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Interview with Anselm Kiefer: “Expectations are always unfulfilled”

Anselm Kiefer on leaving his studio of 15 years, the commercialisation of art and why the Holocaust still matters

The painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer was born in Germany in 1945. After studying as a pupil of the artist Joseph Beuys at the Düsseldorf Academy in the 1970s, he left his native country and never returned. For the past 15 years, he has lived on a 35-hectare site in Barjac, just outside Nimes, France, where he has built an extensive system of buildings, storerooms and subterranean chambers. It is more like a human ant-hill than an artist’s studio. Kiefer reveals in this interview that he is to leave Barjac and move to Paris and that he has offered his enormous ­studio to the Guggenheim Foundation. (The ­director, Thomas Krens, who recently visited Kiefer in Barjac, declined to comment.)

This turning point in Kiefer’s career coincides with two major shows of his work in Paris and one in Spain. The recently renovated Grand Palais reopens following a €100m-restoration on 30 May. Its spectacular exhibition hall will be filled with new works by Kiefer as part of a series of new commissions, “Monumenta” (the next two artists are Richard Serra and Christian Boltanski). In October, Kiefer will be a guest curator at the Louvre, which has commissioned a ten-metre, work that will be permanently installed on the walls of its Egyptian gallery—only the second time the Parisian museum has commissioned a site-specific work from a living artist (the first was Georges Braques). In Spain, the Guggenheim Bilbao is celebrating its tenth anniversary by devoting half its space to a six-month exhibition of Kiefer’s work (until 3 September) that includes a new 15-metre painting especially designed for its atrium. Kiefer is known for such epic works, often semi-abstract in a palette of mud browns and dirty greys, depicting wastelands, dereliction and destruction that often refer obliquely to recent German history and the horror of the Holocaust. An elusive, controversial figure in the art world, he seldom grants interviews and distances himself from the trappings of the market, refusing to exhibit at art fairs and seldom producing work for commercial exhibitions.

The Art Newspaper: Do you ever consider how successful you are?

Anselm Kiefer: I never think of success; it’s too transitory. I sometimes think of all the ­people who were famous in their day and soon forgotten after their deaths. When I was at the peak of my ­success, in the 1980s, I was never really conscious of it because I was busy working.

TAN: In the Grand Palais you will be showing six houses, each one containing a large ­painting, and two towers. I understand you had to fight to be allowed to do it your way.

AK: France is very bureaucratic and this was a big struggle, but I never let myself be imposed upon. The houses and towers are not just a whim of mine. It is important the paintings have the right setting. It particularly infuriates me to think of one of my paintings hanging above someone’s fireplace like an ornament.

TAN: Many of your paintings are inspired by the poems of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann.

AK: My work is suffused with literary references and I have always been ambivalent about whether I wanted to be a painter or a writer. I do not ­illustrate the poems but try to convey the state of mind they produce. I consider Bachmann the greatest poet of the 20th century.

TAN: Do you always work on several pieces?

AK: When there is no-one in the studio, I cycle about and look at all my works. I am always retouching. It is difficult to decide when a work is finished. I let pieces rest when they begin to take shape. I am always experimenting, looking for new colours; I don’t use paint but acids and other substances. This gives me great freedom of expression. I do not consider myself a painter in the traditional sense.

TAN: Your studio is a vast site full of tunnels and pavilions. What is it all for? Is it a work of art or a refuge?

AK: I don’t like the word refuge; it sounds like a place for someone excluded. I consider myself to be very much a man of my time. As a first ­reading, all these constructions of mine are a way of superseding the limits of the four sides of a canvas. I have been obsessed with buildings since I was a child. I did not have any toys, I played in the bombed-out ruins that surrounded my house and I used to gather up the bricks. It was a way of building stability, and building my imagination.

TAN: Do you agree with Joseph Beuys that “art is without limits”?

AK: One should not impose limits on art. In ­reality, of course, there always have been ­limits and often this friction has been a force for creativity.

TAN: When you were a child you admired artists very much. Were you attracted by their genius?

