- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2006

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s “Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth” evokes apocalyptic skies opening over scarred terrestrial mounds shaking beneath. Gallery after gallery envelops us with dark-hued, torn symbols that the artist intends as transcendent, transforming and healing.

If so, how can these symbols of death really be about rebirth? Apocalyptic visions from Zarathustra through today lace art history, especially those by Mr. Kiefer’s predecessor, fellow German Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), who imaged the famed “Death,” “Famine,” “War” and “Pestilence” of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

For Durer, there was no transcendence in his time of German political upheavals, just as there was none for Hieronymus Bosch in the pessimism of late-15th-century Flanders, as reflected in the hellish landscape of his “Garden of Earthly Delights” (circa 1504).

And although all three artists present end-of-world visions, Mr. Kiefer is the only one to express his thorough images of transcendent rebirths.

The artist uses paradoxes and contradictions even in the show’s name.

“The title ‘Heaven and Earth’ is a paradox because heaven and earth don’t exist anymore. The earth is round,” Mr. Kiefer says in an interview in the exhibit’s catalog. “The cosmos has no up and down. It is moving constantly. We can no longer fix the stars to create an ideal place. This is our dilemma.”

There is no mistaking that he believes transformation comes from intense suffering.

For example, observe the artist’s fiery, charred landscape in “Painting of the Scorched Earth” (1974). Here, he paints the fires of Buchen, a former military installation for storing flammable liquids. Fires burn behind barbed-wire circles.

Yet, of the fires of “Quaternity” (1973), Mr. Kiefer writes, “There is always the distant memory of an ancient fire that creates and destroys. Everything comes from and returns to fire. It is as powerful as time.”

He lived in the simulated wooden schoolhouse of this picture in Germany’s Odenwald district during the early 1970s.

Born in the last months of World War II, Mr. Kiefer is ambivalent about his German heritage and evokes barren landscapes to stage his dramas of Germany’s past and present — and there are many such landscapes in this exhibit, the first major retrospective of his work in more than 20 years.

He first trained in law and Romance languages, then studied informally with Dusseldorf artist Joseph Beuys, whose interests in mythology, religion, alchemy and history — as well as working with unusual materials such as earth, sand, straw, dried flowers, lead and hair — infuse Mr. Kiefer’s work.

Walking through the show is like traversing another planet, with Kiefer images filling the sometimes 4,040-square-foot galleries, some 141/2 feet tall, with the largest gallery measuring 146 feet long.

Curator Douglas McAgy designed the galleries to simulate cavernous New York City artists’ lofts of the early 1970s.

Most impressive, and expressing the artist’s ambivalent feelings not only about today’s Germany but also about his country’s past, is the gigantic “Ash Flower” (1983-1997).

He painted a layer of ash over a simulated Nazi ceremonial hall — such as those designed by Nazi architect Albert Speer — with the ash so thick it almost blots out the building. Only a dried sunflower attached to the canvas invades the empty space.

Begun in 1983 and completed in 1997, the painting’s transformation is both physical and symbolic. Mr. Kiefer sees the ash as first created by a great fire and then acting as a fertilizer for the sunflower’s seeds “pouring into the ash to regenerate.”

Rebirth also is the theme of “Jerusalem” (1985-1986), an apocalyptic vision of violent struggles and spiritual faiths in the city that’s home to three of the world’s great religions.

Two swordlike forms of lead — a favorite Kiefer material — float in front of a gray ground flecked with gold. The artwork refers to the ancient belief in the alchemist’s turning of dross into gold and transcendence.

However, there’s much more than the large paintings. Delicate watercolors at the exhibit’s entry evoke primordial longings, as in “Man in the Forest” (1971) and the blood-on-snow “Winter Landscape” (1970).

And believing that plants symbolize the earth’s beginnings, Mr. Kiefer fashioned a larger-than-life, floor-anchored “Secret Life of Plants” (2001) book of molded lead.

Though critics and the public often call Mr. Kiefer “a Sturm-und-Drang neo-expressionist,” he obviously is much more, as the awesome, respectful silence in the show’s galleries confirm.

At last, the Hirshhorn has found an artist’s work seemingly made for its soaring spaces. Mr. Kiefer’s art overwhelms in a positive way everything there now or before.

WHAT: “Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth”

WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through Sept. 10


PHONE: 202/633-1000

ONLINE: www.hirshhorn.si.edu

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