The Metamorphosis of Narcissus as a Great Artist

on Karl Ove Knausgaard’s profile of Anselm Kiefer

Anselm Kiefer in front of his work ‘Ages of the World’ (2014)

I first saw Anselm Kiefer’s artwork as an art student in Berlin nine years ago. It was the same fighter plane made from sheets of lead described by Karl Ove Knaussgard in his New York Times article published last February 2020. Exhibited inside the Hamburger Bahnhof, the work was the centerpiece of a room where the paintings of much older artists who worked in an earlier era were hung. Not so surprisingly, all were American: Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Willem De Kooning. The next time I saw his work was in another place where I thought no living artist was permitted to be exhibited; at a wall enclave in the Louvre. His work was over 30 feet high and nearly 15 feet wide and described as a self-portrait. It portrays a naked man flat on his back under a starry nighttime sky. The occasion of having a living artist exhibited alongside tombs of pharaohs and other artifacts was unprecedented. Headlines in New York and Paris heralded the affair: “The Louvre now accepts the living.”
I reacted like any other uninitiated person to the work, with initial indifference. But somehow, after spending some time with the work, I felt an affinity to it. A gradual sense of being overwhelmed in an almost quasi-spiritual experience. Knaussgard described his experience similarly: “I was silenced”.
Kiefer is conscious of this dialogue with greatness that his art elicits in the viewer. His ambitions can be thought of as solidly belonging with those of the ab-ex all stars, who exercised control not only over the presentation of their works but of themselves. I have ascribed meaning to the meaninglessness of violence when looking at his work, and in some ways that has helped me grasp how our present condition may be visualized as artistic concepts.
Be that as it may, I find Knaussgard’s profile a little off-putting. Anything that pins “the greatest” on someone so unironically gives me pause. Indeed, it has no qualms about propping up a white male artist as the greatest in this current political climate. I also found it humorous that a man with his own helicopter, one of Germany’s richest according to an official survey, should also be the greatest artist. This wouldn’t be possible in Van Gogh’s time. That a poor artist should have a strong influence on Kiefer seems like an affectation which Knausgaard was keen on capitalizing by mentioning his appetite for cavernous studio spaces as an unconscious reaction to sharing a small bedroom with his sibling in his mother’s house. The punchline is never delivered until the very end of the article. Despite Knausgaard’s self-conscious worry in how he might be regarded, Kiefer won’t even remember his name.
That the critique would circle back to the author is something that seemed to be self-important and I understand why people complain about Knaussgaard inserting himself in it a bit too much. But isn’t that to be expected of the big shot who wrote a book called My Struggle? It was a piercing but exhausting biography, and I was left thinking about the pervasiveness of trauma —familial, historical, environmental, physical— in his stories which chimes in nicely with Kiefer’s life. The same trauma seems to live inside his work, which in turn, is projected in Kiefer’s lifestyle and performative persona.
I saw the painting of a figure under the night sky two more times again at Galerie Thaddeus Ropac and at the Guggenheim Bilbao. I felt a bit like I was also taken for a ride. I completely related to Knausgaard when the director of New York’s Public Library told him he puts on the same performance for anyone writing a profile on him. But Knausgaard continues to defend Kiefer: “Naturally, this didn’t mean that Kiefer was inauthentic. On the contrary, theatrics, role play, repetition and routines belong to the external world, and what they do, what they are there for, is to protect the internal world. And it is in the internal world that art begins.” In this part, I felt like Knaussgard was withholding the punchline far too long. Why even build up the notion of Kiefer’s greatness and authenticity just to abandon it all in the end?
Like Philip Guston from our earlier readings, Kiefer was also derided especially in his early works for pretentious and cartoonish execution. One might think of Jeff Koons for example as the other side or Kiefer’s dour approach: both are art historically savvy, one talks like a prosperity gospel preacher and the other—as described by Knausgaard—like a priest or shaman. What I get from Knausgaard is that Kiefer was as much preoccupied by the worldly pleasures in life (e.g. smoking a cigar, having wine with aristocrats, private planes, etc.) that his real-life demeanor seriously begs a rethinking of his works. If he is this kind of person that Knaussgard describes, someone who is as equally narcissistic as the Nazis he sought to ridicule, does this mean that his works are a bit like Emperor’s new clothes: not really saying anything, or hiding anything either. Kiefer is often cited as an antidote for Theodor Adorno who famously said, “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz” but is his monumental form of artistic expression ever appropriate to connect with or describe the reality of the world now?
