist at that. There was plenty of negative press insisting that SFMOMA had squandered an awful lot of money. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, the museum looks pretty smart. Osiris and Isis is considered one of Kiefer's masterpieces and certainly worth seven figures. Kiefer has become a major force in the art world.
To understand Kiefer's work, it helps to reflect on what life was like in post-World War II Germany. Imagine the traumatic effect of growing up in a country whose recent past was universally reviled. In addition to that psychological burden, the post-war generation had to confront an immense amount of physical carnage -- destruction was everywhere. Kiefer's work is heavily informed by this strong brew of devastation and its aftermath.
When you look at a major work by Kiefer, the first thing you are struck by is its overwhelming scale. Then you notice the physicality of the work -- an intentional heavy-handed application of materials. While not exactly monochromatic, many of his great works are painted in a sludge of dirty earth tones -- grays, browns, beiges and rusts. Eventually, you get around to the "heavy-osity" of the subject matter -- mythology, prehistory, cosmology, life and death.
Kiefer's theatrical exhibitions have played a large part in making him an "evening sale" auction artist -- he did much to orchestrate his own myth as a larger-than-life esthetic force [see "Lost in the Terrain: Anselm Kiefer" by Peter Schjeldahl]. For instance, in 1993, Kiefer had an unforgettable show at the Marian Goodman Gallery. In the center of the space, the artist stacked a bunch of finished canvases, horizontally, with the pile stretching to the ceiling. Interspersed with his paintings were layers of dried sunflowers -- the whole plants, flowers and long stalks. It was an unforgettable installation. On an esthetic level, you had a powerful statement about what constitutes a work of art. On a financial level, it made you wonder what the stack of canvases would be worth individually.
Given the immense size of Kiefer's works, their non-archival materials and steep prices, it's a wonder that anyone other than institutions manage to buy them. A few more accessible exceptions come to mind, such as his giant books. These sculptural objects are "bound" with pages of malleable lead, covered with stained black-and-white photographs. Kiefer's books, which need their own sturdy table for display, can still be had for approximately $200,000 -- but rarely appear at auction.
During last May's auctions, three large Kiefers came up for sale. Sotheby's had the best of the group, a giant canvas depicting an industrial building, titled Athanor. This painting was typical Kiefer, in terms of subject matter, scale (more than 11 x 14 feet) and materials (oil, sand, ash, gold leaf and lead foil on canvas). It was also a good market test because it had come to auction once before. In fact, in 2001 it sold for $1.16 million -- $1,050,000 at the hammer -- a record that still stands for the artist. This time around, it was estimated at $700,000-$900,000, and split the difference to sell for $800,000 on May 10, 2005.
Two days later, on May 12, Phillips offered the behemoth, The Women of the Ancient World. Here, Kiefer painted the image of a stack of large books resting on top of woman's white gown, as if the dress were a base for the oversize volumes. Just as at Sotheby's, this Kiefer came in around mid-prediction (est. $400,000-$600,000) to sell for $520,000.
Finally, Christie's Kiefer offering was yet another monster-sized picture, this one illustrating a rough-hewn abandoned building -- its windows and doorways blacked out by lead. Das Haus is painted with shellac, acrylic, chalk and sunflower seeds on canvas. The work was expected to bring $700,000-$900,000 and wound up selling for $744,000.
Currently, an Anselm Kiefer gallery show is considered to be an American art-world event. The same can be said for only a handful of artists: Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Gerhard Richter, Damien Hirst and perhaps Julian Schnabel. That's pretty elite company for Kiefer to be keeping. (Kiefer's most recent exhibition was at Gagosian Gallery in New York City in 2002, and a traveling survey of his work is slated to open at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Sept. 25, 2005-Jan. 8, 2006.)
Yet, despite his work's prestige, there is a downside to his market potential. What Kiefer has going against him is the work's strong content and tremendous installation difficulties, which make him tough for many of the top collectors to acquire. But these are merely art market considerations. When it comes to art history, all of that is beside the point.
Anselm Kiefer is a rated a "Buy." For a collection to be taken seriously (on the highest level), it has to be international in content. Outside of Richter, Sigmar Polke and Lucien Freud, there aren't too many living European art gods. Add Kiefer to the list. While his work is the most difficult of the group, he's definitely part of it.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer based in San Francisco. Questions or comments can be directed to him at Polskyart@msn.com