The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, presents Anselm Kiefer, a comprehensive anthology of works by the German artist. Curated by Germano Celant, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, this thematic exhibition showcases a selection of iconic works of the last ten years from the artist's own personal holdings, as well as from private and public collections, including important pieces from the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
Recognized as one of the foremost artists of our time, Kiefer was born in 1945, shortly before the end of World War II, and grew up witnessing the destruction of modern warfare, the division of his homeland, and the rebuilding of a fragmented nation and its struggle for renewal. Believing that there are no truths, but only interpretations, Kiefer constantly questions the place of humans in the cosmos and has devoted himself to examining the interwoven patterns of German history, mythology, literature, identity, and architecture, creating all-encompassing works whose surfaces are as complex, multi-layered, and fragmented as their subjects. Infused with references to both the German romantic tradition and its political and philosophical heritage, these large-scale works meld painting with collage and sculpture, combining a nearly monochromatic painter's palette with unorthodox materials, such as lead, wire, straw, plaster, mud, seeds, sunflowers, ash, and dust. The result is a prolific oeuvre whose monumental scale and rich interplay of textures heighten the solemnity and transcendental nature of its contents.
In recent years, Kiefer has explored a more universal set of themes-still based on religion and occult symbolism, myth, and history-but now focusing on the global fate of art and culture, as well as spirituality and the workings and mysteries of the mind. Kiefer's art reflects on global civilization and faith and alerts us to the cyclical pattern of history, while exploring and struggling with the fundamental experiences and burdens of the human condition.
This exhibition is organized thematically and documents with particular emphasis Kiefer's monumental interventions, namely works that have a strong relationship with architecture and have been placed symbolically in environments loaded with historical, religious and cultural references. These include a selection of the series of majestic paintings Chevirat-Ha-Kelim (The Breaking of the Vessels) (2000), and other subjects on a grand scale, such as his series The Secret Life of Plants (2001–02). The museum atrium introduces a new site-specific installation, a colossal sky map painting 15 meters high whose dizzying verticality corresponds with Gehry's spectacular space. The presentation continues on the first and second floors, where it is divided into an enfilade of single galleries or chapters, dedicated to discrete but interrelated bodies of works, memories, and ideas illustrating the artist's research, offering a visual and emotional impact typical of Kiefer's work.
Kiefer's references are historically, culturally, and geographically diverse. He engages with specific points and moments in history to address universal themes and concerns that begin to overlap and bleed into one another. The exhibition highlights Kiefer's diverse literary and poetic inspirations, from the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) to the writings of Paul Celan (1920–1970) and Jean Genet (1910–1986) and the music of Richard Wagner (1813–1883). Through these figures, Kiefer's paintings become interwoven with architecture in order to confront issues of nature, science, religion, and history.
One gallery presents For Khlebnikov (2004), a series of paintings dedicated to the visionary Russian Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov (1855–1922). Kiefer's pictures relate to Khlebnikov's idea that cataclysmic sea battles happen every 317 years. In these works Kiefer has reproduced World War II battleships, which now float on air rather than water, while the accompanying writing refers to famous battleships, wars, and military figures, re-enacting Khlebnikov's cyclical pattern of history over and over again. Science and destiny are also the subjects of Kiefer's paintings inspired by Jaipur, a unique city in India that the artist visited. These include works dotted with constellations based on the instruments, sundials, and observatories built to observe the firmament by the Indian Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II (1688–1743), a notable mathematician and astronomer.
Particular attention is given to Kiefer's exploration into the fragments of history. This takes the form of a dialogue between archaic architecture, colossal cement shattered staircases, and the pictorial representation of ancient ruins in Only with Wind, Time, and Sound (1997), which explores spiritual yearning. The theme of combined religions is also examined in Chevirat Ha-Kelim, a poignant ensemble of monumental arched works, created originally for the altarpieces of the chapel of the hospital and psychiatric center La Salpêtrière in Paris, which refers to the Kabbala, mystical teachings based on an esoteric interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures.
Kiefer examines two different historical periods in this exhibition through bodies of work emphasizing the female identity and experience. The Women of the Revolution (1992), a series inspired by Jules Michelet's (1798–1874) book of the same title and comprised of lead beds with photographs and writings scrawled on the wall, evokes major feminine personalities of the French Revolution. In Women of Antiquity (2000–2004), headless mannequins in white crinoline dresses represent mythological and historical figures from antiquity. Some of these women are heroines, and some villains, but all are remarkable for their strength and determination. Other famous historical figures Kiefer depicts include Berenice, Princess of Egypt from the third century BC, whose hair, legend has it, became a constellation.
Kiefer's meditations on nature and science continue in The Secret Life of Plants, a frieze of 28 paintings comprising branches, lead, and wire. The title of these pieces is from a book by Peter Tomkins and Christopher Bird, first published in 1973, which explored the sentience of plants and proposed that they may be able to provide answers to the mysteries of the world.
Pursuing his life-long preoccupation with books, Kiefer's For Paul Celan (2006) is composed of massive and defiant lead books pierced by flowers, ancient symbols of both fertility and the transience of life, which pay homage to the Jewish Romanian poet and essayist Celan, who miraculously survived the Holocaust. Celan shares many of the same themes and concerns as Kiefer-a sense of mourning and melancholy, and the importance of preserving memory as a means of coming to terms with the traumas of human history.
By examining these key themes and inspirations of the artist's practice within the dynamic spaces of the Frank Gehry building, Anselm Kiefer translates these works into operatic moments of extreme power, where painting becomes interwoven with architecture to create a mythical dimension of art as a personal and collective force.