May 21, 2008
While looking for contacts with European artists about the B-17 project - I found this excellent interview with Anselm Kiefer by Sean O'Hagan, who more and more represents to me what art must be today.
His mentor was Joseph Beuys, who once famously explained art history to a dead rabbit in a three day gallery exhibition, and who later founded the German Green Party.
I am fond of artist interviews: art prose tends to be unreadable, either fawning, dry or cynical.
His show that toured through S.F. a couple years ago, the maddeningly ambitious, intelligent and emotional Heaven and Earth, is I think one of the great cultural works of contemporary art. It would have been easy for him to join the massed millions in the lightly ironic Pop Army, but he bucked every trend, progressive in politics, conservative of art's real power.
Below, O'Hagen describes paintings from my favorite series - monumental paintings of the open ocean - in Leviathan, a lead U-Boat hangs just above the sea. (One note here - I'm not sure that any artist's work looks worse on the internet than Kiefer's compared to its actual appearance. It will look muddy and scattered and unreadable in many of the images- this is emphatically NOT the case in person. )
Kiefer's sea is a huge, brooding ocean, grey-black, turbulent, thunderous. Up close, the crashing waves seem like solid ripples of congealed oil so thick are the layers of paint - and what looks like encrusted earth - that have been applied to the canvas. The paintings are so elemental, so humming with raw energy, that you can almost hear the ocean's roar in this big cavernous room. There are echoes, too, of other seascapes, of Turner, of course, and Courbet.
'Yes! Yes!' says Kiefer, nodding his head vigorously. 'You do the sea and Turner is there, always.' I ask him if, given his prodigious output, he discards many works along the way. 'Many, yes. But then I go over them. A painting is a conglomeration of failings. But, we can say this of life also.'
He laughs and then quickly turns serious again. 'The making of a painting,' he continues, 'is a reflection of your thought process but it also has a process of its own. Always, it is about somewhere I am trying to get to that I can never get to. This is the dilemma. But you also reach a place of transformation. The painting is transformed and you are transformed also. This is the exciting part.
Turner - that made me happy, it was my second thought looking at these pieces. The first was that it felt more like being on the sea that any painting I've ever seen .
In particular, he had delved deep into what it means to be German, and poked around in the open wounds from the War in order to find a path out of unimaginable horror, a horror which had to not just be confronted but engaged.
It is not a minor point that American artists must too regard our recent history with open eyes, and find a path to our best selves. We have an odder task than German artists. Americans would confront self-concept of heroism in that same, infinitely bloody war, and in present war. Superficially, that is easier.
But war by nature mixes heroism and brutality- the means which serve the hero and the villain were not greatly different. I read the account of one B-17 pilot who said, after much agonizing over the shift in targeting toward the destruction of cities, that there was one salvation for such horror: the promise of justice. (More on this later.) In war, metal flies at high velocity through flesh. Just war becomes a question of targeting, conduct, and the consequences of victory.
So we are at a place in American art where laughing along with Pop's facile appearance, saved in our intellectual seriousness at the last second by ironic distance, just isn't going to cut it. Social consequences driven by culture have become too important. I've seen enough Skate videos in museums, thanks, and false landscapes that show an untouched nature, endless recyclings of Warhol (who of course was about endless recyclings), wise but safe sayings by famous poets engraved on cement benches.
Pop imagery hides too much, it's obsessively clean edges that serve like candy coatings on shapes, obscuring their nature of the image, making art inter-changable, commodity-like, endlessly distancing. Kiefer cuts the weeds from the path: release the dialectic between thought and emotion.