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Lessons from Anselm Kiefer

on being an artist


Anselm Kiefer is regarded, rightly, as one of the most important living artists. What sets his work apart is an intellectual rigor and emotional gravitas that is beyond the ken of many of his peers, and certainly the bulk of lightweight window-dressing that passes as art in many modern galleries. Whether or not you care for his art, he has valuable lessons to teach the emerging artist. Here are some that I've found in his work and practice. Perhaps you might discover some of your own.

1. Substance

In his excellent piece for The Guardian, Simon Wroe recalls art historian Simon Schama's comment that Kiefer "is incapable of making trivia". In form and content, his work is substantial; huge pieces, immense, wall-sized, lead-laden paintings about literature, German mythology and politics. Themes of isolation, desolation, hope and despair, ultimately, the human condition. Prints of his photographs from 45 years ago are still capable of prompting protest. His work evokes powerful reactions - you can't be ambivalent about it, nor can you ignore it.

2. Work

The scale of Kiefer's work is immense and supported by craftsmanship of a similar magnitude. While he has assistants, he is very much a hands-on artist who creates his own work. His craftsmanship more that of a construction worker than a painter, his work seemingly torn from building-site and battlefield rather than painted in an Atelier. He might have a studio the size of a warehouse, but imagine too how daunting, to step into that huge space with so much potential - and so much expectation. Because great things are now expected. For him the work is about the process, "not the end" (see interview). One thing you can be certain of: this is Work, not Play.

3. Physicality

Kiefer doesn't do ethereal. He doesn't do virtual, either. His work is intensely physical, tangible, present. Many pieces blur the distinction between painting and sculpture, and incorporate found materials - fuselage, feathers, glass, earth, sand, fabric. (reference.) When he paints, it's heavily textured, a substance in itself, sculptural, visceral. Sometimes he works in straw, iron, lead and concrete. The work doesn't just reproduce the world, it is emphaticially part of it.

4. Scale

Kiefer works at a massive, heroic scale. He has created paintings that weigh four tonnes and require a hidden steel wall for support. There's a story that Ludwig Wittgenstein would go to the cinema and sit as close to the screen as possible, in order to be engulfed by the experience, so that for a time, he could stop thinking. That is the immersive power of large-scale work. It's not something you observe - it's something you experience. It isn't everyone's cup of tea; critics use words like bombastic, Thomas Micchelli describing one piece as a monstrous pile. Meanwhile David Cohen, though ultimately critical of Kiefer's entire cohort, describes his work as 'fiercely monumental'.

5. Silence

There is a notable inverse relationship between quality of work and aggressivness of marketing. He doesn't blog. He doesn't tweet. He doesn't dither with a website. We're not privy to every thought in his head as he plans his next work; we're not getting a commentary on hiccups in production or how the gallerist bitched about the reinforcing beams needed to support his sculpture or what, for heaven's sake, he drank the night before at the exhibition opening. We sure as heck don't get his opinion on the Kardashians. His work is not trivial, nor is his speech. You can certainly find some excellent talks and interviews, in which he talks about philosophy, politics, art and work; but first and foremost, he speaks through his art.
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