Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)
oil, acrylic, olive branches, lead, iron, gold leaf and emulsion on canvas
86 5/8 x 149 5/8 x 11 in. (220 x 380 x 27.9 cm.)
Executed in 1986.
Anthony D'Offay Gallery, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Property from the Estate of David Pincus
R. Beuth, "Ein Prophet, der nichts im eigenen Lande gilt--Amsterdams Stedelijk Museum zeigt Werke von A. Kiefer," Die Welt, no. 5, 7 January 1987 (illustrated).
H. Liesbrock, "Nebewald oder komisches Licht? Neue Bilder von Anselm Kiefer im Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam," Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, no. 18, 22 January 1987, p. 23 (illustrated).
I. Fink, The Journey, New York, 1992 (illustrated on the cover).
D. Arasse, Anselm Kiefer, New York, 2001, p. 86 (illustrated in color).
M. Rosenthal, Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments, exh. cat., Menil Collection, Houston, 2005, pp. 117 and 222 (illustrated in color).
G. Finney, Visual Culture in Twentieth Century Germany: Text as Spectacle, Bloomington, 2006, p. 282.
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Anselm Kiefer: Bilder 1986->1980, December 1986-February 1987, no. 37 (illustrated in color).
Art Institute of Chicago; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art and New York, Museum of Modern Art, Anselm Kiefer, December 1987-January 1989, pp. 148 and 169, pl. 80 (illustrated in color).
Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Anselm Kiefer, March-May 1991, p. 49, no. 15 (illustrated in color).
"I think in vertical terms, and Fascism was one of the levels. But, I see all the layers. In my paintings, I tell stories in order to show what lies behind history. I make a hole and pass through" (A. Kiefer, quoted in Anselm Kiefer: the Seven Heavenly Palaces 1973-2001, exh. cat. Fondation Beyeler, Ostfildern-Ruit, 2001, p. 58).
In a scarred terrain, encrusted with impasto, a pair of train tracks, both foreshortened and extended, break through a scorched and barren earthly world to a white inflected vanishing point in the middle of the horizon, a seemingly celestial realm arrayed in gold leaf. Materialized in lead, gold leaf, iron, and olive leaves, Eisen-Steig confronts the viewer with a singularly stark image that carries within it complex layers of meaning and intention. Anselm Kiefer is an artist of intellectual and aesthetic magnitude, whose expansive vision embodies an empathic, if ironic relation not only to post-war history, but also to the notion of historical truths. Embodying multivalent associations within wry commentary, the artist here has created a landscape and skyscape that encompass the material trace of human experience in its struggle toward transcendence.
Eisen-Steig's import lies in its materials and its visual narrative. Materials embedded in the surface have specific associations for the artist. The gold leaf used for its celestial effect-feathered into the deeply recessed vanishing point-is ambiguous, a chimera, for the subject matter depicted here-based on a photograph of railway tracks taken on a visit Bordeaux in 1984-can be associated with the detritus of disinterred railroad tracks, which were commandeered by the Third Reich to deport Jewish citizens to Auschwitz death camps. The destination for those who traveled them was annihilation by fire. "Our historical knowledge determines our way of looking at thingswe see railway tracks anywhere and think about Auschwitz. It will remain that way in the long run" (A. Kiefer, quoted in C. Kmmerlin and P. Pursche, "'Nachts fahre ich mit dem Fahrrad von Bild zu Bild': Ein Werkstattgesprch mit Anselm Kiefer ber seine Arbeit und seine Weltsicht," Sddeutsche Zeitung Magazin 46 (November 1990), pp. 29-30). Further, given Kiefer's wide-ranging use of Wagner's Ring of the Niebelungen as a theme in his work in the decades preceding Eisen-Steig, his turn to gold can also refer to the overarching greed that drives the plot of Wagner's equally encompassing Gesamtkunstwerk--recording the opera's appropriation by the Wehrmacht as a symbol of German heroism and Nazi-era power. In his book of staged photographs dating from 1977, Siegfried's Difficult Way to Brünhilde, and in a later overpainted photograph from 1980 of the same title, Kiefer uses a similar motif of a path leading to fire, the ring of fire in which Wotan places his daughter, the Walkürie Brünhilde, who will sleep until awaked by an unnamed hero. Kiefer's overpainting of both images depicts the leaping flames toward which the tracks lead. The gold-leaf, then, can be read as an ironic reference: its use is both a suggestion of the heavenly realm and a gruesome reminder of the Holocaust.
