Warhol, Kiefer and Richter at SFMOMA

The Power of Images and the Art of Remembering

On a recent stay in San Francisco, I visited SFMOMA thinking that the main attraction would be the Andy Warhol Exhibition – From A to B and Back Again, but that was not the case. Warhol’s (1928-1987) exhibition was beautiful and interestingly curated. I am always amazed at his well-cultivated persona and willingness to experiment with new materials and techniques. He understood and brought forward the power of images in our lives. The depth of his religious practice always fascinated me, especially in light of his known drug use, which allowed him freedom from his innate inhibitions and shyness.

The highlight of the visit was on the 6th floor of the museum, dedicated to German Art After 1960. Two artists exhibited are on my all-time favorite list: Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945) and Gerhard Richter (b. 1932). It is an impressive and impactful presentation. It made me wonder who among these two will be most recognized in the annals of art history, and which one would I prefer seeing at my house if I could afford it?

Countless German artists have attempted to enlighten each new generation about the dark corner of history, either through painting, literature, film, photography, theater, song, or documentary. The fear that the world will forget or belittle what the Nazis did is an unavoidable subject for any compassionate person. How does a nation remember? How does a nation deal with the collective sense of guilt and shame? The Germans are doing well with that, primarily by facing it head-on and through their educational system. Abstract painters are challenged to create an abstract reminder of a historical event without showing the event itself. How do you honor the gravity of death without showing it precisely as it is?

Anselm Kiefer is perhaps the most famous artist addressing the painful chapters of 20th-century German history. His works are monumental, both in size and in the search for the world’s inner truth. Landscapes are never just that; the land is heavy and somber, loaded with tragic aspects. I remember the first time I accidentally saw his works at the LA MOCA. I did not know anything about his subject until later. But the work hit me like a punch to the stomach, so visceral was my repulsion that I knew right there that I was standing in front of great art. To look at the painting “Sulamith” while listening to a recitation of Paul Celan’s poem “Death Fugue” is an otherworldly experience.

Gerhard Richter’s abstract painting creation method is similar to an excavation process. The initial brush strokes that cover the canvas are covered again and again by additional layers of paint. He then scrapes and drags the surface with spatulas to reveal the previous layers. The mixed layers produce an artwork that can be neither predicted nor completely controlled. In 2017 four of his “Birkenau” paintings were installed at the Reichstag (The German Parliament). On the other hand, prediction and control are a strong motif in Richter’s earlier works, where he would paint super-realistic images with precision and the sharp focus of a camera but with added blurs. The fuzzy element of family members’ pictures and Nazi soldiers creates an intense sense of unease, especially when discussing the relevance of the past.

I think that with the perspective of time, Anselm Kiefer’s works will have a more significant impact and worth, but for my living room, I’d rather have a Richter abstract painting to look at and meditate. I feel more comfortable in Richter’s “silence” than Kiefer’s.

September 2019