Anselm Kiefer: Punctum | Gagosian, New York City

BY Stephen Frailey, July 1, 2024

The photograph occupies a monumental role in the work of Anselm Kiefer, whose paintings, installations, books, and sculptures are of epic ambition, equal to his regard in contemporary art. The artist’s polemical iconography – its exhumation of the romanticism and catastrophe of German history, Kabbalah narrative, Wagnerian myth, and industrial devastation – has been familiar since his introduction at the Venice Biennale in 1980. One does not gaze at the work of Anselm Kiefer but rather becomes engulfed in its cargo.

Despite his renown, the significance of photography has been little acknowledged in Kiefer’s work, and this efficient exhibition at Gagosian serves as a corrective, an introductory primer to the medium’s enduring purpose in the artist’s thinking. The spontaneity and liquidity of the photographs are in useful dialogue with the thick, lumbering weight of the paintings, their operatic grandiosity.  

Kiefer has described photography as his “career’s discreet companion,” the paramour, perhaps, of its muscularity. Indeed, some of his early works were photographic self-portraits influenced by the performative persona of his mentor, Joseph Beuys, and documents of what were then described as “actions.” Another early endeavor was a series of photographs in the early ‘70s of historic Nazi battles, staged with model tanks and military figures on the floor of a crumbling, dusty tomb of a cellar, or model ships aflame in an antique zinc bathtub.  

©Anselm Kiefer, Über euren Städten wird Gras wachsen (Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow), 1988–2010. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian

Since then, the photograph in his work is most evident in hundreds of books, often adhered to pages of lead. These hulking archives offer a lexicon of physical contamination and abrasion: the photograph is stained, burnt, inscribed, lacerated, effaced, as if excavated from an ancient library of some liturgical ceremony. In massive paintings, too, the photograph often serves as a platform for scabrous paint, and at any given time is encrusted by ash, copper, or barbed wire, hair, wax, gold leaf, terra cotta, straw, clotted sand; an archeological spectacle. As in all his work, an urgent, visceral, and physical catharsis abuts high cultural narrative.

The exhibition, on view through July 3, provides a sampling of photographic maneuvers, each sprawling act contained within metal guardrails, otherwise known as a frame. Dominating the two rooms is a horizontal grid of 16 pictures of Kiefer’s massive studio, installation, and foundation, La Ribaute in Barjac, France: towers of teetering concrete boxes, bristling with apocalyptic calamity. The prints, solarized as if by a blast, are stained by splotches and blots suggesting chemical explosion and caustic ruin. Facing the grid is Osiris, one of his frequent references to Egyptian gods, here a photograph whose top half is obscured by a crumpled wave of lead, as if the metal is descending. In Rapunzel, lead is formed into a doll’s garment, hovering in a flat, grey sky over a solarized landscape, a paean to redemption, however melancholic and somber.   

©Anselm Kiefer, Jericho, 2010-15. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian

All the photographs are dated as a span of time, and this duration can feel diaristic. This bridging of past and present is exemplified by The Moral Law Within Us, the Starry Heavens Above Us (1969-2009), an early self-portrait of the artist saluting, embedded in an ashen surface, a starry cloud of gouache offering transcendental rescue. Kiefer has cited the poet Paul Celan as an abiding inspiration: his words “in the air, there your root remains, there, in the air” could provide a lyric chorus to this seemingly biographical span of time.

The title of the exhibition, Punctum, is evocative, yet not so much attached to the quixotic (and famous) Roland Barthes formula, but rather to the Latin for puncture, wound: the work as an act of cauterizing. The past is the most basic aspect of the photograph, of course, forming what we think of as memory. From this, the photograph can haunt. Kiefer understands these pathologies of cultural and personal memory, ancient and present, and his photographic palimpsests are effigies, talismans, and ghosts.

Photography is a hospitable medium. Much of the innovation and risk in photographic practice and thinking are, arguably, from those entering from outside the medium with no investment in its cautious hierarchies and decorum. This insurgence can occasion leaps of thinking that whisk away conventions of photographic obligation. As a painter using the photograph, Kiefer thus challenges some of the fundamental expectations of photography: it is not a window but a surface that is incised. In a medium that maintains affection for genres, Kiefer is a landscape photographer, and his depiction of the land as wounded and inflamed would number him among the many for whom landscape photography is politicized.