‘What does the artist do? He draws connections. He ties the invisible threads between things. He dives into history, be it the history of mankind, the geological history of the Earth or the beginning and end of the manifest cosmos.’
Anselm Kiefer1Wall Street International, W Art, 6th August 2012 https://wsimag.com/art/1550-anselm-kiefer
‘My point throughout all the years was not believing representation and not believing in symbols. Whatever I did, it was about that. I didn’t believe in transporting a message through a painting. Even if I’m partly wrong or entirely wrong, that is my point.’
Albert Oehlen2Artnet news, Art World, Kate Brown, 26th February, 2018 https://news.artnet.com/art-world/albert-oehlen-taschen-1221971
Two extraordinarily successful contemporary German artists are both currently showing in London. One- Anselm Kiefer- is a painter of high seriousness; and the other- Albert Oehlen- a painter of hi-jinx. The close physical proximity of these two artists’ new bodies of work (so far apart in every conceivable aspect of their making and their meaning) offers a rare opportunity to experience at first hand the jarring, oppositional forces within post-war German art that have become powerful drivers of change in contemporary painting.
In the late 1970s, American High Modernism found itself supplanted as the standard bearer of advanced art. Bolstered by the influx of so many emigrés fleeing the European nightmare for the safe haven of what was then an emergent economic and military superpower, New York had become the crucible of the avant-garde in the years following the Second World War. The armour of historical certainty sported by Transatlantic Modernism- the ‘house style’ of the post-war avant grade, perfectly exemplified by a painting such as, say, Kenneth Noland’s ‘Drive’ of 1964- had been thought impenetrable, forged as it was from the magic ingredients, ‘purity’ and ‘presentness’; and yet it turned out to be nothing more than a set of Emperor’s new clothes, woven from the delusional overestimation of its own importance, and demand for its endless refinement, that had been foisted on painting by the dogmatic certainties of its adherents. With Modernist art now left skipping naked on its ownsome through the streets of uptown Manhattan, new and growing audiences looked back towards Europe; specifically, towards Germany, where the very toxicity of cultural and political life under Nazism that had forced so many to flee or face annihilation, and which had continued to fester in the layers of repressed memory and denial beneath a divided country, had transformed that fetid soil into a breeding ground for a new art that fed on bad faith, guilt and disillusion.
For both Kiefer and Oehlen, the inescapable consciousness of these forces at work in German culture is the driver for the onward trajectories of their work: but as we shall see, these trajectories diverge. Kiefer has plundered Nazi iconography for his imagery; but unlike his contemporaries Baselitz, Immendorf and Penck- to name but three of them- he has not manifested it in terms of a distorted, debased painterly figuration that appropriates elements of German Expressionist art, but rather, via the literal use of objects, materials and architectural renderings that reference, amongst other things, the cultural production of the Nazi era. From Josef Beuys, his teacher at the Dusseldorf Academy, Kiefer has inherited key notions regarding the artist’s role as shaman, jester and healer, but has given them a new reading: what once seemed to belong to the utopian imaginings of the counterculture- as channelled through Beuys- now, in Kiefer’s hands, has taken on an altogether darker aspect. The seer, for Kiefer, does not foretell a world transformed, but rather, total disaster.
As a student of Polke’s, Oehlen was exposed to a set of influences very far removed indeed from Kiefer’s inheritance of tainted and tragic historical symbols; specifically, a form of painting that operated in an ironic, pop-inflected mode that deployed discursive strategies such as the direct referencing of photographic images and other forms of mechanical reproduction. But there is also a secondary influence: that of Polke’s close working relationship with Gerhard Richter during the 1960s, and what it gave rise to. In 1961 Richter defected from East to West Germany, bringing with him an academic training in ‘Socialist Realist’ art. His irony, emotional restraint, technical mastery, and ambivalent relationships with history and the rise of consumer culture in West Germany provided Richter with the means of artistically coming to terms with the clash of ideologies that was dividing Germany. The ironic, bitter flavour and dark humour of what Polke and Richter defined as ‘Capitalist Realism‘3https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitalist_realism would not have been lost on Oehlen.
Moving in Immendorf’s social orbit from a young age, Oehlen grew politically aware; developing as he did so a penchant for irreverent humour, channelled through the Situationist sensibility he had inherited from Asger Jorn and which imbued his approach to painting with an almost Swiftian sense of satire. Oehlen, like Jorn, deliberately forces painting into social and political contexts totally at odds with its own history. This process of alienating painting, of somehow ‘making it strange’, is carried out via a collage aesthetic, re-energised by an interest in the ‘DIY’ Punk attitudes of the late 1970s. He has used humour and satire to bring a beguiling weightlessness to his painting in the constant play of signifiers, whether abstraction against figuration, hard-edge against the gestural, biomorphic surrealism against low-end computer graphics.
How, then, are Kiefer and Oehlen’s very different responses to history and the history of painting- the extreme earnestness of the former artist, the overwhelming irony of the latter- manifested in their new work?
