The first American survey of Anselm Kiefer's work in almost two decades, this exhibition includes more than sixty major paintings, watercolors, books, and sculptures created from 1969 to 2005. Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth is organized by Michael Auping, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth's chief curator. The exhibition reveals the layers of meaning threaded throughout all of Kiefer's work, specifically tracking his life-long interest in a visual exploration of a dialogue between heaven and earth. The exhibition includes a number of early works from the artist's private collection, as well as key paintings from private and public collections in Europe and the North America. The curator describes the exhibition as "not a retrospective, but a thematic survey that sheds a different light on the development and intention behind Kiefer's career. It begins with his very first work of art, a book entitled The Heavens. This is not an exhibition about religion, but about why we keep looking for heaven and not finding it."
Anselm Kiefer, who was born in Donaueschingen, Germany, the year World War II ended, is widely regarded as one of the most significant and pertinent artists working today. In his often grandly scaled works, Kiefer intertwines a complex range of subjects, including alchemical treatises; Nordic, Greek, Egyptian, and early Christian mythology; and mystical Jewish texts, often relating such subjects to modern, particularly German, history. His broad-ranging imagery is further developed in his procedure of mixing traditional painting media with symbolically significant materials such as clay, ash, gold leaf, seeds, dried plants, and lead.
The presentation begins with Kiefer's earliest surviving work of art, The Heavens, 1969, a small book that contains cloud and sky images cut from magazines and pasted onto white pages. The artist's use of image fragments reflects a belief that heaven cannot be summarized into a single image or place, but is better symbolized by a series of glimpses, each convincing and unconvincing from different viewpoints. This work is followed by an important series of watercolors in which Kiefer introduces many of the symbols — trees, fire, the artist's palette, barren fields, landscapes — on which he has elaborated throughout his career. These early works also typify the artist's use of his own image and his own cursive script; his practice of freely combining symbols from far-ranging religious and mystical traditions; and his interest in the possibilities of healing and transformation offered by artistic expression.
The exhibition includes several works from Kiefer's Attic series of the 1970s, in which he used depictions of his woodgrained studio at the time — the attic of a former German schoolhouse — as a stage to recreate mythological and historical events. Quaternity, 1973, revolves around a debate in the early Christian church on the role of evil. In this work, three flames labeled Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are joined by a flame labeled Satan. The symbiotic relationship between redemption and destruction, good and evil, would be a central theme in Kiefer's subsequent works.
Among the different mediums Kiefer has worked with over the years, bookmaking has been a consistent and central part of his art. The artist's books have become freestanding sculptures, massive symbols of his investigations of world knowledge through images. Along with Kiefer's earliest book, The Heavens, the exhibition includes Cauterization of the Rural District of Buchen, 1975, seven books made from charred remnants of paintings, indicating Kiefer's longstanding interest in alchemy and his exploration into the possibility of metaphorically healing a wounded German landscape; and Twenty Years of Solitude, 1971–91, which uses unbound lead pages as a foundation for a series of white, semen-stained ledgers. The title of this work refers to the solitary nature of the artist's search for a form of transcendence, and it may also refer to Kiefer's isolation from his Catholic upbringing and its presumption of authority over heaven and earth. Echoing Barnett Newman's well-known statement about Abstract Expressionism — "We are making it out of ourselves" — Kiefer creates a personal heaven from his own seeds.
Kiefer's use of lead as a bookmaking material continues with Book with Wings, 1992–94, which remains flightless despite its majestic wings; Merkawa, 1996, whose lead pages contain images of dark galaxies alongside earthbound images of broken windows and cracked floors; and For Robert Fludd, 1996, a large lead book dedicated to a 16th-century scientist, alchemist, and physician, in which fields of stars give way to fields of brightly painted poppies. The exhibition also includes five newly created works that have never been exhibited, mixed-media books that depict earth and stars. Kiefer's books exemplify his process of combining seemingly disparate historical symbols and images. The artist has commented, "The book, the idea of a book or the image of a book, is a symbol of learning, of transmitting knowledge . . . I make my own books to find my way through the old stories."
Kiefer's current studio complex in Barjac, France, comprises a network of above- and underground installations for the artist's ongoing investigation of the ancient mystical Jewish merkaba tradition, which describes a journey through seven heavenly palaces to the Hechaloth, the palace in which the wise will be united with God. This theme has an enduring resonance for the artist, and many works featured in the exhibition relate to it. Works such as Sefer Hechaloth, 2002, and Die Himmelspaläste, 2004, feature seven shelves or metal cages, which act as containers for symbolic objects. A number of gouaches from 2003 are based on photographs of found and formed objects that are part of the artist’s Barjac installations. Regarding his exploration of the mystical Hechaloth texts, Kiefer is quick to point out that the journey through the seven palaces is metaphorical; the real journey is through yourself in order to know yourself. These ongoing installations, like the artist’s earliest work, reflect his interest in humankind’s attempts throughout history to grasp the workings and mysteries of the cosmos.
After its premiere in Fort Worth, the exhibition will travel to the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.