Achtung, Baby

anslem-kiefer-jerusalemAnselm Kiefer: Next Year in Jerusalem
Gagosian Gallery, NYC
Through December 18, 2010

The brilliance of Mel Brook's film The Producers is that the plot turns on the creation of a musical so horrifyingly bad that no one will see it -- whose very appallingness is, of course, exactly what the audience was hungering for. Thus, "Springtime for Hitler" is born. We might be tempted to feel thinking along those lines went into the production of Anselm Kiefer's recent exhibit Next Year in Jerusalem, a crowed, operatic, and at times jaw-droppingly distasteful spectacle.

Kiefer's long career, beginning with his conceptually based performance works of the early '70s, has always walked a fine line between heart-on-the-sleeve apologism and ironic deconstruction for the National Socialist movement, the Holocaust, and a huispot of misguided German idealisms. Judgments about his work have often been somewhat less than pronounced because it would be unthinkable that Kiefer sought to praise, rather than bury his country's political and aesthetic past. We now find, though, with larger and larger production values, and the imprimatur of grand international exhibitions (notably the Louvre), that Kiefer's ambitions may be exceeding his moral grasp. How else to explain the centerpiece of the show, a huge, metal, walk-in gas-chamber/meat locker, filled with dozens of black and white photos of the artist dressed in his father's Nazi uniform, Sieg Heil-ing us through the front door? The photo is exhumed from an early Kiefer performance project where he visited regions and countries occupied by the Nazis, and, dressed in Dad's old togs, executed the traditional Nazi gesture (Occupations, 1969). An interesting bit of regression therapy, then, perhaps, but the motivation is questionable now. How do we reconcile his resurrection of this image for international consumption now? Exhibiting this image, as well as executing this gesture in Germany today, is illegal. Is this redux version a commentary on American politics, or is it rather a tasty bit of naughtiness, coy yet creepy?

Theodor Adorno wrote (and it is worth quoting at length) "To anyone in the habit of thinking with his ears, the words 'cultural criticism' (Kulturkritik) must have an offensive ring, not merely because, like the automobile, they are pieced together from Latin and Greek. The words recall a flagrant contradiction…[yet] the critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today." In other words, we are fucked if we try and fucked as human beings if we don't. Yet it is this very ambition to transcend our immediate collective pasts that art strives for, and on this very moral ground that Kiefer has finally fallen victim to hubris.

Huge vitrine sculptures (Die Sefiroth, 2010; Die Schechina, 2010; Flying Fortress, 2010) conflate bits of Theologica Germanica, Judiasm, and Gnostic mysticism in a superficial, piecemeal way. Like Damien Hirst, but dustier. It is, in fact, more imperative after Auschwitz (or Hiroshima, or My Lai, or 9/11) for our art to transcend, to take a stand. That it is barbaric is inevitable; truth is a primal thing. Equivocation, which is fey and untrue, is what Kiefer gives us, disguised as a history lesson.

Fortunately, as in the past, when Kiefer is stripped of his theatrical trappings, he proves to be a painter, and one to reckon with. Samuel Beckett, writing on the work of Watteau, could have been speaking of Kiefer's desolated landscapes (San Loreto 2009-2010): "Nature and the human denizens, the unalterable alienness of the 2 phenomena, the 2 solitudes, or the solitude and the loneliness, the loneliness in solitude…the loneliness that cannot collapse into solitude." Scarred, ashen, blackened vistas; ruins the color of night, or the Third Reich's Scorched Earth. Kiefer pieces them back together, resurrecting Expressionist Degenerate painting styles, and the heroic landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. Kiefer, in a sense, creating a golem painting. With these works we are not distracted by the heroic Sturm und Drang, but moved by the simple act of seeing, or so we might believe, what Germany looked like to a two-year-old Kiefer in 1947. At least we can hope, lest we also have found our Hitler. - Bradley Rubenstein

dom

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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