Super Strings, 2018, 280 x 760cm
It’s no secret that Anselm Kiefer is a master at ‘playing the game’ of the art world. He has been one of the most influential artists of the 20th and 21st Century, and knows it full well. Touching on mythology, life, death, and in his new exhibition, string theory, his work is a constant dialogue between artist and viewer, painting and gallery, and almost all of his works are in some way temporal; ash, straw and unfired clay are some of his favourite materials, which causes havoc for art collectors – but only inspires impish delight in the artist himself.
Standing in front of one of his most recent paintings, at the private view of his new solo show at the White Cube in Bermondsey, he laughs as the photographers ask him to stand a few steps forward, and stays firmly put. Eventually, he starts moving slowly towards them, acknowledging the performativity of the situation – they want a show, and he gives it to them. “I am not an actor, you know,” he says, “is this good for you?” – but he doesn’t stop walking, eventually coming to a halt only a couple of inches away from a lens. He smiles, and the gaggle of press laugh nervously; there is a growing sense that we all want to look good in front of Anselm. Another photographer asks him to do it again, but Kiefer is already off, exchanging quiet words with what appears to be an old friend.
In the past, he has defined himself as “underground” compared to the likes of Damien Hirst and the rest of the Saatchi gang, yet has frequently sold individual works for up to $3.5 million a pop. But despite this, there does still remain a shrewd aspect to Kiefer. He knows what works, what doesn’t, and when to stop. This exhibition, Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot, is his twelfth at the White Cube, and whilst it is to some extent a repertoire of his greatest hits (bleak landscapes, muted colours and 3D collage on canvas), there is certainly something new here. A few new motifs, perhaps, and a couple of new themes, come together to give a fresh perspective, and the extensive exhibition spreads throughout the entire gallery, filling even the central corridor with colossal vitrines filled with tubing, pipes and panels. “String theory,” he says, is the overriding idea this time round, a unified theory of everything – and it ties in well with the work.
Die Sieben Siegel, die geheime Offenbarung des Johannes, 2016-2018, 470 x 950cm
The constant, repeated image of the burnt-out field is what keeps the exhibition together, and is particularly poignant. Stretching away into the distance in almost every painting, this harsh, desolate flatness is an old staple, perhaps a solemn nod to the Holocaust and WW2 (the legacy of which has arguably been Kiefer’s life’s work), but again, it has been reworked, tweaked, re-examined with fresh eyes. The landscapes act as theatrical stages, in which Kiefer plays with and arranges ideas, and in many paintings his inspired, scrawling notes (whether performative or not) are clearly visible on the canvas. In the North Gallery, each painting has a real axe attached to it, intertwined with branches and the paint itself. Some are hidden, whilst others stand out, but the landscape provides a backdrop, within which you sometimes have to search for the repeated object; a solitary symbol, representing the axe used by Alexander the Great to cut through the Gordian knot of the title. Riddled with endless stories, connotations and iconography, it would be possible to spend hours in these rooms, slowly piecing together (or indeed pulling apart) elements of Kiefer’s psyche, or at least the elements he has utilised to construct what appears to be a very structured (yet nonlinear) narrative within this gallery.
The sheer physical scale of the work here is almost incomprehensible, and these photos don’t do it justice. Every painting is over 2.5 metres high, and the largest stretches to 6.6 metres tall. The finale of the exhibition, Die Sieben Siegel, die geheime Offenbarung des Johannes, which translates as “The Seven Seals, the secret revelation of John”, has huge, biblical wedges of bound paper hanging off it, coming way out from the canvas, and you have to resist the urge to pick the still-fresh, paint-smothered corn from the surface of almost every piece. At one point, Kiefer even breaks a twig from a branch stuck to a canvas to show just how physically and spatially intense these works are.
Der Gordische Knoten, 2018, 280 x 380cm
Here in the White Cube, the dark overhanging cloud of “London gallery” and “Chelsea art collector” is inevitably ever-present. Expensively dressed and chin-stroking, the atmosphere here is certainly close-knit, and at times the stink of wealth is unbearable. But Kiefer knows this only too well, and instead of resisting it, he works with it, utilising it to his own advantage. Two gallery representatives bumble around him, and he welcomes them into his world, if only for today, charming them with an embrace and a kiss on each cheek. Sufficiently wooed, he will remain a firm favourite here, and will no doubt be invited back again soon. Over the past 50 years, Anselm Kiefer has produced a staggering body of work, and has confronted some major, monolithic concepts. It’s quite possible that he is still battling with the same themes of Nazism and the Holocaust that he was when he was a student of Joseph Beuys, and his work is certainly no less dynamic now than it was then, but in the lead up to his 75th birthday, it’s no surprise that his attitude is slightly more relaxed, a bit more accepting of the bourgeois world which he has ultimately come to inhabit. But one thing is for certain: he’s still got it.
The exhibition will be running from 15 November 2019 to 26 January 2020 at the White Cube, Bermondsey
Words and images, Joseph Hewlett-Hall – @Joseph.h.hall