Centro Cultural Arte Contemporáneo

March 20-June 23,1996


Anselm Kiefer carved for himself a niche apart from other eighties’ superstars by imbuing his paintings with tensions in dimensions subjective, aesthetic and political-topics that lent them an air of complexity which wasn’t as evident in his equals’ works. According to his advocates, Kiefer’s works released latent forces which laid dormant underneath post-war aesthetic formalism and respectively under the sublimating by younger Germans of past collective vileness. Whatever his ultimate moral merits, Kiefer forced us to confront the fact that in Germany topography and topology are one, that every landscape and building, every tree and strand of wheat is soaked with the stench of a ghastly past. And, by extension, German artworks must be just as much. But wether Kiefer’s own artworks denounced, exalted or ambiguously addressed their troublesome subjects remains an unsettled matter. Like epic events, they seemed to lie beyond our full comprehension, refusing to be morally specific-and perhaps herein lied their appeal. So propitious was Kiefer’s strategy that he himself actually became another link in the chain of German cultural myths which he touched upon; his own countenance in need of completing his famous group portraits of German heroes. Lately, Kiefer’s P.R. staff has called a great deal of attention to his moving to the south of France, the earthly retreat of consecrate luminaries (Ah! Picasso, Matisse, Chagall…)The move is more than circumstantial. Indeed, following a long lapse which saw the light of lyrical stuff such as the winged lead books, Kiefer’s pile of old paintings shown last year at Marian Goodman’s (Twenty years of Solitude, 1971-91) signaled the artist was about to transfigure himself. And Mexico was chosen as the backdrop for his second coming. (Mexico has an uncanny appeal for being favored as the place for such revelations-for instance, according to the book of Mormon, Jesus reappeared here in the form of the white skinned pre columbian god Quetzalcoatl.)In his now transcendental mood, Kiefer appears to want us to believe his distress for one of Europe’s more generalized sins: Colonialism. One of three monumental paintings of 1995 depicts -in his signature impastoed murky tones- the artist naked, standing for both the White-man and for his conscience, amidst virgin wetlands, holding a fisherman’s net in which he’s trapped cutouts in the form of the maps of Cuba, Mexico, India and Indochina. A ray of gold-leaf and one of lead-sheet go through his head possibly symbolizing the Europeans’ fixation with riches and violence, while handwritten atop it reads “Tengo todas las Indias in mi mano” (sic) (I’ve got all of the Indias in my hand) – a verse taken from a XVII C. Spanish poet. An almost identical work alludes to the “Plasa de Tlatelolco” (sic), a paradigmatic square in Mexico City where a pyramid, a church and a modern office tower stand side by side and, as commemorated by bones that hang form the canvas, where protesting students were massacred by the army in 1968 – one late consequence, seemingly in Kiefer’s view, of the West’s disruption of pre-hispanic affairs.

The show’s thick-as-can-be tour-de-force (La Bula de Oro), an impressive upwardly view of the pyramid of Coba divided by yet another line of gold-leaf, refers us to a 1493 decree by Pope Alexandre VI in which known regions of the New World were rather cynically allotted to either Spain or Portugal. There’s no arguing against the evils of colonialism, but, for all his apparently commendable  intentions, here Kiefer seems to fall for the simplistic misrepresentation involved in the mythification of history which earlier on he was said to have so vehemently denounced. On the historical front, for instance, Kiefer disregards the fact that this exotic New World was no virgin land of noble savages, but was home to one of the most cruel civilizations of all time-the Aztecs, who ritually performed thousands of human sacrifices conforming to requirements imposed by their bizarre cosmology of life and death. On the critical front, Colonialism is not the sole root of current local miseries; it is one link in the chain of an ongoing “tradition” of oppression  and resignation, a way of life that goes back to pre-hispanic times and that partly explains Mexico’s resistance to democracy and modernity.  Our post-colonial despots have given particular attention to vilifying the Spanish domination in the official history, thus legitimating their slightly-less-horrible atrocities. They would surely appreciate Kiefer’s unbeknown help in promoting their agenda. In a more universal vein, another pair of oversize Kiefer self-portraits retrace a signature German romanticist theme: the artist overwhelmed and dwarfed by the elements. In Stars, by a black canvas sprinkled with constellations of white paint, and in Sol invictus, by a shower of seeds falling from a gigantic sunflower. These rhapsodies of the human condition might wash well with those who are still touched by the Artist’s suffering  soul. However, while undergoing his existential agony for our sake, the new Kiefer has in effect kicked us all out of the moral play for which his earlier paintings had set the stage, condemning us helplessly banal mortals to watch him from afar.

Kiefer’s earlier paintings were originally defended under the dictum that whoever forgets history’s errors is doomed to repeat them. But memory is slippery, and Kiefer fell for one of art’s recurrent mistakes: the artist’s deification in the high-brow religion that now and then becomes the opium of the dilettanti.The Aztecs were doomed when they mistook the Spanish conqueror Cortez for their god Quetzalcoatl. Five centuries later Kieffer appears in Mexico advertising himself through his new works as a messiah who can conciliate aesthetics, ethics, politics and metaphysics, but he ends up playing the part of the conquistador by giving the culture-thirsty rulers of this land, who gleefully sponsored the show, glass-beads for gold, that is, lavish art for tangible dollars. Seen as a performance, then, Kiefer’s act in Mexico City was actually diametrically opposed to the message on the paintings’ surface. Nevertheless, there isn’t enough evidence here to read these pieces as a complicated, cold-blooded but sophisticated mise-en-scéne of cultural power-politics. We’ll have to wait for Anselm’s next miracle before we grant him our Final Judgement.