Warhol Kiefer and Richter at SFMOMA

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 a renowned artist known for his exploration of the painful chapters of 20th-century German history. His artworks are characterized by their monumental size and their quest for inner truth. Within his landscapes, there is a weightiness and somberness that conveys tragic elements.

I distinctly recall the first time I came across Kiefer’s works at the LA MOCA by chance. Initially, I had no knowledge of the subject matter, but the impact of the artwork was immediate and profound. It struck me with such force that it felt like a physical blow to the stomach. In that moment, I knew I was standing in front of exceptional art.

One particular painting that stands out is “Sulamith.” Viewing it while simultaneously listening to a recitation of Paul Celan’s poem “Death Fugue” creates an otherworldly experience, taking the emotional intensity to another level.

Gerhard Richter employs a unique approach to creating abstract paintings that resembles an excavation process. He begins by covering the canvas with initial brush strokes, which are then overlaid with multiple layers of paint. Through scraping and dragging the surface with spatulas, he reveals glimpses of the underlying layers. This method results in a complex interplay of mixed layers, yielding artworks that cannot be fully anticipated or controlled.

In 2017, Richter’s “Birkenau” paintings were prominently displayed at the Reichstag, the German Parliament. These works carry a powerful significance, evoking contemplation and reflection on the history and memory of the Holocaust.

In contrast, Richter’s earlier works demonstrate a focus on prediction and control. He would paint hyper-realistic images with precision, akin to photographs, yet introduce intentional blurring. This deliberate fuzziness, particularly when depicting family members and Nazi soldiers, creates an unsettling atmosphere and invites viewers to delve into the relevance and implications 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