De-constructing the art of Anselm Kiefer

The German Post-War painter and sculptor's works convey decaying landscapes that are destroyed in order to rebuild again.

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Currently on display at the Met Breuer Museum in New York: the huge and provocative works of Anselm Kiefer. Our Elizabeth Palmer has been watching the artist at work:

In his Paris studio, at the age of 72, Anselm Kiefer is still cooking up new ways to make art.

Today, it's feeding lead ingots into a couple of stoves. Then, pouring it onto one of his colossal oil paintings.

Daring? Yes. Dangerous? Probably. Different? Absolutely.

Watch video: From a safe distance, Anselm Kiefer pours hot lead onto one of his oil paintings:

"I'm looking if the form is nice, is good," he said.

"Are you happy?" Palmer asked.

"For the moment, yes. But I will bring more."

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Molten lead, one of Anselm Kiefer's artistic media.

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The giant canvas he just doused with hot lead would probably sell for millions just as it is. But Kiefer's not satisfied.

"In this moment I had some paintings, I'm very angry with them, and I have to destroy them," he said. "Because, you know, a good artist is iconoclastic artist. Without destroying, you cannot rebuild."

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Anselm Kiefer's "Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (The Waves of Sea and Love)" (2017). Oil, emulsion, acrylic, and lead on canvas. 74 7/8 × 149 5/8 × 17 inches.

© Anselm Kiefer. Photo © Georges Poncet. Courtesy Gagosian

Anselm Kiefer was born in 1945 in Germany, in the bombed-out wreckage of World War II. But where most saw ruins, the young Kiefer saw raw material for creation. "It was not a devastating experience; for me, it was fantastic," he said. "I had all the bricks, all the debris. I could do what I wanted as a little boy. So, I liked it.

"And still, I think an artist does de-constructings, and he reconstructs."

Kiefer shot to fame as a subversive young art student with a photo series called "Occupations" -- pictures of himself giving the Nazi salute. 

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Anselm Kiefer's "Occupations," 1969, in Interfunktionen no. 12, 1975, Cologne. Black-and-white photograph, page 144. Private collection.

Copyright Anselm Kiefer. Photo: © Atelier Anselm Kiefer. Courtesy Gagosian

It was controversial, and illegal. But the point, he says, was to confront Germany's silence on its Nazi past.

"We never spoke at home about that, you know?" he said. "In school, they had, I think, 10 days about the Nazis and, like, 10 days about Alexander the Great. And I felt really that there is something underneath, you know? Something heavy and horrible underneath."

Robin Vousden, a Director of Gagosian based in London, says Germany back then just wasn't ready for Kiefer. It took Americans and Israelis to embrace his work.

"The silence that said, 'Well, we won't talk about war, will we?' Well, Kiefer said, 'Yes, we will!' And both an American audience and an audience in Israel accepted and appreciated that and the courage of it and the dignity of it and the sense of moral responsibility," Vousden said.

Kiefer's art has since veered away from politics. His more recent work includes giant canvases, the poured lead peeled back --  haunting images that hint at collapsing civilizations.

That's a central idea for Kiefer, says Vousden -- the cycle of decay and renewal.

"He's a great landscape painter of our age, and at the absolute heart of his practice is the idea that landscapes are the landscape of history," Vousden said. "He's very aware of the fragility of the landscape. And the great cracking that you see on the surface of his paintings is intended to tell you that it all can be swept away by the deluge, by the flood, by the fall of man. And we all have to start again."

Kiefer's paintings and sculptures feature in many of the finest art collections in the world. 

Currently, his work is part of a joint exhibition at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia along with work of the great sculptor Auguste Rodin. 

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An installation view of the exhibition "Kiefer Rodin" (2017) at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation

Kiefer explained to Palmer that he lives with his paintings: "Every day, I have to go [past them] to go in my studio. And then sometimes I stay and I look, 'Oh, let's bring it down and change it.'"

"And sometimes the opposite? Do you think, 'You know what? That's finished'?"

"Sometimes I have to tell 'It's finished' because they want to do a show, a gallery, or, you know, sometimes I have to sell something," he laughed. "Then I decide 'This is finished'!"

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Anselm Kiefer with correspondent Liz Palmer at his Paris studio.

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"Yeah, but your inclination would be to keep changing all of them?"

"Yeah, yeah, sure, all the time, yes."

Kiefer lives with his teenage children outside Paris in what used to be a department store warehouse. His art is everywhere … inside, and out on the grounds, where a forest of giant metal sunflowers crowds around sculptures of old planes. 

He moved to Paris after running out of space at his 200-acre estate in the south of France -- transformed into a dystopian landscape of teetering towers and tunnels to nowhere. One day, after his death, Kiefer hopes it will open to the public as a museum. 

But now -- very much alive – Kiefer remains astonishingly prolific.

Palmer asked, "If somebody had said to an 18-year-old Anselm Kiefer, 'One day you are going to be one of the greatest living artists'…"

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Artist Anselm Kiefer.

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"Oh, I didn't need that someone told me that. It was clear for me," he replied.

"You knew?"

"Yeah, yeah, I noted in my journal. 'I'm the greatest painter.' I was completely convinced, you know?" he laughed.

That was then. But now?

"I wouldn't say this anymore, you know? Because what means 'the greatest painter'? It's nonsense, you know?"

      
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