It is rare to recommend an art book solely for its images, rather than any corresponding textual analysis, but Anselm Kiefer Studios is one such volume that deserves this accolade. More than 300 illustrations explain how the German artist’s studio spaces—nine in the past 46 years, mainly across France, Germany and Italy—have played a fundamental role in shaping his vision, work and philosophy.
The book primarily provides important insights into Kiefer’s working practice. “As a studio painter, Kiefer always paints alone, like a recluse, physically working on and about his canvas,” Danièle Cohn writes in the introduction. Kiefer lives and works in his studio, “there is no separation”, Cohn adds, underlining the artist’s complete immersion in his vocation.
More importantly, the text, and especially the images, contextualise and clarify the huge scale on which Kiefer works, a conundrum which has, until now, remained part of the mythology around Kiefer’s art. Cohn stresses throughout that Kiefer’s studios are enormous: “To walk through one of Anselm Kiefer’s studios is an experience on several levels… their sheer size means that they cannot be taken in a single glance, we cannot get a ‘grip’ on them.” Kiefer navigates his warrens on bicycles, on motorcycles and in cars.
Art geeks will savour the pragmatic aspects of the artist’s approach. Rolls of canvas, for instance, are piled up in Barjac, the former silkworm breeding factory in the south of France transformed by Kiefer into a monumental, self-contained unit (1993-2007) which continues to exist as a “laboratory”, says the author. The rolls are then nailed to a stretcher and transported to Croissy-Beaubourg, Kiefer’s current atelier at Seine-et-Marne near Paris. This demythologising of how the artist works is the core of Cohn’s text.
The point Cohn makes most eloquently is that the studios reflect Kiefer’s concept of his work as a perpetual and unified whole. This consistent temporal and spatial thread is a defining strand of the analysis.
This is nowhere more apparent than in Kiefer’s searing dissections of Germany’s dark past. Any analysis of the artist’s work must unpick why he feels the need to account for his home country’s crimes and misdeeds committed in the 20th century. There is a detailed and deft description of Kiefer’s “Occupations” project, 1969, a fictional album of photographs showing the artist making the Nazi salute in front of various European monuments, dressed in his father’s military uniform.
Cohn’s thesis can, however, become slightly laboured and repetitive, especially with the emphasis on the studio as a self-contained unit or “a world that is also an entire cosmos”. Ironically, Kiefer’s opaque art looks outwards, with astute and arresting motifs such as star constellations. He is also, surprisingly, a global artist, picking up like a magpie “a little of the world he has discovered (bricks from India, roses from Morocco, lead from Cologne cathedral)”. The captioning could also be clearer, making the book easier to navigate. But these are minor quibbles in a masterly, mainly visual study of a visionary 21st-century artist.
Anselm Kiefer Studios, Danièle Cohn, Thames & Hudson, 320pp, £65 (hb)
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Off the scale'