Maybe the paint was a kind of veil concealing some vulnerability or cultural trauma. To be drawn into a monumental work; to be engulfed in the same way a visitor is engulfed within a white cube gallery or an Ikea store. This was my experience with Kiefer’s work at the Louvre: it wanted to draw everyone’s attention, like some monumental narcissist sucking the oxygen from everyone.
It is hard to reconcile the fact that for years, Kiefer was a recluse—he refused interviews and photos—but in recent years, he is on Youtube and on my instagram feed, I see him taking selfies with Becky Dayo, a Japanese celebrity. Knausgaard tried earnestly to describe the older Kiefer, a man who wrote Celan’s poetry like riddles on his canvas. Writing about art takes congeniality, but who can be congenial with the sphinx? With the free hand which I assume the Times gave the Norwegian novelist, there appeared to be no compass to guide his writing.
Knaussgard’s makes no effort to disentangle Kiefer’s art from its intense rhetoric. There’s a lot about medieval Germanic mythology in it that’s not articulated clearly for readers and it compels a limited and rather depressing interpretation.
I was waiting for Knaussgard to tell us a demystified narrative about how the Black Forest region informed Kiefer’s art. Towards the end, he mentions how he was abruptly left in the airport waiting for his bags while Kiefer hurried back to his studio, like he was literally taken for a ride, a chauffeured ride, that was mildly amusing in comparing the softness of leather seats in the private jet with the Mercedes.
He mentions the pool in the castle as the source of the Danube but a quick search on Wikipedia actually tells you it isn’t and there’s no “Wagnerian” vibe to it. It looks like any minor tourist spot in Europe. At this point, I start to question why Knaussgard keeps insisting the importance of this place to a young boy in Donaueschingen who went on to become the world’s greatest artist. From the very beginning, Kiefer was clear that he had less interest in revisiting the place than showing Knaussgard his fancy friends. And the castle as it turns out, was not portrayed as a place of inspiration. I wonder if Knaussgard ever paused to think what this meant to people who couldn’t even get to the castle’s garden anymore, after it was recently closed to the public after being sequestered by the aristocratic family who owned the castle. But I appreciate the metaphor, perhaps unintended, in this part of the profile. Like the castle, Kiefer made works that were meant to keep people at a distance. The lead in his paintings were toxic, and the castle, up until this day, is lined with traps, weapons, and armors. Knaussgard would surely know that a truly great German artist, Franz Kafka, wrote a whole novel about that.
Lastly, I would like to emphasize how the Times continues to deify male artists, placing them in a Pantheon while still alive. The article on Celia Paul by Rachel Cusk offered critiques of her living style and offered no reverence. Kiefer is a great artist, but let’s face it, he doesn’t seem to have a lot of range. This is of course partly a function of the art market which rewards a consistent style that, if successful, becomes a “brand”. I think it is very difficult at the level that Kiefer occupies in the art-world hierarchy to disentangle the art from its dual existence as an asset.
Kiefer’s lifelong devotion to making art about the holocaust is perhaps his greatest contribution to art. The works keep their memories and their stories alive in a place where it is guaranteed to be given the proper attention: in art galleries and museums. But these are also places which commodify active conversations as artifacts.
As it happens so often with visual artists who become rich and famous, there was a time in his early career when Kiefer had important and visceral things to say. His “Occupation photographs” of the late 60s cut open the silence that hid in the recent past of German society. His first books were incredible in their exploration of mixed media and truly poetic and ironic. The translation of these discoveries to his first mixed canvases, blending photography, painting, lead, straw, text, history, etc. was a great addition to the art of the 70’s and early 80’s. These are the decades where I believe Kiefer truly peaked. Though he creates more specatular works now, he does so as a redux with almost demented attention.
Both Kiefer and Knaussgard know all too well that the greatest artists are not those who repeat themselves. Picasso famously said that “an artist has to be prepared to assassinate himself,” And Picasso did assassinate himself by going through distinct periods of artistic styles. Another option for Kiefer to achieve greatness is to simply stop. This has been the route for Van Gogh, Rimbaud, and Larraín. But these are all artists and poets who died in their youth. An alternative path would be Duchamp, who is a good example of a great artist who lived to a ripe age and would not stop reinventing himself. Duchamp ended up playing chess. But as strange as Knausgaard did to see the jetsetting artist ride a bicycle, I find it hard to reconcile Kiefer having spare time to play chess. If Kiefer mutates as a great artist, it would be on the account of our present-day values that glorify wealth and art’s impersonality. There’s just a coldness to this thought which I push back against. I started reading the piece idolizing Kiefer and walked away doubting him. Indeed, I’m more curious about his five children and what they think of him than his art.

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