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 the 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 of the 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 is going to 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? In my opinion, the Germans are doing well with that, mostly by facing it head-on, and through their educational system, but that’s for another essay. Abstract painters are faced with the challenge of creating 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 inner truth of the world. 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 on. But the work hit me like a punch to the stomach, so visceral was my repulsion that I knew right there, that I am 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. More about that in my blog, ‘When Trauma meets Art.’
Gerhard Richter’s abstract paintings of the last 30 years are created from an initial image to which additional layers of paint are applied. He then scrapes and drags the surface with spatulas to reveal previous layers. The mixed layers produce an artwork that can be neither predicted nor completely controlled. In 2017 four of his paintings, named ‘Birkenau,’ were installed at the Reichstag (The German Parliament). Prediction and control are, on the other hand, a strong motif in Richter’s earlier works, where he would paint super-realistic images with precision and sharp focus of a camera but with added blurs. The fuzzy element to pictures of family members 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 that of Kiefer’s.