3rd December 2014, David Cook and I visited the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. We were slightly pushed for time and, wanting to carry on the conversation we were having, decided to do so by email. Here’s part three…(part one can be found here and part two here).
David: Apologies for previous slightly brain-dead 2.40 am response. I do remember the submarines in the courtyard and I took this pic of Sir Joshua Reynolds reflected in the giant vitrine. I thought they were impressive when I was standing next to them, but clearly they passed out of my mind very quickly!
I must have been resisting the idea of Kiefer as Sculptor because I see him as the last bastion of Painting. I sort of resent the idea that sculpture can nowadays ‘claim’ artists who make anything that is not an absolutely flat wall painting. I would rather see sculptures as drawings in space. I mean it’s obviously just a label, but somehow it seems important to me to consider Kiefer primarily as a painter on account of the relationship between his work and the history painting of the 18th and 19th centuries. It allows him to simultaneously be part of a tradition and simultaneously expose its darker side – how art can be used to bolster tyranny, how we are susceptible to it and yet how beautiful its ruins can be. He seems to be able to make me question my aesthetic responses – to art, to buildings and in some ways to politics. The language of contemporary sculpture on the other hand is about irony and detachment. All that Jeff Koons makes me question is whether we are really as shallow as he seems to think we are. Which seems like not such good value for money!
Richard: No worries. Nice picture! It’s interesting that you forgot the subs. Perhaps they are just too definite as objects – freed from the context of the paintings they have other associations – toys, strategic markers on a plotting table – but nothing except where they are (randomly) sited to interact with, to rub up against and generate meaning. (I agree with you about Koons (allegedly currently being sued again for copyright infringement. See Eric Wayne’s blog for more). My main objection to his work is I think he overestimates his audience’s boredom threshold. It’s interesting that a Chinese firm, VLA, have started mass-producing a version of his steel balloon dogs and are selling them online – I wonder what he thinks of that.) Last week I visited the Sigmar Polke retrospective, Alibis, at Tate Modern. He and Kiefer make very different paintings, but I think there is some crossover in their approach to German history. Oddly some of Polke’s work reminded me of Kiefer’s Osiris and Isis). Is it the Beuys connection?
David: Yes the submarines (well, let’s be honest…U-Boats) were just a little bit too iconic, a bit too much like models I made when I was 10. They looked like he had a little bit too much fun making them!! Really liked Eric Wayne’s blog and not only because he’s not a Koons fan! I might order a pair of small balloon dogs to stand guard outside my front door – they would look rather handsome…the only thing that could be said for them as art for me is that they reflect the question of taste back at the viewer (the metaphorically unsubtle reflective finish). But as furniture, they might make a bit of a splash. Oh dear. Is that irredeemably bourgeois? Osiris and Isis could not really be quite as easily reassimilated into mass production. Does that mean it’s better or worse or does the reproduction value of a work of art have no bearing on its artistic value?
I am a relatively recent convert to Polke, and I still find some of his work maddening, but I am coming round. I haven’t seen the show yet though. He is a very enigmatic figure I think, more so than Kiefer for me – his work seems to tread the line between art and anti-art. He is the only artist that springs to mind (except perhaps for Beuys) to be able to pull this off convincingly. Kiefer is firmly in the art camp I think, but Gerhard Richter plays for the anti-art team. Doubtless both Kiefer’s and Polke’s work resonates with German history, but Kiefer seems to me to be trying to understand and come to terms with the past, whereas Polke seems to be looking at the Post War world. Both their work is very sensual, but Kiefer seems to want to take his paint back to the earth it came from (and they are mostly earth pigments…) but Polke seems to want a kind of exotic floating kind of paint where solidity is banished hence his obsession with varnishes etc. What crossover did you see? It could well be of course that Kiefer was looking at Polke for ideas…I don’t think it was the other way around, do you?
Richard: Not sure reproduction value has any bearing on artistic value – except maybe with someone like Tretchikoff where the extent of his popularity is like a work in itself.
I love the idea of “playing for the anti-art team” – there’s a great Subbuteo set in this somewhere. The similarity I see in Osiris and Isis and some of Polke’s work is, I think, the use of unexpected materials to make the viewing experience jarring, to make the viewer question what they are doing by looking at a painting and what the experience might mean. (There are several Polke works which are physically difficult to look at and easily assimilate – in Negative Value II (1982) he uses a synthetic purple pigment-and does something to the surface to create iridescent gold, purple, green, and bronze colours that change the viewer’s perception of the painting depending on their position in the gallery, emphasising the fact that it is impossible to come away with a fixed idea of the image.)
The works widen the viewing experience and ask a question, “What are you doing here, looking at this painting?”, about context: physical and historical. Which ties in with…a general similarity between Kiefer and Polke is that both artists confront Germany’s Nazi past in their work. Their work is full of questions – and scepticism about the function of art, their nation’s history, human nature, themselves.
David: The reproduction thing is probably a red herring. But I think I brought it up because Polke uses found images and Kiefer doesn’t. At least not from popular media…when you are looking at a reproduction of a Kiefer it is a picture of that singular image, pretty much as you would see with a Rembrandt, whereas with Polke you feel you are either looking at a nested reproduction of a reproduction (if he has used media) or just one aspect of his painting (if it has all that varnish, or iridescent type paint). One angle of his painting’s reflected light or whatever. It seems as if he is considering those reproductions as tendrils or spawn of his original work reaching out to viewers through its reproducibility. Kiefer’s images seem more traditional, more self contained, a bit more intense and a bit less aware of those media translation issues. But like you say they both challenge the viewer to reassess the way they look at images and that must to some extent come down to the trauma resulting from the Nazis’ manipulation of the media. But like I say I haven’t seen the Polke yet so I could be talking absolute bollocks.
Think I would always back the Art Subbuteo squad against the Anti-Art one…it would be the Spanish and the Italians against the Brits and the French with a couple of Germans on each side. A pretty one sided contest I reckon!
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