AK: I have wanted to be an artist ever since I was a young boy. I don’t know if it was an omen, but my father, an art teacher, named me Anselm after a German figurative, classical painter. I came from a petit bourgeois background that made me feel limited; I certainly thought that as an artist I could escape that. When I studied law, I also attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe. There I ­discovered the American expressionists, and Italians like Manzoni and French artists such as Yves Klein. That’s how I found out about ­contemporary art. I have never thought that artists are geniuses; they do not create out of nothing.

TAN: Beuys spoke of the curative powers of art. Do you consider the artist as artisan or alchemist?

AK: Artists are not doctors. They might better be described as mediators who can capture the transitory. As regards Beuys, his art interests me, but his political militantism is idiotic. I don’t believe in his call for direct democracy or in his referendums.

TAN: You once said that one does not need ­talent to be an artist. What do you need?

AK: You need passion and an idea. I want to be able to make people think, to open up their minds. I don’t consider myself a Platonist but I think that the spirit is contained in the material and it is the artist’s mission to extract it. This includes doing so in such a radical way as Piero Manzoni, who fascinates me.

TAN: You have studied spirituality since you were 17. What do you think of the materialism of today’s world? What do you think of art that is completely commercialised?

AK: Commercialised art is not my game; anyone can pervert the idea of art and the artist, but I do not allow myself to do that. I forbid my gallerists to exhibit or sell my works at art fairs. I sell just enough to maintain my studio. I could let myself be taken along by the market. I am sure that I could literally print money if I so wished. There is so much demand for my canvases that I would never stop selling, but I don’t want it to be like that. It would be boring, and very sad. That’s why I keep a lot of my work in storage.

TAN: You live a rural life, combined with ­foreign travel.

AK: When I abandoned Germany, I spent three years travelling. I was very disaffected and ­wanted a radical change. I have not returned to Germany since. A journey stimulates me like a book. When I go downstairs at five in the morning and pick up a book and look out at the mountains the two are the same thing to me.

TAN: In September you are going to live in Paris, another city of your memory.

AK: Yes, I kept a studio there. When I was 17 I went to Paris with a scholarship to write. I lived in a very cheap hotel and I was obsessed with the Avenue Foch and Faubourg Saint Honoré. I remember visiting these smart streets and standing on the doorsteps of some imposing houses. I dreamt of being on the other side of those walls. Now I am on the other side and life is not how I expected it to be. Such is the philosophy of all life: expectations are always unfulfilled.

TAN: If you move to Paris, will your Barjac studio be closed down?

AK: At first I thought that I would leave it as a warehouse and work there on huge format ­sculptures but then I decided to let the Guggenheim run it and open it to the public.

TAN: When you moved to France in 1991, was that a new beginning for you?

AK: It is impossible to begin again; one always has memories. A journalist once asked me a very ingenious question: “Where is your homeland?” I replied that it is everything that I remember, not a physical place.

TAN: You work with history, with memory. I once read that you feel as if you’re 2,000 years old. Do you believe in reincarnation?

AK: I could have said 2,000 or two million. Memory can go much further back. It’s in the DNA of our cells, we have the memories of dinosaurs. It’s not that I believe in reincarnation, it is something more conscious than that, memories that come from a long way back. For me, things gradually fall into place, like sediment.

TAN: You were one of the first artists to deal with the Holocaust for which you were greatly criticised in Germany. You went to the US in the 1980s. What did you find there?

AK: To deal with such an immensely painful subject I had to find my own identity. I wanted to know who I was. All the works I produced at that time were rejected. I was accused of being a provocateur and much more. In America, the Jews who had emigrated in the 1930s understood me and welcomed me. The 1980s were a rich time for artists in the States. There was a spirit of liberty. I felt I could do anything. It is sad to see how it has changed. I don’t go to the US now.

TAN: At the Louvre you are making an installation based on the constellations. The Grand Palais show is called “Sternfall” [“Shooting Star”]. Planets and stars are present in all your work. In your show at the Guggenheim Bilbao, you installed a series based on constellations inspired by the observatory of the Maharajah of India, Sawai Jai Singh II, in Jaipur. You say that stars are fragments of memory that find their way into your canvases.

