Exhibition Catalogue Essay
Albright Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York
Anselm Kiefer and the Unknown, Known
At the edge of the observable cosmos are galaxies so distant, and moving away from us at such great speed as the universe expands, as to make the light emanating from them very nearly invisible. These distant, nameless galaxies represent the horizon of the known universe. Whether or not from the vantage point of those galaxies our own is at the horizon, we may never know.
The beginning and end of the cosmos are hidden in Anselm Kiefer’s “Untitled (Secret Life of Plants) .” Its thirty-two pages, a Book of Creation perhaps, show a myriad of stars and galaxies. Its circular arrangement seems to confound attempts to find a beginning or an ending. But, the horizon of the observable cosmos – or any horizon – is not merely the end of what we can see. It is also the beginning of what we cannot see. In “der Morgenthau Plan” the low, low vantage point raises the corollae of its flowers toward the sky. Rising above the horizon, they can see what we cannot.
Germany’s borders of the 1920’s and 30’s are history. The monumental, heavily impastoed “Von der Maas bis an die Memel, von der Etsch bis an den Belt” has its title written in white cursive letters on its toxic leaden frame. The seemingly post-rhetorical reference to the former German national anthem may invoke bravado – Deutschland Über Alles – but here it underscores storm and turbulence. Kiefer’s application of text to a painting may seem to concretize by alluding to specific historical periods, poetry, mystical traditions or philosophy (references to all of which can be found in his works). But, in Kiefer, text never explains. Between the multiple semantic systems that operate in these works are messages which respond in kind to the subtleties, paradoxes and unknowns of every political reality.
The landscape and the figure are two genres which transcend any culture from which they may arise because they are always familiar to any culture, past, present or future. A figure in the landscape is always one of us. In Kiefer’s “La Pieta” are unseeing eyes, unfeeling skin. Unhearing, unsmelling, untasting, the figure of the artist lies under a tangled blanket of thorns and roses, unknowing. When roses are left for the dead, they are no one’s roses. The land too belongs to no one. Who can own nature and its transience? But at no time do Kiefer’s landscape works ever lose touch with the beauties and the terrors of nature that were, that are and that always will be.
Observable galaxies in the known cosmos may be elliptical, spiral or irregular in shape. They may be dwarfs or giants. While the shape of a galaxy external to our own is discernable through a telescope, the shape of our own Milky Way galaxy is less apparent, as it is being observed from within. If politics is the matter of governing and being governed, then nothing human is external to it. We can only observe from within. In “die Milchstrasse,” below an ashen sky is a plowed field partially covered by snow, its fertility apparently dormant, awaiting transformation.
Simon Glass, 2014
Catalogue available here: Anselm Kiefer: Beyond Landscape
© Albright Knox Gallery 2014