In the case of Oehlen, his Serpentine show is an object lesson in how he favours dragging other artists’ historically specific imagery into his paintings, and exploring it through repetition. By reinventing the Abstract Expressionists’ idea of the painting as arena of action, he explodes these stolen motifs, painting into them, the better to first undo and then reconfigure them until a giddy sense of weightlessness is achieved; in effect, an escape from the hermetically sealed vault of Kiefer’s imagination, in which doomed cycles of history repeat themselves. Here, ‘Das Privileg/ZAT’ (1999) in particular seems to use the destruction of a motif as a way to energise and open up the possibilities of paint, to unlock its latent powers. At the same time, though, these paintings are informed by the power of the layered image, and by collage’s potential for extreme banality.
In this show Oehlen explicitly pushes or layers together the work of two American Modernist painters: John Graham and Mark Rothko. Between 1940 and 1949, John Graham created ‘Tramonto Spaventoso’, a comical self-portrait, complete with handlebar moustache, that seems to incorporate elements from portraits he had made of his fellow soldiers in the Czarist ‘White Army’ with aspects of his erotic drawings. At the Serpentine, Oehlen has obsessively compressed and expanded the various parts of this portrait, unleashing in the process a menagerie of tropes and motifs that jump from painting to painting. In ‘120 Kmh’ (1998), Oehlen takes Graham’s boggle-eyed, moustachioed head and floats it in out of focus, making it pop up like a Jack-in-a-box from mists of slapped-on paint that drift over a scaffolding lifted from Graham’s highly personal lexicon of enigmatic architectural structures and symbols. Then, to add insult to injury, Oehlen has created his own version of the Rothko chapel in Houston in the Serpentine’s central rooms, superimposing his deliberately puerile and faux-naif artistry on a mock-up of Rothko’s high-minded, solemn bringing-together of art and architecture. In works like ‘Obstruct Reality’ (2019), a triptych format pilfered from the Houston chapel plays host to another visitation of Graham’s moustachioed head, here swollen like an inflatable and sending out a laser-like ray of desire from the hungry centre of its monocled eye. For all the ham-fisted, naive copying from Graham’s originals, though, Oehlen nevertheless achieves a tautness in his drawings in charcoal that acknowledges the dimensions of these large, and for him, uncharacteristically sparse canvasses. His line creates decisive divisions within all the triptych works: there are satisfying subtleties in the elegantly rendered charcoal arcs and flourishes whose rhythms are further intensified by the freshness of the bare white canvas, and the surrounding splashy washes of sky blues and light and airy oranges. Oehlen pulls a nuanced and almost perfectly-weighted overall image from what might have been a sneeringly puerile caricature. But somehow, one is reminded: with Oelhen, you can’t have one without the other… There is in his work the same sort of paradoxical, ‘expert clumsiness’ that one finds in the work of the best comic actors, where the simplest of tasks or social interactions unravel into a scintillating chaos of unpredictable actions and counter-actions that finally takes on a beauty and pathos all of its own.
Kiefer’s show at White Cube, Bermondsey, offers a very different interplay of art and architecture. Kiefer is lauded in many quarters for what is seen as a heroic engagement with the dark and destructive energies unleashed over millennia in great apocalyptic unravelling of civilisations. Here, ambitiously, Kiefer has attempted to draw in, under the auspices of his art, the advanced theoretical physics of ‘String Theory’, connecting this with the severing of the Gordian Knot, and with Urd, Verdandi and Skuld, the three chief ‘Norns’, or ‘Spinners of Fate’ in Norse mythology. Entering the gallery, one is confronted with an installation of large glass-fronted vitrines that runs the length of the vast central corridor, each filled with electrical cables coiling over half-buried axes, set against backgrounds of enigmatic photographic images of architectural forms. The corridor then opens out into gigantic spaces hung with mural-sized canvasses; seething, painterly realms where the interweaving of past with present suggests a universe in which everything is connected.
As so often with Kiefer, there are visual aspects of the work that have the power to beguile; such as the strong sense of movement achieved in the landscape forms of the set of ‘Superstrings’ canvasses in South Gallery I by the very subtle orchestration of branches and straw, set against the deep striations drawn into and gouged out of the rich painterly slew of rusty ochres, moody greys and soiled whites. The eye is pushed and pulled by pulsing and undulating surfaces across the huge expanses of broiling paint. To say of Kiefer- as many have done- that there is no real colour in his work would be to ignore the beautiful lilacs and subtle plays of dirty highlights of yellows, pinks and reds to be found particularly in the smaller paintings in the North Gallery that incorporate a real axe, such as ‘Right Wing, Left Wing’ (2019). They evoke, quite beautifully, suggestions of darkening, freezing air falling over scrub and bracken in a winter woodland twilight.
