“Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth”

There’s one artist who’s clearly done more to shape Anselm Kiefer’s work than any other: Adolf Hitler. Since the late ’60s, the Donaueschingen-born Kiefer seems to have been obsessed with the failed-artist-turned-fascist dictator, and with the shame, repression, and denial inherent to Germany’s collective memories of World War II.

Kiefer early on identified himself with National Socialism: In Occupations (1969), the artist donned an SS uniform and flashed the Sieg Heil for the camera. He posed this way in his studio, in front of various monuments and ruins, including the Colosseum, and, finally, facing the ocean, with waves and spray crashing all around him. This attempt to symbolically lay claim to all things in the name of the Nazis shows Kiefer’s keen awareness of human folly as seen in the delusions of powerful men like Hitler. In Kiefer’s hands, Hitler becomes a pathetic figure, imposing cruel designs onto the world that will ultimately crumble, undoing their designer.

The contrast in scale here—the diminutive figure of the artist, photographed alone from some distance, attempting to exert mastery over the world with the trappings of a dead regime—shows that Kiefer is indeed capable of finding dark humor in grandiose gestures. That sense of parodic display, though, is often missing from “Heaven and Earth,” the Kiefer retrospective at the Hirshhorn. Occupations, despite being a seminal series, is not included in the collection of 40 paintings, books, and sculptures. Instead, we have Kiefer at his most ponderous: The emphasis is on big, late pieces, often 10- or 12-foot-tall slabs of lead or clay, speckled with shellac, oily black pigment, and straw.

Other more intimate and immediate pieces are also missing, like Operation Sea Lion (1975), a series of photographs based on the absurd, unrealized Nazi plan to invade England. Kiefer acted out Hitler’s plan, setting up a mock naval battle with toy boats in his bathtub. In that work’s place is a painting from 30 years later, Leviathan (2005). A tiny lead battleship, its guns comically sagging, hangs off-kilter in a pitching sea under a roiling, impastoed sky. The scene appears lost in a sandstorm, rendered in wan shades of yellow and gray. In some ways, Kiefer here has still contrasted man’s domination fantasies with a natural world too powerful to be conquered. Venturing out into such an environment—all shapeless, destructive energy and Old Testament wrath—can only be madness.

But Kiefer’s piece itself is a sort of overextension in which the artist has trumpeted the scale of his own artistic efforts. It’s an imposing painting—230 square feet of sculptural painterly brio. It transmits on an institutional scale, feeling as triumphant as the work of the abstract expressionists a half-century ago. But, like fascism, action painting is one of those things we don’t believe in any more. The idea of the artist as a rugged individualist, dredging up huge expressions of his being from the subconscious, is something that died with modernism itself in the ’60s, despite the faddish expressionist revival of the ’80s that Kiefer became associated with. Hollywood films still relish the archetype, but one can’t help but think that Kiefer ought to know better.

Leviathan draws its title from a study of Thomas Hobbes by German intellectual Carl Schmitt—who, for a time, was one of Hitler’s favorite thinkers. Schmitt advocated an authoritarian government and a union between church and state. “I was interested in people like Schmitt,” Kiefer explains in the retrospective’s catalog, “because they got caught between the power of government and the power of God.” Indeed, one of the few ways in which “Heaven and Earth” manages to be apt is in its title. At their best, Kiefer’s works admit the impossibility of bridging the gap between the sacred and the secular. The Ash Flower (1983–1997), for example, depicts a grand hall designed by Nazi architect Albert Speer—a figure who, like Schmitt, operated between art and religious demagogy. Speer once employed hundreds of Klieg lights to create a shimmering cathedral in the sky, providing a pretty backdrop for the Holocaust.

In The Ash Flower, Kiefer reduces Speer’s hall to faint verticals and grid lines that converge in the lower half of the canvas. The eroded, blistered surface of the piece is a mishmash of earthen stuff in shades of ocher, red, and black; the material seems to be separating from the substrate and about to fall onto the floor. Suspended in the middle of this mess is a long, desiccated sunflower stalk. It’s quite a contrast, the unstable natural materials and Speer’s imposing structure, which appears ready to dissolve back into primordial clay. Even though the sunflower might promise a new era of German national pride, the plant itself is a gnarled husk, like a brittle bone hanging in front of a mausoleum. Kiefer ultimately shuts down any possibility of such a rebirth, and Speer’s monument, designed to commemorate an empire Hitler meant to last for 1,000 years, becomes a ghost.

