Kiefer’s current show at White Cube, London (until 17th March) takes up biblical themes with the Latin text – Aperiatur Terra, – from the Book of Isaiah, where the earth is expected to open up and bring forth a Messiah to right the world’s wrongs. Never one to dwell on the quotidian, Kiefer remains true to the Neo-Expressionist style he developed in the 70s, distinctive for its allegorical landscapes and architecture, unusual and awkward materials.
Kiefer’s use of materials derives from the installations and performances of Joseph Beuys, where mundane materials such as felt and lard were used to illustrate or recall vital episodes in the artist’s life and provide metaphor for the surprising versatility of materials, for human resourcefulness in difficult circumstances. The most prosaic of substances are seemingly capable of magical transformation through novel uses, where there is sufficient will, for liberation and salvation. For Beuys, such demonstrations became the springboard for social activism, for Kiefer the example was applied to pictures and painting, to a lesser extent sculptures and installations. Much of Kiefer’s impact stems from this unexpected move.
The materials give pictures a similar inspirational thrust. The picture made from ‘misused’ or adapted materials, remaps depiction and subjects in fresh ways. The picture, if not strictly a painting, is firstly a demonstration of resourcefulness or reconstruction, secondly projects upon the world to a more particular, and typically, ambitious end. Kiefer is rarely content with just pictures. His works tend to match picture against text, to advance obscure and unusual parallels between them, to create allegorical settings. The pictures rarely include the figure, mostly a vast location (interior or exterior, natural or cultural) is plotted with names or sometimes familiar symbols, such as a mythic wing, occasionally cursory portraits of literary and historical figures.
The settings become, like the humble materials in which they are rendered, transformed by the task of illustration, even where the text is brief or abstract, the setting tethers ideas and events to a place, grants setting a spirit or feeling. Initially works locate lofty themes literally in a loft. Small texts or icons are positioned within, but since so much of the picture is devoted to setting, the point is also for the value of the location, the means of building the picture. The relentlessly linear treatment of wood-grain; that often confuses the perspective and competes with text or icons, finally stresses the bare and modest nature of loft and picture, their sturdy, spatial virtues. Giving some clean, spare space over to issues of metaphysics and faith becomes the issue, in more ways than one; grants space and contents a striking extension or metaphor.
This treatment applies equally to Kiefer’s many ploughed fields on a sparse plain, which continue with current works such as Aperiatur Terra et Germinet Salvatorem (2005-6). The installation of an entire palm tree trunk in front of the Palmsonntag suite (2006) carries the link from picture to materials a step further. The suite features small fronds immersed in a white emulsion, flags purification and Christian redemption. But just as the fronds lend pictures a renewed attention to medium, pictures in turn lend the ostensible source of the fronds – the prone trunk – added meaning as well. As salvation also follows death by Christian or Palm Sunday standards, the trunk here acquires this morbid meaning by prominent association.
The use of expanded materials for painting has precedents. Where a Dubuffet or Fautrier use an improvised paste to confine and highlight spontaneous drawing in simple outlines (technically, orthogonal projections or picture planes) and revise depiction on free and rugged terms, a Kiefer works against the materials, toward more concrete and familiar lines. He is notably drawn to perspective for example, but struggles with the drawing of portraits, wood-grain, a forest and much else. A Kiefer strives for these standards against which to pit resistant if resourceful materials; but often looks inept by it. The results sometimes approach a comic shambles, for it.
Kiefer’s influence lies mainly in the renewed interest in allegory, in pictorial models or metaphors for more remote or abstract realms (see also Post 2). The use of expanded materials is reflected in Kippenberger’s parodies, in which a Ford Capri is depicted in a mixture of paint and oatmeal. A little of Kiefer’s influence is detected in Schnabel’s use of shattered plates, but in general the medium of painting remains in tact (see also Post 3). Kiefer’s grand ambition and scale now seem to belong to another era, but have enormously added to the prestige and momentum of German painting (see also Post 15).