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"Surface Tension: Works by Anselm Kiefer"
2002-06-06 until 2002-10-06
Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard
Cambridge, MA, USA United States of America

This exhibition of nine photographically based works, primarily from the 1980s, is drawn from the collections of Los Angeles philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad and the Harvard University Art Museums. The works include early gouaches, lead-and-photographic works, and a large book of photographs reworked with ash and acrylic.

Raised in the Black Forest region of postwar West Germany, Kiefer (b. 1945) is best known for his monumental mixed-media canvases, which address Germanys fascist past as well as other themes from history, literature, and mythology. He attended the Art Academy in Karlsruhe and later studied informally with the German artist Joseph Beuys in Düsseldorf. His work has been exhibited widely in Europe and the United States.

Photographs as raw material Kiefer began to use photography in the late 1960s while still a student at the Art Academy in Karlsruhe and continues to use it today. The photographs he produces, however, are not ends in themselves, but raw material, incorporated into virtually every aspect of his work. Kiefer has an ambivalence toward photography. He acknowledges being drawn to the photographs depiction of reality but is at the same time compelled to efface that depiction by forcing his photographs into unlikely combinations with an array of contrasting materials, said Laura Muir, Charles C. Cunningham, Sr., Assistant Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum and organizer of the exhibition. His characteristic layering of themes from literature, history, and mythology is thus accompanied by a conflict between media. This exhibition explores the particular beauty and meanings that emerge from that conflict. The exhibition begins with an issue of the Cologne art journal Interfunktionen in which Kiefer, in 1975, published a sequence of staged self-portraits titled Occupations, 1969. One of his earliest photographic projects, this confrontation with Nazi symbolism paved the way for much of the work he would produce over the next decades. From these black-and-white reproductions the exhibition moves on to two gouaches—works from the early 1980s in which Kiefer combined his own photographs with applications of acrylic paint and other materials. These include a work from a series dedicated to the Russian futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922), For Khlebnikov: Little Mailed Fist Germany (1980), based on an enlargement of a 1969 studio self-portrait. The unsettling effects of Kiefers wildly expressionistic application of gouache over the photographic image accompany a wry commentary on contemporary events. Kiefers longtime interest in alchemy and in effecting his own transformations by bringing raw materials (like gouache and photographs) into contact with one another found new expression in the late 1980s, when he began to pair lead with photographs. This combination, which evokes the first miracle of the alchemical process—when dull lead is transformed to brilliant silver—derives its force as much from the similarities between the materials as from their differences. Their variations on the color gray and the sheen of their surfaces produce a kind of metallic harmony, while the conflicting intangibility of the photographs and the physicality of the lead produce a kind of tension. The group of five lead-and-photographic pieces presented in this exhibition (all from the Broad collections and weighing approximately 300 lbs. apiece) will include Euphrates and Tigris (1986–89) and On the Rhine (1968–91). For the latter work, Kiefer mounted two photographs (including an enlargement of a 1968 self-portrait) to a sheet of lead. Kiefer also draws on the symbolism of his materials. The romantic evocation of the river that symbolizes the German nation is undercut by the knowledge that lead and water can be a poisonous combination.

Since the late 1960s the handmade book has been an important artistic vehicle for Kiefer and one that has almost always incorporated photographs. The most recent work in the exhibition is the Busch-Reisinger Museums The Heavenly Palaces: Merkabah (1990), a massive book of photographs reworked with acrylic and ash. The gradual physical transformation of the photographs forms a tangible counterpart to the mystical journey that inspires the narrative structure of the piece.

By presenting a range of Kiefers work with photographs, the exhibition offers an opportunity to not only examine a less familiar side of this important German artists work, but also consider it from a new perspective. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated brochure (free to Museum visitors).

The photographically based works in the exhibition will be supplemented by Kiefers early oil on canvas diptych Head in the Forest, Head in the Clouds, 1971 (lent by the Broad Art Foundation), which will be on view in the adjacent gallery. This exhibition and the accompanying publication are made possible by the Hildegard von Gontard Bequest to the American Friends of the Busch-Reisinger Museum Fund.


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