In the autumn of 1985 Sigrid Nama, a beautiful friend, got me to go to the opening at the Carnegie International. Stopping off at a coffee shop near the museum we bumped into a former teacher of hers, Jack Levy, who was with Kasper Konig, the influential curator from Cologne, at a table. Sigrid back then was an irresistible collector of people, and they invited us to join them before we all went to the exhibition, which they had jointly curated.
Resurrection of St Peter (detail), 1989
Once again, as strange as it may seem, they had been talking right at that moment about Si Newhouse’s collection when we approached their table, and once settled, continued asking us if we were familiar about their subject. When I mentioned that years before I had a painting hanging in Si’s house but took it back, a look of incredulity appeared on their faces. Jack, who had an aggressive streak, quipped: “Everybody is trying to get into that house, and you took your painting out!”
Fortunately, Jack soon left us for greener pastures, and Sigrid, who was born in Germany, had Kasper in tow through the evening. Well past midnight when we stopped for a nightcap at Kasper’s hotel we got an introduction to Anselm Kiefer, who came over to greet us. His three major works assembled in the great room of the Heinze Galleries should never have been dispersed. As an ensemble they made a complete three-sided chapel that enshrined in mock ruin the angst of Kiefer’s generation born at the close of the war.
Robert Lepper I could tell had a few drinks in him as he passed me in front of the Kiefers earlier in the evening. He hissed more than whispered in my ear: “These are just scene paintings … for the theatre!” And he was right. They are no more or less than what was once the standard fare of that craft. They have all the sundry stuff from which sets were done.
Death Has No Master, 1969
So in that sense Kiefer has appropriated the material props of the theatre and directed them into an art context. That is his act of genius! He presents us with a theatrical set that doesn’t need the play for we know the play already, and the stage needs to be empty. That gives it its power; Germany is a burnt shell.
Mummified Body Drawing, 1963
It also relieves Kiefer of the dilemma and the risk of how to represent the actors in this drama. We don’t have to face the images of the victims because Kiefer’s theatrical props become the equivalent of the archaeological artifact. It allows us to see and be at a distance. We can look at it as if it were an ancient history.
What I find as curious is not that Kiefer’s work has been embraced as a compelling expression, but why is it when the shoe is worn by those addressing the Jewish angst that the critics use a higher standard. What in the case of Kiefer is praised as authentic use of expressionistic vision is denounced for the other.
And again, that has mostly to do with Kiefer knowing very well to keep away from the human image which is an unforgiving task open to criticism from every direction, and because his deserted stage allows us to project ourselves into it which we could not do if he otherwise included figures. When those three vast Kiefers were present at the Carnegie International they formed together a plaza for us to actually step into.
Jacob In Mourning, 1971, Joseph In The Pit (detail) 1971
But there is also reversed discrimination at work here incited by a deep apologetic embarrassment that sits in the Jewish psyche like a bad taste in the mouth watched in anticipation for a dormant virus ever ready to erupt with a bad case of herpes.
So it is no wonder that no one wanted to consider the meaning of “Joseph in the Pit” and “Jacob in Mourning” when they hung in the Public Theatre all those years as Kiefer’s star was rising in Cologne. Nor could Si Newhouse face a subject like “The Angel of Death Passing Over the Landscape”. What landscape? Germany! Of course I did not tell him; he caught on none-the-less. And of course it bothered him. It was supposed to! Now I wonder if this painting would have been rejected in Cologne. Probably. After all, I wasn’t in their club either!