AK: It’s an illusion: the light that stars emit is no longer burning but we still see it. It’s a symbol of the basic condition of existence. I recently read a book by Saul Bellow that included the line “every man should have his own star”. It is a beautiful thought and I took his advice. My star is a sort of meditation that liberates my anxieties and ­tensions; deep down all human beings are looking for a fixed point.

TAN: Another phrase that you like is “every plant corresponds to a star”.

AK: That is from Robert Fludd, a 16th-century doctor, alchemist, philosopher and theologian who tried to find a theory to unite the macro- and microcosms, but failed. Scientists keep trying to do the same thing. It’s what Einstein tried to do: unite the theory of relativity, that relates to ­macrocosms, with the quantum theory of gravity, but he failed too.

TAN: Is that what you want to do in your work?

AK: I would love to. I am lucky because art is a universal and open language, unlike science.

The laws of science are very specific and limited by space and time. Science will never find the pure truth because it does not exist. Truth ­emigrates and changes. The more laws you ­discover, the more unknowns are revealed. You cannot ­understand the world through science.

TAN: And through art?

AK: Yes, mythology has always sought an ­explanation for the world in its entirety. The ­problem with art is that its language is not always immediately understood. Artists, without knowing it, always go forward with their time. They can ­create things they don’t understand, but that still have some meaning.

TAN: Do you think there is much progress in today’s art?

AK: I don’t believe in the idea of progress. In today’s art, anything is possible, but the essence of art is that almost nothing is possible. There is a wealth of different artists now and it is almost impossible to make something new, it seems as though everything has already been done.

In the 1970s, when I was a student, we used to organise happenings and try to break the boundaries between art and life. Today there is such a proliferation of works, music, messages, there are no boundaries to break. I don’t mean to say that Duchamp was wrong to show his urinal in an art gallery. The first time he did it, it was extraordinary, but by the second time it was not. Maybe the second time it still had some meaning, but by the third showing the urinal was just a urinal. Art and life are two very different things.

TAN: For many years, your other great source of inspiration has been Kabbalah. Where did you get this interest in Jewish culture? How does it translate into your works?

AK: My interest in Judaism is simple. I was ­educated as a strict Catholic. Catholicism is based on Judaism. The Old Testament is the base for the New. From there it is automatic. In the 1980s, I travelled to Jerusalem and began to read books by Gershom Scholem (one of the most influential Kabbalists of the 20th century) and to meet with many experts. Reading alone is not enough; it is very arid. What fundamentally interests me about Kabbalah is the challenge that it poses to make something purely intellectual into images; to ­transform something invisible into something ­visible. This is not the case with the Old Testament, which is very easy to translate into images.

TAN: So it is not to do with purging your guilt for being German?

AK: I cannot imagine German culture without Judaism. Everything interesting about German poetry and philosophy is a combination of the German and the Jewish. The Germans committed the immense crime of killing the Jews and ­amputated their own bodies; they took half the nation’s culture and killed it.

Biography

Currently showing and opening soon: “Anselm Kiefer” at the Guggenheim Bilbao, until 3 September; “Monumenta: Anselm Kiefer”, Grand Palais, Paris, 30 May, throughout 2007; from October, a permanent work will be installed on the Louvre’s “Assyrian” staircase Born: 1945, Donaueschingen, Germany. Lives and works in Barjac, France Education: Düsseldorf Academy, Germany, 1970-73 Selected solo shows, 2006: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. “Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth”; The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut, “Anselm Kiefer: Velimir Chlebnikov” 2005: Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Salzburg, Austria, “Anselm Kiefer: Für Paul Celan” 2004: Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy, “Anselm Kiefer” 2002: Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, “Surface Tension: Works by Anselm Kiefer from the Broad Collections and the Harvard University Art Museums” 2001: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, “Anselm Kiefer: Works on Paper 1969-93” 1980: XXXIX Venice Biennale, Italy Selected group shows, 2005: Musée Rath, Geneva, Switzerland, “Richard Wagner: Artistic Visions From Auguste Renoir to Anselm Kiefer”