So far, so spectacular. But do all the weighty concepts that Kiefer purports to be addressing find tangible equivalents in these painted forms and objects? Huffing and puffing as they are on the vast walls of the 9x9x9 space and South Gallery II, the majority of Kiefer’s latest super-sized offerings do not leave one with a sense of awe. The intimations of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the ‘total work of art’, that Wagnerian striving to convey sensations of total immersion in the artist’s vision, quickly seem to dissipate. What remains are more like theatrical backdrops; vast, fuzzy, oblique, paint-sodden images, set on repeat. Although the work has expanded in terms of size and number of themes, the same old one-point perspective ‘scorched earth’ landscapes recur, punctuated with branches, straw, and other overtly symbolic objets trouvés.
It is remarkable how snugly these massive paintings fit into the vast halls of one of the biggest commercial galleries in Europe. Stepping back to take in each colossal space hung with these new works, the view, in its entirety, itself reminded one of a particular Kiefer painting from the 1980s, that depicts a giant hall lit only by a massive broken skylight, a post-apocalyptic reimagining of Hitler’s rebuilt Riechstag, once more reduced to ruins. In White Cube’s South Gallery, the skylight in the painting has, in effect, been replaced by giant white screens radiating a deathly imitation of daylight, high above a vast, shiny floor like a frozen lake from some dark Nordic fairy tale. The Gesamtkunstwerk returns; but not as Kiefer might have envisioned. It is as though one were inside a Kiefer painting, looking at a Kiefer painting; and in the moment of this realization, some kind of morbid cultural circuit is completed. These paintings present the triumph of networked Neoliberal capitalism: their gargantuan dimensions reinforce ideas of omnipresence, an all-encompassing visual field from which there is no possibility of respite. The viewer is coerced into an acceptance of the notion that Kiefer’s petrified forests are, in a sense, the only true landscapes of mankind’s past and present, and that they suggest no future at all; they are less an art that intimates the potential for change, more a conjuring of a ‘ruin lust’ that Kiefer activates in the viewer; less an evocation of ‘Sturm und Drang’, more a vacated ‘Game of Thrones’ stage set for the bombastic game of ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ he invites the Neoliberal elite to play. Placing to one side all the platitudinous verbiage about ‘rebirth’, ‘transformation’ and ‘alchemy’ these latest paintings act as grand spectacle; they offer distraction from our fractious reality rather than insights into it. These works do not critique networked neoliberal capitalism or the terror of our new technological sublime; they simply embody them.
Kiefer’s concerns have shifted from an exploration of the role played by buried histories and repressed memory in defining German art and culture, and in the creation and destruction of civilisations, to this mishmash of mythological themes and scientific concepts that he pushes around like a tortured Sisyphus in vast, deserted landscapes shaped from tons of paint, wood, shellac, and other symbolic detritus. The attempt to overwhelm the giant spaces of White Cube has left his art blunted and bifurcated, sanitised and ripe for absorption by the ultra-networked Neoliberal culture industry.
Oehlen’s career, conversely, might be seen as a quest to find an escape route from the overbearing historical, cultural and artistic norms that have threatened to paralyse advanced abstract painting. If Kiefer’s art is defined by its ‘heaviness’ then is there a ‘lightness’ to Oehlen’s? If there is, then it’s neither airy nor saccharine, but ferocious, like the blowtorch delivery of a skilled standup comedian; and from time to time, Kiefer himself has felt the full force of this ferocity: imitating the quality of the Beuysian edict,4Beuys’ performances would sometimes take the form of very idiosyncratic ‘lectures’ at various art schools and institutions. ‘Every man is an artist’ is probably his most famous pronouncement. He went on to say… ‘Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART…’ (1973) and channelling Beuys in his role of charismatic jester rather than solemn ‘seer’, Oehlen has utilised the format of the cheap inkjet print to lambast Kiefer; or has dragged him (along with Richter, and others) into playful punch-ups in his paintings. This process of pulling down the high and mighty a peg or two, by offering deliberately crude renderings of their signature styles, is part of an overarching strategy to demystify and devalue dominant cultural iconography in his painting, whether it be of the high art variety, or that of mass culture.
Shaking itself free of the faddish label of ‘bad painting’, Oehlen’s art has achieved a spikey and dexterous autonomy that has kept him out of the clutches of the culture industry. His constant, alternate deployment or destruction of art historical tropes and adept use of layered imagery resonate with abstract artists now adapting the language of the flat screen to the concerns of painting. Oehlen’s mindset shows an openness to, and a preparedness to accommodate, the vast flows of visual information now available to artists; spurred on by the beguiling sense of freedom and autonomy that painting continues to offer. It is Oehlen’s example that sets out new templates for the continuing revitalisation of the medium of painting, a medium pronounced dead so many times in both these artists’ lifetimes.
Anselm Kiefer: ‘Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot’ is at White Cube, Bermondsey St until January 26th 2020
Albert Oehlen is at the Serpentine Gallery until February 2nd 2020