Curator Michael Auping tends to de-emphasize the thorny issues of German nationalism that lurk in Kiefer’s work. Instead, Auping wants to give us an unblemished picture of the artist as mystic. In Quaternity (1973), an early painting depicting Kiefer’s attic studio, three small fires and a half-coiled snake sit on the floor, labeled as the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost—and, in the case of the snake, Satan. The snake appears in a number of these paintings from the ’70s and is often taken by art historians to represent Hitler. As with the bathtub battle, it would seem that Kiefer is acting out the rise of the Third Reich through metaphors. Weirdly, though, Auping prefers to relate the image to the teachings of the early Christian church.

Man in the Forest (1971) gets a similar treatment. Like many of Kiefer’s early paintings, it’s surprisingly tentative, executed in thin, murky washes. A sketchily rendered figure of the artist in a nightgown stands against a backdrop of bare trees. He holds up a large, flaming branch. The forest is, of course, important in German history and national identity. But Auping offers all sorts of other parallels: Norse legends, the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, the tree of life in cabala—even Gilgamesh. Heck, why not cast the net even wider and include, say, Prometheus? He carried fire, too, right?

The result of Auping’s attempts to interpret Kiefer as broadly as possible is the opposite of what many curators have been up to lately: Whereas a whole slew of recent museum shows has aimed to recontextualize artists as regionalists, “Heaven and Earth” seems designed to take Kiefer out of Germany. Sure, the Holocaust is there, but alchemy and the cabala are the things to focus on. This is a little hard to swallow.

That’s not to say that all of these mushy, mystical elements aren’t present. As savvy and world-weary as Kiefer might seem, sometimes he appears to buy into his own heavy handed iconography. In The Order of Angels (1985–1987), a giant lead propeller juts out from the canvas; hanging from wires under it are lead rocks. Most of them bear crude cardboard tags that label them as different orders of the angels—seraphim, cherubim, etc. Behind all of this is a post-apocalyptic version of van Gogh’s foreboding wheat fields. The painting suggests scorched earth from which destroyed military equipment rises: a European wasteland.

But then there are the lumpy “angels,” possibly meant to imply the birth of the universe during the Big Bang. Of course, they also imply a clumsy failure of visual imagination, an attempt to envision planes beyond this one that ends up resting on lame alchemical metaphors and shapeless masses—hardly the incisive direction of “Occupations,” or even the elegiac resignation of The Ash Flower. In works like this, Kiefer emerges as a kindred spirit to Schmitt and Speer, caught in between his desire to make big, important art and his still-nagging suspicion that such a thing simply isn’t possible anymore, if it ever was to begin with.

In his photographs, Kiefer used to re-enact the superhuman dreams of foolish men in so small a scale as to invite laughter. But the artist scaled up as he matured, importing something of those superhuman dreams into his work. The result is not a parody but a disturbing analog. Kiefer is at the moment constructing massive projects on the grounds of his estate in France, including networks of subterranean tunnels and giant, unstable concrete towers essentially designed to fall down (and they do). These are monuments that destroy themselves, unsafe and seemingly unsalable. At this stage in his career, Kiefer can afford to indulge the twilight of his country’s cultural history in truly apocalyptic fashion. It’s a fascinating, ugly sort of drama—more like a monster-truck rally than the clever mental maneuvering of his formative works.

This is a shame. Thirty years ago, even if Kiefer lacked the formal assuredness and empathy for materials that he now possesses, his historical sense and self-critical acuity were apparently much greater. In 1970, Kiefer was capable of envisioning and expressing these limits on human understanding; now he seems determined to resist them in a frenzy of quixotic monument-making. The absurd increases in scale, the violence and bombast—these things certainly haven’t hurt his artistic career. But Kiefer’s just cluttering up his oeuvre with lumpy, leaden stuff. Like Hitler, he can’t realize his outsized artistic dreams—but he continues to marshal massive reservoirs of energy and material, presumably convinced of victory.CP