Anselm Kiefer and the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger / Anselm Kiefer and Art after Auschwitz

Article excerpt

MATTHEW BIRO Anselm Kiefer and the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 327 pp.; 109 b/w ills. $79.95

LISA SALTZMAN Anselm Kiefer and Art after Auschwitz New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 186 pp.; 40 b/w ills. $39.95

In October 1990, I joined thousands of other people at the official celebration of Germany's Wiedervereinigung. There, in front of the Berlin Reichstag, the crowd watched and listened to Helmut Kohl's predictions about the future of a country once again made whole, a choir enthusiastically singing Deutschland uber Alles (all verses of it), and the percussive explosions of state-sponsored fireworks answered by countless renegade firecrackers. Amid the staggering groups of partying adolescents and tourists, one could spot the occasional expression of concern, usually on an older face. At the time I convinced myself that these were expressions of conscience and reflection within the jubilation. I assumed that these might even be looks of worry, as some of the celebrants pondered the intimidating task that lay before them. For theirs was the task of not only integrating two sides of a country that had for decades been divided along political and economic lines, but also of initiating a new phase of remembering and mourning. An entire country could now finally face in unison the horrific acts that had led to its division in the first place.

The public spectacle of the official Reunification had its art world counterpart at the retrospective exhibition of Anselm Kiefer's work the following spring in Berlin. Although organized before the Wall came down, by its opening the show had become a symbol for the ambivalent position in which Germany found itself that year. By then Kiefer had become, at least in part, the focus of national pride, as the high prices his work commanded internationally seemed a metonymy for West Germany's continuing economic miracle-a miracle from which some, perhaps naively, thought the East could eventually profit. At the same time, however, the difficult and often opaque messages delivered by Kiefer's lead planes and ash-covered canvases raised a more ambivalent set of concerns about the limits of memory and accountability for a society in a state of flux.

In the wake of this confluence of events, two American art historians began and have now completed studies that look at Kiefer specifically in relationship to the past and continuing complexities of German culture and history. Matthew Biro and Lisa Saltzman have both focused their monographs on the crisis of German subjectivity Kiefer's art exemplifies, although in strikingly different ways. Biro compares the art of Kiefer to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger in a sustained attempt to locate deep cultural constants that have historically operated within German modernism. Saltzman, by contrast, nimbly approaches Kiefer's work from a variety of methodological standpoints, seeking to address the predicament of artistic production for a German male born after the Holocaust. For all their differences, both Biro and Saltzman agree that it is the instability of meaning in Kiefer's work that offers an index to Germany's ambivalent past and present.

While previous scholars have acknowledged the impact of Heidegger's thought on Kiefer's work, Matthew Biro's Anselm Kiefer and the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger is the first book-length comparison between these two titans of 20th-century German culture.1 The project is thus a heady attempt to summarize and apply Heidegger's work to that of Kiefer, though at times the precise nature of the comparison remains indistinct. One is hardpressed to recall the last time a mere conjunction carried such a burdensome methodological load. The "and" of Biro's title prepares the reader for the compare-and-contrast struggle that is to come, a struggle that points not only to the specific similarities between a philosopher and a painter, but also to the more general exercise of comparing philosophy to painting. …