Kiefer's use of iron is legion: the artist's attraction to it derives from its cosmic origin, having first fallen from the sky in meteoric form, and subsequently forged during the Iron Age" (A. Kiefer, "Interview with Mark Rosenthal," in M. Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer, Chicago and Philadelphia, 1986, p. 143). The olive branch, laden with the Christian symbolism of peace and renewal, gains in meaning from its association with the traces of human life, as if the dove carries this branch metaphorically not only to Noah but to the victims of Nazi oppression, and by inference to all mankind suffering in violent conflict. Kiefer associates lead with alchemy, the base metal that might be turned into iron, silver, and then into gold, and underlies the artist's compression of materials as both an ironic comment on the futility of the alchemist's quest for spiritual redemption and a suggestion of an underlying hope in its efficacy.
Joseph Beuys played a formative role in Kiefer's understanding of the illusiveness of memory and the lessons of history and myth in their representational strategies. In his use of materials and formal elements, Beuys had provided a compelling precedent. For his performance/installation, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965, Beuys, in an effort to harness the alchemical and transformative power of gold, had rubbed it over his face (M. Rosenthal, Joseph Beuys, Actions, Vitrines, and Environments, Houston, 2005, p.121). In Tramstop, Beuys had configured vertical parallel lines out of elements of his installation Tramstop Archaeology assembled in a Nazi-era building at the 1976 Venice Biennale (now installed at the Hamburger Bahnhof and Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin), a work that was undoubtedly an inspiration for Kiefer. Two parallel lengths of iron, one a single-track rail line, the other an upended shaft lie on the floor, the latter, the barrel of a field cannon to which is soldered a cannon ball and a head of a man, open-mouthed, and positioned on four seventeenth-century mortar bombs. "For Kiefer, as for Beuys, being stunned by these unforgettable German events became the premise for his works" (D. Anrasse, "Arts of Memory," in Anselm Kiefer, New York, 2001, p. 14). Subject matter, visual language, and thematic reference to Nazi-era Germany was taken up by Kiefer in a series of extraordinary parallel representations beginning the year after Beuys' installation, which culminated a decade later in the aesthetically compelling Eisen-Steig of 1986.
That same year, Kiefer undertook another monumental work, Jerusalem, using similar materials, including gold leaf. Two joined canvases each feature a single iron ski, a pair, tilted slightly outward, which resonate in two registers with the iron-cast shoes, also forged under Kiefer's direction, in Eisen-Steig: they function as footwear and as parallel vertical shafts, both inviting use by the spectator. Lead strips are attached to both pairs. Remnants of a past life, they are poignant reminders of the violence of which humanity is capable. Pointing upward, each element mimes another Kiefer motif, the vertical rise of a ladder, the symbolic stairway leading beyond the material world in several of his works such as Seraphim, 1983-84. It is interesting that the original title of Eisen-Steig was Heavenly Jerusalem, suggesting the close association between the two works. Whether vertical striations or specific representations, Kiefer uses parallel verticality as a consistent motif throughout his oeuvre-the path as kind of via dolorosa, a moral passage. In Eisen-Steig, the path beckons and resists, shows the viewer both a way out of the ravages of war and warns of its consequences.
Motifs are used and reused, and their contexts can be read in multiple ways, challenging the viewer to become a participant in the work. "I can only make my feelings, thoughts, and will in the paintings. I make them as precise as I can and then after thatyou decide what the pictures are and what I am" (S. H. Madoff, "Anselm Kiefer: A Call to Memory," Art News, vol. 86, no. 8, October 1987, p. 130). This can be de-centering as our own memories and unconscious responses merge with Kiefer's own imaginings and their portrayals. Andreas Huyssen described our psychic experience before a Kiefer work such as Eisen-Steig as being caught in a "web of melancholy, fascination and repression" (A. Huyssen, "Anselm Kiefer: The Terror of History, the Temptation of Myth," October 48 spring 1989, pp. 24-45, in Arasse, ibid., p. 88). Indeed, Eisen-Steig's searing central image is both a literal memorial and a mnemonic trace of shared interior understanding. While we witness an historical moment translated into compelling aesthetic form, the subject per se is absent. With no specific referent, then, Kiefer beckons us to merge with his layered material landscape in an act not only of commemoration, but also of catharsis.